A Certain Level of Realism


Back in 2000, ID Magazine in its Interactive Media Design Review edition gave Relic Entertainment‘s videogame, Homeworld, a Silver Award. I purchased the game based mostly on that recognition, and when I first played it five years ago I was impressed. Here is what ID Magazine said about the game back then that intrigued me:

“There is so little in our media that uses a sense of emptiness effectively,” Lantz said. “In a world of digital games overwhelmed by spectacle, the emptiness of Homeworld is refreshing and very effective.” Whereas some of the jurors questioned the game’s obsessive level of detail, Smith argued that to “construct a certain level of realism, you need that level of precision.” Stryker confessed that she wasn’t a gamer but was convinced by the game’s intoxicating high resolution.

I have to admit it was the “obsessive level of detail” and “intoxicating high resolution” comments along with the printed images that really got me interested. By today’s standards, however, Homeworld is most definitely not high resolution; and those details now look like low resolution texture maps to me. This past weekend, at wits end over something else space-related, I reloaded Homeworld and played it through again. While I might have noticed the decidedly low resolution models when I first started, the immersion took over. It still plays great.

Why mention this old videogame? Well, something that’s been on my mind for some time now is the “protoSat” (short for “prototype satellite”) I’ve been working on in Second Life. You can see images in previous posts (reLink). Let me start by explaining that this bit of virtual architecture is intended to be a structure that represents/suggests the merging of real and virtual; a middle ground of sorts. Inspired by some of the early “beacon” or “transmission” structures I was building for fun, a satellite-looking thing made sense to me. Satellites are often information relayers, and that’s appropriate given that this project began by my wanting to erect a place where people could communicate virtually through lectures or classes.

In addition, my thinking was that in real life, the further into space one flies, the less gravity there is, while in Second Life the built-in ability to fly has a relatively low ceiling; it’s as if gravity is inverted. So the protoSat is built above the virtual flight ceiling for the reason that in some ways – like a satellite – it hovers over or between two partially inverted worlds.

The protoSat is also a combination of things: a lecture area on top, a design critique area below that, office space for reBang the next deck down, a landing point for visitors below this (the center of the structure), and then underneath that a series of store levels intended to mainly host virtual versions of real products.

The problem is that the protoSat just doesn’t fit into Second Life. It feels wrong to me.

So I went looking for why I felt that way and was reminded that so much of what’s constructed in SL is intentionally worn, weathered and dated. Some of the neatest objects are actually virtual replicas of old things; like pianos from a hundred years ago. It’s the same in many videogames because of course the real world wears out, and as most people are aware, the videogame industry has been chasing realism for some time now. It seems most people are. But beyond the academic realism, there’s also the sense of place that comes from building a replica of a familiar object and I think that’s probably more important.

With that in mind, I decided that a steampunk aesthetic might fit the bill since what I’d been doing was definitely not working for me. Yet when I think of Steampunk, I think of complex contraptions. The protoSat is definitely not complex in that sense but is already eating up a lot of primitive building blocks that come in limited supply. I can’t add many more and besides, what exactly does a steampunk satellite look like? Does it look like the protoSat or does it look structurally different? Whatever I do, I know that I’m limited by resolution. Which starts to bring me round full circle.

One of the things that’s been on my mind for some time now is the relatively low graphics quality of a) virtual worlds like Second Life and There compared to the new videogames on the market, and b) complaints from users about that very issue. I’m happy to defend the platforms from a technology standpoint, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the graphic limitations.

Add to this mix four low-rez thoughts that have been on my mind more recently:

1) The increasing rate of people complaining about the graphic quality of virtual worlds (I guess this is to be expected given that adoption doesn’t increase linearly).

2) The open source release of id software’s Radiant level design tool (and the bsp compiler!) which means that along with the already open sourced game engines, an individual or small team could make another version of Quake 3 and sell it. This may not seem like big news to most people, but for the longest time, that bsp compiler has been the sticking point for a lot of indy game creators. The thing is, why bother if everyone is going to complain about graphics quality? At least that was a question in my mind when I first heard the news.

3) The new videogame Seed (see earlier comments – reLink) that just announced an open beta. I really like the approach of this game. Instead of fighting the realism battle, the developer is working with what they have (like others did years ago). I like that approach.

4) Designing low-detail objects in Second Life that, after fabrication, don’t look as if they were designed using Second Life’s limited 3D toolset. For those who recall my “reFocused” post, I’ve been spending time researching options for fabricating things which can then be sold. Easy enough to fab but more difficult to make it worth the effort; rapid-prototyping systems are still relatively expensive to use.

So where am I going with all this? Well, after having played Homeworld again, I don’t think graphics are the issue. In fact, I see even more possibilities after this trip down memory lane. If I’m unhappy with the limitations, I only need to go look at some of the amazing work done years ago for inspiration (and there’s plenty – just look at Homeworld’s screens and concept art). If we’re complaining about the graphics, it’s because something else is missing that doesn’t get us past the graphics. That leads me to thinking that I should design for immersion and not for some arbitrary level of graphic satisfaction by the user (file this revelation under “no duh”).

At the end of Homeworld there’s a rather lengthy closing credit sequence which shows off quite a bit of that concept art. When I was looking at the work, I didn’t get the impression the game was being designed with limitations in mind. Rather, they seemed to design the game as an experience. And while I can’t control the whole of Second Life, I can control the slice of experience someone has when they visit my portion of it.

By the way, this fits in with a post I just read over on Raph Koster’s blog (Link). Taken together with his comments, I’m feeling much better about where the entire industry is heading than if I’d not just re-experienced some high resolution emptiness.

{Image source: screenshot from Homeworld videogame}