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.

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