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EDITORIAL - Getting Beyond the Third Dimension
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 12:00 AM Fri Jan 26th, 2001
last revision: 12:00 AM Fri Jan 26th, 2001

By Adam V. Albrec

The modern world of videogames is like most other creative pursuits in that it is now coming of age and realizing its full potential. During the course of this realization, many different phases and styles have, and will, emerge. Turning points and plateaus are inevitable, as are special titles that represent "timeless" examples of the artform. Just as a classic Mercedes Gullwing will always stand out from the crowd of other cars, certain games will represent a highpoint in gaming that will maintain a certain "Wow" factor in the decades of gaming to come. Further, just because drastically better 3D modeling, and other innovations, are coming doesn't necessarily mean that the games will make a deeper, or even as deep of an, impression on the audience than its well-crafted ancestor did.

It seems like yesterday that hand-drawn sprites were the only game in town. More colors came along; more layers of paralaxing, but the mechanics were fastened down to a flat little world that precluded real immersion in the gaming experience. Next came the first-person shooter, third-person adventure and countless remixes of these. The N64 and subsequent machines went on to declare all-out war on the pixel, with smoothing and antialiasing effects. Modern games are now almost completely 3D from the modeling of the characters to the details of the worlds they explore, with only some hit-effects and interface elements to remind us of the 2D world that used to dominate gaming.

What has the industry and gaming public learned from these innovations? That 3D Castlevania games suck, sprite graphics have a special intensity that 3D doesn't quite achieve, and sometimes newer isn't necessarily better. Now companies are perfecting techniques like cell-shading to mimic the visuals of sprites (while permitting the ease of 3D animation) in games like Fear Effect and Jet Grind Radio. Moreover modern 3D engines are being used deliberately in 2D or what is sometimes called 2 1/2D level-designing that brings back the old-school experience that Lara Croft's endless 3D adventures haven't replaced. These same issues are coming up in the 3D world as older techniques are giving way to new ideas.

Polygons are evolving, moving from accelerated 3D to actual CG-quality visuals; however, at least for this generation of gamers, we might find it more and more difficult to see any relevant differences in visual intensity. Subtle things will be noticeable -- one machine may render backgrounds a little cleaner, another might make a fighting-game babe's legs look a little nicer, but the massive jumps in quality are over for a while.

In fact, the actual increases in quality of the graphics can be a cause for apathy and lack of interest. This is due to the fact that, as with any artform, the medium itself is part of the art. Completely losing all evidence of the means used to create the picture can potentially give way to comparisons with real life. While simulating reality is one of the industry's biggest goals, real life can be a very dull and ordinary place. The escape of playing games is about events that are the highpoints of life or even otherworldly experiences that don't really exist. So we are in the same boat that games have always been in , funny how we always wind up finding that it isn't the tools as much as the talent that make a game great.

Does seeing It's a Wonderful Life in color make the movie any more enjoyable? Would Bugs Bunny cartoons be more enjoyable if they were rendered in 3D the way that Toy Story was? There is also a special experience in seeing what a creative developer can do with his tools, not trying to hide them from view, but instead, showcasing them. Games like Klonoa: Door to Phantomile are absolutely stunning, partially because of the technology used to create them. Sprites were used in places that they were the most effective and likewise, polygons were used in a structural way that is almost like seeing the "brushstrokes" in a painting. From the delightful, crooked blocky-ness of the wooden walkways to the crystalline effects used in the flying-insect boss, it was possible to see the artist's hand in their work.

Games like Crash Bandicoot and Micro Machines V3, are also classic examples of timeless beauty and artistry that transcend a mere graphic-fad of a time. What does this all mean to the gamer looking at the next generation? In one sense, the same advice that has always confronted them , don't buy games for graphics! Buy them for great gameplay, storytelling and artistry. Also, it means that the videogame player must not allow new technology to interfere with their enjoyment of the fantastic titles that they might already own and have available to them. If you didn't get a PS2 for Christmas, or might not be able to afford an Xbox or GameCube at launch, don't despair. No big technical revolution or game on the horizon is more valuable than a great game in the here and now.

If we take the time to fully appreciate what made an old favorite great, then we will be in a much better position to appreciate great new games when we get them. It is a little like a classic comic book. The illustration might not be as flashy as the ones on the stands now, but it represents a former "state of the art" that the new was built on.