Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Deceptively Complex

When it comes to video game graphics often times the most common things we encounter in reality are some of the hardest to create in-game. So much so that even now with three decades of entertainment software development experience much of what should be taken for granted still stumps the greatest minds of the video game industry.

Take wind for example. Aside from a lot of smoke and mirror tricks the only game series I've played that really took this weather phenomenon into account was Zelda. Kind of strange when you consider that the cartoon visual ascetic of Wind Waker doesn't exactly demand a realistic depiction of air currents. Then again the fact that Nintendo designers tried to tackle the ethereal problem of wind in video games might be why Zelda: Wind Waker is one of the best received games of the series since its 16-bit days.

Water and fluid dynamics are another aspect of games that has never really been depicted in a believe manner. From Dust managed to depict water on a grand scale thanks to recent improvements in CPU processing power, but when it comes to an on screen individual interacting with liquid H2O the DLG Hydrophobia is the only one that comes close. Sadly, water is pretty much the only thing good about this game. Maybe the developers suffered from tunnel vision? And as a follow up question why isn't there a single game studio that understands crushing darkness and cold increases with underwater depth?

Improvements in lighting and particle physics have helped fire enhance its look in the world of video games, particularly in titles like Far Cry 2. Unfortunately a major byproduct, smoke, is still lacking. Sad really...smoke has played an important role in the history of war and is even mentioned prominently in Sun Tzu's 2200 year old book The Art of War yet all these war-themed video games drop the ball with regards to this aspect of man's first great weapon.

Four-Legged creatures are fairly difficult to animate. Just ask the developers of Red Dead Redemption. Horses don't move the same as dogs which in turn don't move the same as bears. Ever wonder why there aren't many games that feature elephants, large birds, or certain types of insects? It's because humanoid creatures are much less likely to get hung up on world geometry since they are more vertically oriented.

Foliage or more specifically leaves and grass tend to be very resource intensive to render onscreen. Because of this a lot of designers resort to using deceptively simple textures which seem okay in the distance, but under close inspection look extremely fake. Crytek made it their mission for a while to crack this nut and to some degree they were successful. Since then other companies such as Naughty Dog have followed suit, but sadly I still see a lot of trees in games that look like they were made by Lego.

Video game characters must really burn through the hair spray because if I got a dime every time I saw a character with gravity defying helmet hair I would be a rich man. Even depictions of long hair tend to come off as several textures chained together or worse yet clip like crazy through the characters clothes or shoulders. It's sad really...I can think of a few characters like Geralt from the Witcher 2 which have well-rendered hair, but other characters he interacts with end up with hoods, hats and stubble instead. So, consider this final entry the next big hurtle in gaming - realistic hair! Chances are the first game to really pull it off probably won't even get much recognition for it.

There you have it - wind, water, fire, four-legs, foliage and hair. They may be common enough in our daily lives, but in the digital world they're illusions within illusions and tricks within tricks designed to fool the eyes even more so than the rest. I'm not much into Zen Buddhism, but I can see why its devout followers have such an appreciation of the natural world. So much of what we see in gardens and parks is far more complex than most people give it credit for. Unless of course your a game designer...in which case mother nature has probably given you a few harsh lessons in humility.

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