A Fistful of Static

Preamble

Somewhere in a distant time and place, a letter is delivered by runner:

From: Light of the World, Voice of Nur, High Priest Akh-na-Gog

To: Honored Slave Tinker and Inventor Euripaelus

Subject: Re: Industrial accidents.

Hear now the words of Holiest of Holies Great Nur, Light of the World, Peace be Upon Him, through his High Priest Akh-na-Gog, who says unto you: can we build the next colossus without any hair? The aboriginal barbarian hordelings are having a field day climbing these things by their hair and painting graffiti on them. Worse, half the time they are drunk on that disgusting fermented yak milk, and the janitorial slaves have to spend hours scrubbing to clean up their “accidents.” And if they’ve sicked on the hair, the smell lingers just about forever.

So no hair next time, Honored Slave Tinker and Inventor.

So speaks Holiest of Holies Great Nur, Light of the World, Peace be Upon Him, through his High Priest Akh-na-Gog.

Apologia

I wanted to say a few more words about Shadow of the Colossus. I’m exactly halfway through the game, and I’m enjoying it very much. If you asked me whether I liked it, so far, I’d say “yes.” Like psu, I want to finish the game before I review it in detail. But there is one thing I think I’m ready to talk about at this point, and that’s the visuals in the game.

Shadow of the Colossus looks beautiful. It has moments of stunning beauty, awesome grandeur, and perhaps most importantly makes incredible use of light.

It also looks like absolute garbage.

Despite the beauty of its design, scenery, and lighting, the game still looks like garbage. Every movement causes every texture to blur and moire. When moving, you don’t just lose fine detail, but coarse detail. Since half the game is spent on horseback, this means that half the game is spent watching moire patterns splay across your TV. I hope you don’t have epilepsy.

Why does Shadow look so bad? Because it’s on a Playstation 2, and making games on the Playstation 2 that don’t look like crap is apparently nearly impossible.

Ico looked like this too. The effects weren’t as bad, because in Ico the textured castle wasn’t generally in fast motion. In Ico, you often viewed a room with the camera in a static position. In Shadow, the camera is a chase camera. The texture problems, in other words, are exacerbated by camera motion, and there is much more camera motion in Shadow than in Ico

Combat!

Best. Game. EVER.

Now, it is not a big surprise to discover that games on the PS2 have lousy low-res textures and generally look more jagged than a Houston hooker recovering from a three-day methamphetamine bender. We’ve all known it for years. Generally it’s not that big a deal, because – as Shadow demonstrates – graphics are not the most important part of most games. Atari’s venerable Combat is still one of the best player-vs-player tank battle games, 25 years later, even though it has the most primitive graphics possible. I believed that Ico looked like garbage (and, yes, looked beautiful as well) when I bought it. I purchased a Playstation 2 just to play Ico, even though I thought the quality of rendering was terrible. So please don’t think that I’m saying “texture quality is the most important thing.” I’m not bringing it up because of that.

I’m bringing it up because of history.

Thesis

When the Playstation 2 was released, Sony conducted press conferences and demos where they would show a pre-rendered movie playing on the PS2, leaving all comers with the impression that this is what the gameplay experience on the PS2 would be like: fine detail, lifelike bezier curves, all rendered in real-time. The Playstation 2 crushed the Sega Dreamcast. In part because of the already-huge Playstation back catalog, but also because of the belief, inspired by Sony, that there would be no comparison between the games on the two systems.

Five years later, we can look back and say: ancient Dreamcast games, generally, are better looking than the best PS2 games being released today, when judged by certain standards. The textures in Dreamcast games are less detailed. But they don’t shimmer. They don’t shake. And the system was capable of drawing a diagonal line without rendering it as a chunkily as a stairway in a football stadium.

Meanwhile, I ride across the desert plains in Shadow of the Colossus. Because one of the things I have been doing in the game is hunting geckos, I keep an eye open for them. About every 30 seconds, I’ll see a rendering artifact that, from a quick glance, might be a gecko. So I have to stop and look, and then realize that, once again, I’m being boned by the terrible, horrible, awful, complete inability of the Playstation 2 to render a scene in motion that doesn’t look like ass.

And now, it’s 2005, and soon we will see the Xbox 360, and we will see the Playstation 3. Prerendered movies are already being shown. The same claims about system obsolescence are being made, by both Microsoft and Sony. And so the reason I bring up the graphics in Shadow of the Colossus is simply this: it’s important that consumers stand up and say, out loud, that they notice when they are lied to. Some of us noticed that Sony lied to us about the PS2. And when we read the press releases and see the pretty prerendered videos for the PS3, I hope we remember that during the last cycle, they looked consumers straight in the eye, and lied.

Maybe both the 360 and the PS3 will be another Great Leap Forward. But if you think I’m pre-ordering based on your prerendered marketing presentations, you’ve got another thing coming.

I remember when I’m lied to. And I hold grudges.

Coda

In the words of our great President, “Fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”

How true that is.