Sunday, October 20, 2013

Global Illumination in T22

Let's get techno again: Global Illumination. Maybe you noticed, maybe not, but T22 has some sort of realtime G.I. I probably told that a few times before, but I never explained how it worked. All right, here you go chap.

T22 uses a technique that has no name, because I made it myself (though others probably tried similar things). Or well, I copied ideas from existing techniques, mangled it with my own countless attempts, used some other advice, and added some poohah on top. But if I had to give it a name... "Ambi-Volume-Texture-Cone-Tracing"? Doesn't sound very neat... Anyway, let's explain how it works. Oh, and don't expect a perfect solution. It doesn't look as good as Crassin's VCT (Voxel Cone Tracing), although you could say they "cheated" a bit with powerful computers and a simple scene. Sponza Theatre a simple scene?! Sure, it has quite a lot polygons, but it doesn't have very thin walls (sensitive for light-leaks), and above all, it's just a single scene. In practice, game-worlds are much bigger. For example, you can't bake a whole GTA city into the (GPU) memory, so you have to chop the world in chunks and only process the geometry that is nearby the camera. That is possible with VCT, but updating the Octree that is required for this technique is very expensive.

In practice, all realtime G.I. solutions have problems. Either they won't work very well with moving objects (imagine a door closing & blocking light) / destructible geometry, they only work on fixed small worlds, they require too much power, lack accuracy, or just look terrible. Or all of that. Pre-calculated solutions on the other hand are much faster and offer better quality, but well, they aren’t realtime. That means the lighting won't adapt for shit when the environment or lamps change. Unless you exactly know which lights will change and pre-calculate multiple situations. Don't know how GTA V handles G.I., but I can imagine they bake the lighting for a couple scenario's (day, night, cloudy, ...), based on dominant lightsources such as the Sun, Moon, and pre-defined (street)lights.

For T22 I'm urged to fall back on pre-baked lighting as well. Simply because it looks better, performs better. And an often forgotten argument; it gives a better degree of control. Especially in an unreal horror game like this, you want to play with atmospheric settings. Make rooms much darker than they should be, use high contrasts, or add a stinky orange ambient to a corridor while there are no orange lamps at all. With realtime G.I., it's hard to tell what the result will be exactly. Especially if the results aren't exactly 100% accurate either. Sometimes it looks good, sometimes it doesn’t and you’ll be adding cheap tricks, completely bypassing the (expensive!) G.I.. But nevertheless... making realtime G.I. for games is as attractive as finding the magic recipe for Gold. It's a prestige thing.

Sponza Theatre, not rendered but a real photo for a change. Notice the whole structure is litten more or less, even though the light only comes in via the open roof. That's the kind of lighting we want to achieve. Realtime.

Not quite yet the real thing, but still one of the most promising realtime G.I. attempts so far, Voxel Cone Tracing by Cyril Crassin. Seems UDK 4 is adopting this technique as well.

Voxel-Cone-Tracing convinced me again that realtime G.I. is possible, and with good results. So I gave it a try. The idea in a nutshell:
1- Voxelize geometry - put geometry in octree (in GPU memory, using Compute Shaders)
2- Light voxelized geometry - add outgoing light in octree cells
3- Mipmap octree
4- For each pixel on the screen, sample bounced light with a couple of cone-shaped rays from the mipmapped octree

1- Voxelize your geometry
Like making a lower-resolution Lego/Minecraft block variant of your scenery & objects). Store those blocks in an Octree. Octrees provide storage and searching trees for 3D data. To avoid needing tons of memory, the octree will reduce resolution over distance (thus bigger blocks for distant geometry).

Excuse the lousy drawing, I was too lazy to get the perspective right. But you can see how a scene would get "voxelized" roughly. By rendering the "whole" (whatever could affect the GI in your view) scene in slices, you can get the whereabouts of your geometry and their properties such as normal and diffuse/specular/emissive colors. Note that I skipped the plant leafs and puppet. Of course you can voxelize those too, but be aware! It would constantly change the Octree as the puppet moves.

Why Voxelize & Octrees? VCT is based on Raymarching. Any given pixel on the screen will sample incoming light by sending some (cone)rays into the scene. We need to check where our rays intersect geometry. Octrees are a sufficient way to quickly test collisions. Memory is limited though, so we can't store each and every tiny molecule. Instead we store bigger blocks and use an octree so we only reserve memory for locations that actually contain geometry, rather than each and every cubic meter. Once we have an Octree, we can insert geometry data, light fluxes, and other data we may need to know later on.

2- Compute the direct lighting on those voxels
As you would normally apply lights on 3D stuff, you compute the direct lighting for every voxel. You calculate how much light a voxel would reflect back in the world ("diffuse light"), so another surface can pick it up again (indirect lighting).

Papers never explain how they handle big amounts of light, usually you only see 1 or 2 big lightsources, that stupid Cornel box, or an outdoor scene with the sun only. But you could handle multiple lights of course, and the good news is that there are relative little voxels (unless you use very fine resolutions). For each octree cell that contains geometry, you calculate the incoming fluxes from the 6 main directions. Eventually you could use Spherical Harmonics to reduce the amount of floats needed to store this information. So, now your octree cells contain this info: geometry yes/no (or density%)? Diffuse RGB reflected into the -X, +X, -Y, +Y, -Z and +Z directions. In other words, you have a low-res representation of your world, directly lit, into your video card memory. This is updated each cycle btw.

3- Mipmap the octree
On a 2D texture, Mipmapping means you half the size and for each new pixel you take the average of 4 pixels from the original resolution. On a 3D texture, the idea is the same except that you take pixels from layers above and/or below into account as well. And well, you could do the same for an octree. When constructing an octree, you subdivide a cell into 8 smaller cells if it contains anything of interest. So you can do the reverse thing as well. 1 to 8 Minecraft blocks get replaced with 1 bigger Minecraf blocked, made of the averages.

Why we need to Mipmap? So we can "cone trace". See next step.

4- For each pixel on your screen, sample indirect light with Cone Tracing
The key of G.I. is to gather light coming from all directions, bounced off by other surfaces. Simple theory, but extremely hard to do in realtime. A major problem is that we need to sample light from an infinite amount of directions. Imagine you were a piece of concrete wall; everything you can see around you is reflecting light towards you.

At least every pixel on your screen needs to gather this information, but we can only use a very limited amount of rays per pixel, as raytracing or raymarching is expensive in general. Just using 16 rays for example will lead to “undersampling”, as you might have missed vital parts from the surrounding scene.

We can reduce this a bit by letting each pixel look in slight different directions and blur the end-results. But the results are still grainy (as you often see with older 3D software), and you need an awful big fucking amount of rays to get real proper results --> slow.

The idea behind Cone-Shaped rays is that you only need a few rays to sample a lot. For each couple steps that the ray marches forward, we look into a lower resolution of the mipmap we made in step 3. So, as we travel further and further, we sample averaged light from bigger blocks in the octree. Of course, the accuracy will suffer, but it's an efficient way to avoid missing important lightsources & win speed. After all, we need a realtime solution, and big speed drops won't justify the few benefits we gain compared to much faster(and nicer, and easier) pre-baked solutions. Plus, fortunately, G.I. means "low frequency lighting" , so the result is a blur of many incoming light fluxes anyway. For an ordinary spectator, it’s hard to figure out how G.I.should look so its forgivable to make errors… usually.

By sampling from lower (averaged, blurrier) levels over time, we get a cone shaped ray.

So, for each pixel on the screen will fire a couple of those "cones". We check where the cones hit geometry in the mipmapped octree, and then sample the light that was bounced into our (global) direction. The advantage of screenspace techniques is that we sample for all pixels visible on the camera; nothing more, nothing less. Eventually we can do it on a lower resolution to get a significant speed gain. And then upscale the image with some smart blurring finally. Another advantage is that any pixel on the screen can gather light, including objects that weren't involved in the GI pipeline so far.

Glossy reflections
A cool feature of VCT is the ability of adding 1 extra ray to sample specular lighting, giving glossy reflections. The cone-angle would depend on the material glossiness. Highly specular surfaces would use very narrow cones, meaning that we keep sampling from the higher-resolution mipmap levels for a longer time, leading to less blurry results.

T22 doesn't use VCT, but the same technique can be used for sampling glossy reflections. Advantage is that it works on any surface, and it can sample behind the camera. Disadvantages are the low level of detail and the lack of G.I. in the portion that gets reflected; voxels that were not directly lit, won't appear in the reflections either.

T22 Adjustments

Cool and the Gang. But I said T22 doesn't exactly use VCT. What is wrong with it then? Well, 4 things:
A: The octree requires a lot of memory (you can win a lot by reducing the level of detail though)
B: Updating the octree is very costly
C: Traversing the octree to sample data during the raymarch isn’t that fast
D: Goddamn difficult to implement correctly. I might be too dumb to do it all right.

The Octree is needed to store the world representation, required for raymarching and gathering light. It can help speeding up the raymarching, and moreover, it’s pretty much the only way to store a lot of geometry up to a relative detailed level. But at the same time, this octree is the Achilles heel of VCT, coding it is nasty, and maintaining the octree is expensive, especially when having to deal with big, roaming worlds. Another in-detail issue is sampling. When doing ray-marching, we have to dive into the octree and check from which cell we are sampling on any given XYZ position. It’s not that bad, but there are faster ways.

When I finally got VCT "working" in T22, the framerate crumbled from a lousy ~18 fps to a terrible ~4 fps. Some nuance, my code isn't very well optimized probably, and it runs on an old 2008 laptop. Anyhow, such a low framerate is unacceptable, and the results weren't exactly great either. The problem arises when mipmapping. Tiny blocks are combined into bigger blocks, but what if 50% blocks are "vacuum" (not filled with geometry), and the other half are walls, floors, or whatever? I decided to give a density value to cells. Now later on, when raymarching, you have to decide where and when to sample. If we hit a 50% occluding block, should we immediately stop sampling, or continue until the sum of occlusions is 100%? The first option prevents light-leaks, but it doesn't work very well in narrow environments. Rays will get stopped at narrow passages (doors, windows, ...), so light from a bright corridor won't get into a darker room. That is exactly NOT we want to achieve, G.I. should bring light to darker places!

Option B isn't optimal either, as it may happen we stop too late (or not at all), and thus gathering light from places we can't actually see. The VCT demo's probably hides this by using a high resolution Octree, sufficient rays per pixel (the less narrow the cones, the less errors), and who knows what else.

Got to mention that the same light-leaking problem occurs in pretty much any grid/cell based solution. CryEngine "Light Propagation Volumes" has this problem, and so does T22's "Ambi-Volume-Texture-Tracing" or whatever you want to call it. At most times, this isn't that much of a problem since it's hard to tell whether the G.I. is incorrect anyway. But at some points, it leads to undesired situations. As said before, you have little control over realtime G.I. so masking such errors can be nasty. And if we are so busy with powders and creams to hide ugliness... shouldn't we just drop the whole technique then? I wouldn't be surprised if games like Crysis actually (partially) did.

Anyway, what we did do in T22, is simplifying the whole VCT process and getting rid of octrees. I picked up something I did before, voxelizing the world into 3D textures instead of a complicated octree, and then adopted the cone-trace idea to fix undersampling issues by mipmapping the 3D textures. So the pipeline is pretty much the same as VCT:
1- Voxelize geometry
2- Light voxelized geometry - put results in 3D textures
3- Mipmap 3D textures
4- For each pixel on the screen, sample bounced light with a couple of cone-shaped rays from the mipmapped 3D textures

A whole lot of effort for a bit of blurry light smeared all over the corridors...

The advantage of 3D-textures is that you can directly insert voxels on the right places bby simply using their 3D world positions. Same thing for reading the textures, all we need is a coordinate. And because the march sequences usually read pixels located at the same spots, we benefit from hardware caching. Raymarching through a 3D texture is faster than traversing an octree, and much easier to work with. But it also has disadvantages: 3D-textures consume a lot of memory. This will force you to reduce the level of detail (thus bigger voxel lego blocks, less sharp reflections, bigger hit detection inaccuracies), and keep the boundaries close. That means the 3D textures will only cover a limited (cubic)space around the camera. Distant geometry must fall back on other GI methods.

Likely, 75% or more of your world will be vacuum, unfilled space. With octrees, you don't sub-divide cells that don't contain any geometry, keeping the memory consumption low for open spaces. With 3D textures, each cubic meter will require the same amount of pixels, whether it’s filled with geometry or not. Could be devastating for large/outdoor scenes, but note that you can stretch 3D textures over a wider space if needed. When the geometry is stretched over a wider area, you can generally do with a coarser grid as well.

Well, T22 will be indoor mostly, so we aren't dealing with huge spaces. Yet it's still possible we may look beyond the area covered by the 3D textures. So what I did is baking the GI into the geometry vertices (note that the world is tessellated to some degree). Lower-end computers or distant geometry will use the pre-baked GI. And otherwise we compute it realtime. Or both. Medium-end settings will add a realtime bounce with a pre-baked bounce. So that makes it half realtime. Or something. Sounds cheap maybe, but hey, got to think of something. Also VCT would eventually bump to its limits, as you can't make a super-octree that covers the entire world. I believe the relative small Sponza Theatre uses many hundreds of megabytes (or even over a gig) video memory already, though that is a highly detailed octree. Anyhow, you need a back-up (also counts for Light Propagating Volumes).

Another change, or actually cheap hack, I made was in the voxelizing process. Rather than voxelizing the scene each cycle, I pre-calculate the voxels for all geometry. Each chunk of the world has its own array of pre generated voxels (voxel = a position, color, normal, ...). Also dynamic objects have pre-calculated voxels. As the object moves or rotates, the voxels will transform with it. Note that small objects don't have voxels, only objects big enough to really make a difference in the lighting, or doors that block light from another room.

The final raymarching step works pretty much the same as in VCT, except that we sample directly from 3D textures (much simpler). Each few steps we march, we sample from a lower detailed mipmap level to get the cone-effect. And we can also make glossy reflections if we like, although the sharpness isn't as great as VCT's, since the 3D textures contain less detail than octrees. Despite the speed gains, this process still requires a lot of horsepower. So I do it on a much lower resolution. The situation is somewhat workable on my old laptop, but the result is too blurry. You don't see it that much in bright areas, but darker parts that don't catch direct light are smudgy.

Note how the red carpet reflects on the walls. Another nice thing about screenspace techniques is that it will also work naturally for decals we pasted on top of the geometry, such as the top-right hole.

Too bad the buffer is blurry though. Possibly I could get better quality by using a smarter upscale process (UDK does that for their VCT variant), but I'm more hoping my next computer can cope with a higher resolution.


The conclusion is that I don't have a conclusion yet. The results I have now are the best I had so far, but still crappy compared to a good pre-baked result. The 2 biggest problems are the blur in dark area's (I already smell the complaints when the next demo will be released), and light-leaks + other imperfections. The results are sometimes unpredictable / incorrect. In other words, I still have to add secondary lights and other tricks to get the lighting as desired. Probably I can fix some bugs with fine-tuning. And the blur can be reduced by using a higher resolution for the final screenspace gathering step. My Desktop is dead so I haven't tried T22 on a faster computer for a year, but another guy from the team had proper framerates (40+), so I expect a modern computer can do miracles when it comes to reducing the blur. It’s very necessary, because despite high-res textures, T22 isn’t sharp compared to most modern games. The G.I. and somewhat poor SSAO are part of the cause.

The real question is, how hard does T22 really need realtime G.I.? Indoor area's aren't much affected by day/night cycles, you won't destroy walls, and there is little movement in general. On the other hand, typical dark horror area's may benefit from full dynamic lighting when playing with flashlights, damaged lamps, or torches. The new UDK engine (which uses VCT or some sort) seems promising when it comes to G.I. but I still wonder how good it really is. Is the effect correct enough, fast enough, flexible enough, and adjustable enough to be used in any situation? I doubt it. Besides, the goal of T22 shouldn't be beating a UDK or Crysis engine on tech features, because that is never gonna happen. The game just has to look good. Or scary actually, whether that requires realistic graphics or not. If pre-baked solutions will do a better job achieving that, we should use those instead. Yet it's so attractive to keep trying realtime G.I. and as the hardware keeps getting faster and faster, we might be able to upscale the current solutions to better looking, more accurate versions...

So, I can't decide really. Which isn't good, because such techniques have a big impact on the end results. Each time we jump to another G.I. system, the looks of the rooms we did so far will (completely) change, and have to be tuned again. "Fortunately" we didn't make dozens of rooms yet, but at some point we have to decide and trust the technique will still look ok X years later when the game is supposed to be finished. It sucks to have multiple options.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Abstraction V

And? Finished GTA V already? Dan and Sam Houser sure are happy you and I bought a copy. At my age (I'm 104), you don't get carried away with game-hypes anymore, but GTA V was one of the few titles that made me a bit nervous just before its release. Didn't want to sleep between 16-year olds in the Shop entrance, neither wanted to download the game for the PS3. Downloading sure is a good invention, but I wanted to revive some nostalgic youth struggles; waiting impatiently forever for a game, reading the same game-(p)reviews sixty times, hopping on the bike for a 10 km ride to a nearby city, wasting all the money your grandparents gave on a holy CD-Rom. Then bike 10 km back, faster than the wind, install the game on a PC slower than a turtle, and then.... bang, not enough hard-drive space + video-card driver not supported. Teenager rage.

Patience comes as you age, so I waited one week before taking the good old bike again. The madness and endless-16-year-old-queues storm should be over by now, so after work on a lovely autumn evening, I stopped by the shop and then... bang, sold out. Lots of shops with the GTA bad guys on billboards, but no discs. Next shipment would be in 4 days. Arh, same old shit again. Now I remember why they invented internet again. Seems I can bike home 10 km again, on that lovely autumn evening, empty handed. Adult rage.

The "charm" of being a kid + birthdays / Christmas (or "Sinterklaas") is having to wait for your present. Not just a few days, but weeks or even months. It eats your patience alive, it's a crude test. Vivid fantasies of how cool the game would be, making others tired with your talks about it, sleepless nights. But then, when unwrapping the present finally... priceless. In the end it doubles the pleasure and unforgettable memoires of your game. But anyway, I just downloaded GTA V as soon as I got home. I'm not 14 anymore.

So, booted the PS3, went to the online store, purchased the game, and then.... bang, not enough hard-drive space. Whut?#! What kind of 1998 message is that? I just purchased that shitty game, and now it won't install? It's as if this game isn't meant to be played by me. The rest of the world plays it, but apparently I can't. Well nerds, if you have a PS3 and stumbled over this post because of the same bullshit, here's what to-do:
1- Steal your little sisters laptop (or grab another old one) - must be FAT32
2- Remove its 2.5" hard-drive
3- Back-up stuff from your PS3 / write down your passwords / store login info
4- Open the panel at the bottom of the PS3, unscrew, and remove the disc
5- Hey shit, that HD looks almost the same as my little Sister's laptop HD!
6- That's right, just swap them
7- Download (on your PC) the latest PS3 system update and put it on a (FAT32) USB
8- Boot the PS3. It will come with a warning message. Insert the USB, press 2 buttons as told.
9- PS3 will reformat the hard-drive and installs the update as it would usually do
10- There you go big boy, a PS3 with a BIG hard-drive
11- Put the old PS3 HD back in your sisters laptop, she'll never know what happened

Be aware that everything on the old laptop HD will be removed. You can also buy a 2.5" HD, they're cheap. Another note, read about the maximum RPM the HD should have before putting it in a PS3. Forgot the exact number, but it seems that faster HD's may overheat the PS3! Don't say I didn't warn.

It took some swearing, but the game was downloading now. And then... bang, bedtime. And another day of work first. Next evening I could finally enjoy the game. Or no, I couldn't. At least not right away because smacking hobo's, stealing cars and blowing up prostitutes is not exactly the kind of thing you should do with a 5 year old daughter on your lap. Had to wait a few more hours. Then finally I could play my goddamn game. It didn’t go exactly as planned, but the waiting and bit of stress just might have increased the value of this game. If you never fight for the good things in live, you don’t know what good is.

Who would have thought that THIS(1997) would grow to a 270 million dollar production?

Serious Reality
Verdict? Well, I leave that to yourself, countless other game-websites, and maybe for a future post. Besides, I’m far from finished. But in short, yeah I’m quite happy with it. It was worth the struggle (and price). Didn’t expect less either by the way, although GTA IV was a slight let down compared to GTA San Andreas (one of my all-time favorite games). Sure the physics were a lot more fun, the graphics were up-to-date again, and it offered a whole new package of missions and absurd crook dialogs. But… it didn’t have the warm atmosphere and humor GTA:SA had. It looked a bit cold, the protagonist was a bitter Eastern European, and the virtual city transformed from a over-the-top ridiculous nineties ghetto neighborhood, into a more sober and serious world. GTA IV took itself too serious. Or maybe… GTA IV got too realistic.

And that (finally) brings me to the topic; games & realism. And I’m not talking about the correlation between virtual and reallife-violence. If you can’t understand the difference between hurting virtual people and real people, you’re a nutt case. And that counts for idiots inspired by games (or movies/book/music/...) committing crimes, as well as “professional” paid criticizers that fail to recognize that humanity just isn’t all about flowers and humblebees. Freaks will get their inspiration whether there are games or not, and the most violent places in our history and present, aren’t well known for their Playstations, gory horror movies and internet porn. Violence is in your head, upbringing, culture or environment. All a game might do is making the spark. Our ancestors played football with human heads long before FIFA came out. Period.

As said, I found GTA IV a bit too realistic. Not just the (outstanding) visuals, also the way how your character or pedestrians reacted on the environment was all a bit too “normal”. It seems GTA V took a bit of the arcade element back into the game, and I find the atmosphere as a whole more humoristic and laid-back then its predecessor. Maybe the setting just leaves more space for happy feelings and over-dramatic characters. Los Santos is based on Los Angeles, whereas Liberty City from the previous GTA is based on New York. Never been in America, but based on prejudices and stupid television shows, I’d say the northern west-coast folks are a bit more ‘normal’ than their southern east-coast counterparts. Add the absurdity of Hollywood (Vinewood in GTA) and sunny weather giving sunstrokes to people, and you’ll get the clue.

(GTA San Andreas, PS2) Thanks to realism, you won't likely see this again in modern GTA's; the character on the bike (you) doesn't look cool enough, and AI would tell the homies in the background not to walk in the middle of the streets. A bunch of street thugs teaming up isn't very 2013 anyway. Oh, and the two left guys are identical twins?

However, GTA V is still more serious and realistic compared to its older brother GTA: San Andreas. Obviously it looks twenty times better… or should I just say twenty times more realistic? Because what exactly defines what looks good or not? What is it with “realism” anyway? I see realistic landscapes and interiors all the time, in real life I mean. But I’d only label a few of them as “good looking”. Nevertheless, in game graphics, “good looking” is often related (or confused) with “photo-realism”. Achieving this is a big, technical, challenge. Being able to code an engine that renders correct lighting, awfully real characters or beautiful reflecting oceans, breaths quality. It has become an indicator for what is good and what not. Even though good looking games still might be boring as hell actually!

Mondriaan, you rascal
Maybe this somewhat weird indicator comes from the childhood. I’m not a pro, but I can draw pretty well (on paper, not digital). Back at elementary school, the challenge was to draw stuff that looked more detailed and realistic. Yep, without understanding shaders and physics, we already learned how to draw a reflective water-pool, or a shadow casted by a tree. You learn which colors can be used to draw a realistic scene, and which to avoid. You spend a lot of time figuring out how to get the perspective right, instead of having the cars floating above the grass on a white background with purple clouds. The closer a drawing comes to a photograph, the better you could draw. In my little world at least.

This is quite different from abstract art. And as a realism-fetishist that spends too much time on tweaking shaders and implement G.I., it may not be very surprising that I’m not a big fan of abstract art. Correct lighting and tiny details are a proof of craftsmanship in a painting. Can’t exactly see those skills in a very abstract painting, containing some splatters and vague stripes or simplified versions of objects. To me, those who paint abstract, are either genius (or psychotic), or they just don’t master the techniques. Unfortunately, the latter is true for quite a lot hobby painters. Hey, if you can’t draw, just throw some shit on the canvas and come up with a silly story about emotions and deeper meanings to mask the lack of skill.

Of course, this bold statement needs some nuance. To stay in art terms, it isn’t all black and white. A photo-realistic image still doesn’t have to be interesting at all. As much as I admire craftsmanship, the definition of art isn’t necessarily the technical quality. Art is art if it manages to trigger emotions, thoughts, a feeling, or if it amazes. A blurry warm orange canvas that brings you in a summer evening mood is a success. A tile-comic hanging in the bathroom, making you laugh while having a dump, is a success. Music that makes you think about your beloved ones with a little tear, is a success. A cruel war-scene photograph, making you think “Damn I’m happy I wasn’t born there”, is a success. Sort of.

That means an abstract piece of art can be good just as well, as long as it manages to trigger that emotion it was supposed to trigger. But honestly I often can’t see the relation between some angry purple discontinued streaks and the dock workers that work 16 hours, leading to broken families caused by an evil consumer-##society. An indefinable mess of metal bended pipes in the center of a roundabout isn’t a success either if no one understands what it is. Maybe we “normal people” just don’t get the clue, but neither does every so called experts. It’s like tasting wine. A few really know what they are talking about, others just want to distance themselves from the beer drinking plebs, but wouldn’t taste the difference between a Merlot Duc du La Prevert 1897, and Pißwasser with strawberry flavor. Being high-society or a rebel takes some faking sometimes.

I shouldn't have a too big mouth, my skills aren't that awesome either. Though I made far worse things on a drawing tablet. The background is kinda abstract by the way.

Imaginary friends
Anyhow, games aren’t that abstract in general, simply because they would become unplayable at some point. But not all of them try to achieve photo-realism. Nintendo for example never did. Zelda Skyward Sword (Wii) looks a bit as if it was drawn with aquarelle, having slight blurry streaks instead of sharp high-detail textures. Well, in the case of the Wii this was probably needed to mask technical capabilities as well, because the Wii hardware is well… not so good. But they did a good job putting down this different style. So did “The Windwaker” with Cell-Shading by the way. No hi-tec graphics, but both games managed to suck you in a fairy-tail fantasy world. And thinking about that… would a fantasy world still look like a dream if it was rendered über realistic? I guess not. Another example. Remember the movie “Sin City”? This movie is black & white for most of the time, except for the blood effects that make an extra gory contrast this way. This filter gives a dark and raw atmosphere, but also keeps the movie closer to its inspiration; a comic book. In other words, good graphics means they represent the theme well, and drag you into a certain atmosphere. Advanced techniques and shaders don’t necessarily produce interesting graphics, though they are often required to achieve the wishes of an artist.

A very good pencil drawing? Or a movie with a real decor and real actors? Whatever it is, it's not the exact definition of photo-realism. Sin City preferred to stick with the comic theme.

As mentioned with violence & games, there is a difference between fiction and reality. Games are supposed to be fiction, giving you capabilities or bringing you to places you would never encounter otherwise. Unless you took a good amount of drugs, there is no way you can jump and fly around tiny planets like Mario did in Mario Galaxy. Unlikely you ever climb a 60 meter tall colossus and slay it, as you did in “Shadow of the Colossus”. Games are all about escaping from the boring reality for some hours. Now here is the crux with Grand Theft Auto. Asides from a few lunatics, you won’t steal helicopters, survive 150 kph head-on-head collisions, and beat up cops every 4 minutes in real life. That’s fiction. Yet at the same time the game tries to be more and more realistic. After all the theme and goal is to create a breathing, real city. Fiction and reality start overlapping here. And I’m not so sure if that is actually a good thing. Although GTA V took a step back to absurd humor, arcade gameplay and just having fun compared to GTA IV, it’s still a different experience than GTA San Andreas, or Rockstars more recent Red Dead Redemption which took you back in your cowboy boots (= fiction).

Some people prefer books over movies, because it triggers your own fantasy to fill the gaps. A book gives instructions, you do the decorations. You decide how the characters look like, the sounds of their voices, or how a scary basement should be pictured. You try to imagine how cold it is if the book describes the Battle of the Bulge. The lack of visuals forces you to use your imagination, which creates a stronger bond between you and the characters / situation. Movies on the other hand will do the thinking for you. All you have to do is sit and watch. Games still require your input of course, but maybe the imaginary portion is getting reduced as well, as the ever increasing graphical quality closes the voids that would require your own fantasy to spice things up. In GTA V, for some reason, I’m feeling less connection with the city, it feels less summery and warm than the GTA:SA world (which used a cheap dose of orange lighting to simulate warmth), and even though the world looks better than ever, I’m less curious to explore every inch of it.

Right... and your point is?
Well, the point of this story is getting as vague as an abstract painting, and probably my age is an even bigger limiting factor when it comes to getting absorbed into a game. And yes, GTA V is a fine game, don’t worry. Just thinking that increased realism doesn’t automatically make a better game. Certainly not when it comes to game mechanics. Imagine the GTA V character would be tired after climbing 3 stairs, and would be in coma after a head-on collision… Nah that doesn’t work. But I’m not so sure if realistic (not to be confused with “stylish”!) graphics are always the best choice either. Imagine Link would be a bored pimply teenager in the next Zelda game… As explained in other posts, also shooters like Doom or Duke traded their impossible absurd level designs for more “physical-correct” worlds, which doesn’t always please the atmosphere or gameplay element. And how about Silent Hill… the ultra-dense fog which hides 90% of the surroundings (and helps a lacking PS1 processor) makes the world feel like a claustrophobic nightmare, and disorients the player. Probably it wouldn’t be such a good idea to enhance realism by removing the very unrealistic fog.

As for T22 then? I’m still urged to endlessly improve the graphics. But ultimately, the world should look stylish, interesting, old, dirty and especially scary. But not necessarily photo-realistic. The lack of sharpness and an overdose of blur in the demo movies so far has generated some negative comments. Though the motion blur was more a technical problem rather than a well thought design decision, I’d say it contributes to a nightmarish unreal atmosphere. Don’t know about you, but my dreams aren’t rendered in HD quality. That’s not an excuse to keep things ugly and blur the shit out of it, but one shouldn’t compare a nightmare themed game with the looks of Crysis. Different worlds, different themes, different goals. As with art, whatever it takes to trigger that emotion.