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TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2016
I'm home for the holy-days, which means I've been playing lots of Nintendo. Therefore I've been thinking about video games. In particular, their evolution over the years. What I've concluded is that for all the impressive visuals of new games, less is often more. Ultra-realism and super-graphics aren't necessarily a better thing. In fact, the more real a game gets, the more ridiculous it looks. But I'll come back to all that.

Mine is a real Nintendo family. When I was five we got our first Nintendo console for Christmas: the "Nintendo Entertainment System", or N.E.S., which replaced our aging Atari machine. In the years that followed we collected many games, including, of course, the first three Mario Bros. games, Duck Hunt, Hogan's Alley (which I naturally thought was made for us), Mike Tyson's Punch-Out (until Tyson was arrested and his name and character dropped from the game), Top Gun, Kid Icarus, Castlevania and Legend of Zelda, just to name a few.

Some years later we updated to the Super N.E.S., and its highly anticipated (for me, anyway) Super Mario World, which introduced a friendly and fresh-faced dinosaur named Yoshi, who nevertheless looked like the villainous dinosaurs from Mario 2. Near the end of its run the Donkey Kong Country trilogy was released, showcasing Nintendo's dive into the world of three dimensions. I myself never minded the 2D cartoony graphics of Street Fighter 2, although I wondered most of my life what ever happened to the first Street Fighter game, until I realized it was the original arcade version. Mario Kart, of course, was another favorite of mine.

We did own a Sega system somewhere along the way - not a Sega Genesis - but it never captured our imaginations like the Nintendos did.

Then came the Nintendo 64 - or N64 - with its sleek rounded-edge design and intimidating memory expansion slot. Many of the games were just 64ed up versions of Nintendo mainstays, like Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and Mario Kart 64 (impressive though they were), or regular titles with a "64" slapped on the end, like Doom 64 and Superman 64.

A couple of the N64 games were, to my mind, absolute classics. Life-changing experiences, to be truthful. Star Wars Episode 1: Racer is the only racing game that ever really touched me (you actually have to use the force to pod-race well), but Mario Kart 64 came close.

What revolutionized video gaming for my entire generation, though, was N64's James Bond first-person shooter, Goldeneye. I remember renting it first, and playing it for about 20 hours straight. My friends were those kind of gamers that frustrate the hell out of you when you play multiplayer: no radar, one-hit kills, and they'd shoot you the second you entered a room. I was better at the missions anyway.

And that was the peak of my video game life. The N64 stuck around like an old, reliable, yet increasingly boring friend.

We never bought a Nintendo Gamecube. I moved out of the house and finally across the country to Vancouver. All the while the video game systems evolved. X-Box and X-box 360, Playstations 1, 2, and 3, and myriad handheld consoles (I did have a Nintendo Gameboy when I was a kid, but not much needs to be said about that. I also had a Sega Game Gear, which I liked a lot, but it broke about a few weeks after I got it, and my mom never went to get in fixed. I never forgave her for that).

Since my hardcore N64 days I've limited my gaming to friend's houses, and usually I'm just watching. Periodic fetishes, like with Playstation 1's State or Die skateboarding game - and it was probably because of the hip hop soundtrack - are, well, only periodic. No more hardcore gaming for me.

But like I said, mine is a real Nintendo family. Not out of some odd sense of brand loyalty, though. It's just worked out that way, for whatever reason. Today, both my sister's have a Nintendo Wii, the newest Nintendo system, the one with the innovative wireless joystick that you point at the TV screen. My little sister particularly likes the dancing game where you dance on the electronic mat.

All of that is a very long introduction to what I actually want to talk about, which is video game realism versus old school graphics.

There's a paradox in realistic graphics, in that the more realistic the game, the more ridiculous the action looks. That's why a game like Grand Theft Auto IV for Playstation 3, which my neighbour has, is so damned hilarious to play and watch. And it's the realism that makes it so absurd.

Forget about killing prostitutes, running down pedestrians, and jumping out of helicopters (all of which look pretty funny on-screen), just do something silly, like run in circles around a tough looking gang member. The fact that the image looks so life-like is precisely what makes the action look so strange. If it looked less realistic, it would look less ridiculous, too.

Take a game like the old Zelda, pictured here.

Screen shot from the original N.E.S. Zelda

It doesn't look realistic whatsoever. So, running your character around someone wouldn't look silly at all, like it does in GTA IV, because Zelda doesn't look realistic in the first place. What's important in a game like Zelda is not the realism, but the idealism, if you follow.

In a non-realistic game, it's representation and symbolism that matters: little icons that stand in for things like "energy" and "healing", and repeated patterns that are meant to be grass or brick or clouds. You get the "idea" and so you don't need the realism. When a game does try to be realistic, the smallest phoniness stands out, ruining the intended effect, whereas the non-realistic game bypasses that problem.

Compare GTA IV to Zelda:

A 'shot' from Grand Theft Auto IV

It looks real. Like a movie. And if you're good at it you can set up elaborate movie-like sequences with explosions and rad car moves. But for the most part, the action just looks silly, with your ultra-realistic character running around aimlessly.

The same paradox applies to, say, cartoons or paintings. When the image is less detailed, it demands that the spectator's imagination step in to complete the picture. There's more active involvement on the part of the viewer, or in the case of video games, the player. When the images get more realistic, the viewer gets to be more passive, putting less of his imaginative and intellectual energy into the process. You come to expect the game to provide all the excitement, instead of producing it yourself.

My neighbour with the Playstation 3 has a boxing game that looks really realistic, but I still like Mike Tyson's Punch-Out better. I played it on my little sister's Wii this week. Maybe it's just nostalgia, or maybe it's that when I see the all the ultra-fine details on my neighbour's boxing game I can't help but think about how much more detailed and real it could be, but isn't. Punch-Out will never make me think that.

So, if ultra-realism actually corresponded to the fun of a game, why are old video games still so damned fun? Is it the appeal to something more imaginatively primitive in our brains, where abstract representation brings to life a bunch of primal thoughts and feelings directly, whereas the "realistic" game just reminds us constantly, through its imperfections, that we're just playing a game? Ironic, isn't it, that a more realistic game would remind you more of the artifice of the medium.

This is really a question of aesthetics or art criticism. A cave painting may not have looked realistic at all, but it represented something direct and powerful for the people who drew and used them. Something like the directness of low-resolution Zelda, where, in your imagination, you're fighting fantastical creatures with your majestic sword and performing wondrous magic spells, even if it looks nothing like it.

By contrast, a life-like painting or any digital photo - or GTA IV - doesn't involve the imagination, at least not as directly. It just gives you reality as you already see it. Art is usually most interesting when there is a strong element of non-realism in it. Impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, and abstract art do this best: taking mere shapes and colours and evoking strong ideas and feelings with them.

Well, this article is quite long enough. Time to play some Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii. Although, I'd rather have my old N.E.S. so I could play Punch-Out instead.

Umberto Eco, in How to Travel with a Salmon wrote of the best possible map one could have. To paraphrase the general idea, the map would be one you...



Re: Doing silly things in ultra-realistic video games... the most absurd thing, more absurd than running circles around the villain (because it would truly take a smart AI engine to understand the subtlety in the action, and it's implication through language - "Dude, I can run circles around you...") is when programmers don't pick the low hanging fruit. The most obvious one - and I promise you, you can find this in the latest and greatest video games, still to this day (see the latest Tomb Raider, if you don't believe me) - is running into walls. Take your character, and walk it right up against a wall. Then start getting your character to run into the wall. Rather than have an animation of a into a wall... they have a character running, while not moving. Now put down your controller, and try this out for yourself. Try running into a wall in such a way that you can keep running, while not moving, and not fall down. It's damn near impossible. And yet programmers never take care of this thing - something that would take a standard video game, and make it far more realistic. Characters should trip and fall if you run them into the edge of a crate. They should hurt their knee if they bump into a car. At least give me some kind of animation! I don't care if the forest generates itself based on real ecosystem models that you developed with the help of ecologists brought in from Berkeley! I want the character to animate properly when he collides with an object and ALL objects.

In answer to your question of why old games are more fun than new games, I don't really think it has to do with the graphics, but more to do with the actual limitations of graphics. When all you had at your disposal were a few colors, a few pixels to resemble an object, and 8-bit sound to kind of remind the gamer of the sound of the actual object - you had to make for good gameplay with 1 thing: Imagination. Today, you'd never find a game about a red-overall wearing plumber who jumps on walking mushrooms and turtles, whilst trying to save a princess, who - by the way, did we mention, if he collides with a star, he starts changing colors and can cause severe pain to any object he touches...and is given fire power when he eats a certain type of plant, and grows when he eats a certain type of mushroom. I mean... If a game like that came out today, your only instinct would be to say "Those programmers were on drugs!!"

These days we're not limited by graphics, so we've stopped being imaginative. Now it's just "K, gang... what's gonna be our next game?" "How about... guy with guns, BIG guns... who shoots zombies. And... he drives a cool car... and there is a huge breasted woman that you're trying to save from the zombies!"

Even when you consider the non-drugged out games of the old days compared to new ones, the same holds true. Think of hockey, for example. NHL 200(#) are all the same. Boring..and lacking the fast paced, high action of real hockey. Instead it's a painful skill competition of which you have to play hours to attain said skills. Compare this with Nintendo's Ice Hockey - do you want the fast skinny guys, the slow fat guys, the medium speed mid-sized guys? That's about it... go and play!



Matt, since we're on a quest to improve writing styles, let me make a comment about yours. You yourself seem to acknowledge that your intro was quite lengthy. I'm usually forgiving about you going off-topic often in your articles, much like I am when my brother does. But this time I don't think I needed to read all that background information to get to the real content of your article which was 11 paragraphs down. You might as well have split this article in two different articles. One could have gone under "Technology" and the other under "Creative writing" or "Opinion" ..the fact that these two parts of your article can go into different sections shows just how distinct the pieces are. It's a great piece, but the cohesion wasn't strong enough for me to look at this as a single piece. I find many of your articles diverge and I don't mind reading it because I do find them interesting, but if you want to make your articles more focused, and perhaps more powerful as a result, you should consider dividing up your articles whenever you want to go off-topic.



Replying to Alamir:
Yeah, you're right. Stan Persky's influence on me has been so that I try to stuff my writing with anecdotal content. I went a little over the top on this one, but I figured readers might identify with a personal narrative, since many of us grew up with video games, and my life story vis a vis video games is something I've never written down, so it came out last night. I don't know enough about video games to write anything like an exhaustive or sufficiently thorough account of them, so I had to be idiosyncratic, rather than objective. I did do a little research, though...

I am a fan of digression, though, quoting Wilde to justify it: "Conversation should touch on everything and concentrate on nothing". And since writing can be called a "discussion", I take the liberty of applying Wilde's dictum to my articles. I do try to concentrate on something, though.

You're right. Lately I've been jabbering on. Like right now. I should remember that brevity is the soul of wit, and keep things shorter...but there's so much to say!



Replying to alishahnovin:
The demands of realism must be a crushing burden on both hardware memory and software programming, about which I know nothing. A cartoony game like the new Super Marios has Mario bump into walls and fall down, or push against them instead of running on the spot. A more "realistic" game should be able to do the same.

Do you think we'll have games that look so realistic that we can't even tell the difference? I remember playing Blades of Steel for N.E.S. and think that it looked like ridiculous shit, even though it was fun, and wondering when I'd be playing something that look like Hockey Night in Canada. As for the intro, with its 8-bit sound, I never even realized the voice was supposed to be saying, "blades of steel"; I just recognized some muffled phonemes, something close to "vades, uv cee".

Although, if we had a perfectly realistic game, it would look more silly than any 8-bit graphics. I can imagine a game that would have no purpose except to make your ultra-real character do funny looking stuff. "Look what I can make him do!" you'd say, or "Get him to pick his nose...Hilarious!" Of course this kind of technology could lead to people making falsely incriminating videos of other people. Video fraud is already a possibility, imagine if anyone could make a realistic video of anyone else. Such fabricative possibilities could be the scourge of public figures and small-time personal enemies, like the ex-girlfriend or crappy roommate. Who was it that said that it's the business of the future to be dangerous?



Realism in this sense i believe is a mirage; which is the foundation of your essay. I will use the model of painting to clarify. The Renaissance was the height of the realistic in painting and sculpture. once we attained this plateau, where would we go? Well, problem solvers that we are, we would start to break down what we had built up. decipher the fundamental. Bringing us to abstraction and functionary representation. Now we have reached that point in the world of graphics.
Now leaving the speculation to the spectators I will say, that we have already come to the place of nostalgia; where we long for the 8 bits of yesteryear. To the cave paintings of super Mario and Zelda. But put aside sentimentality and look soberly at realism and its functions.


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