Hyped Definition

Almost everything about the “new generation” of gaming has revolved around High Definition. High Defintion allows console games to look as “good” as PC games. These same consoles, at least the two that aren’t selling that well, are being used as a wedge to try and own the High Definition movie market. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been watching Planet Earth in HD. I have also been re-playing Resident Evil 4, which is decidedly not in HD. While you can’t really compare these two experiences directly, my conclusion after having had both experiences is that the H in HD is more about hype than about reality.

Let’s get one thing straight first though. Planet Earth is absolutely stunning. I am not what you would call a “nature buff”. I would much rather have a nice hot shower and sit at a coffee shop than search out my spiritual connection with the land. One of the reasons I stopped actively seeking out landscape photographs was because I found myself much more interested in cities and architecture than plants, rocks, grass, and worst of all, animals. Even given this context, Planet Earth causes me to drop my jaw on the floor and stare in amazement. There are crazy time lapse shots that span weeks and months, and are sometimes taken from space. There are tracking shots that move the camera down the vertical wall of a cliff that is hundreds of feet high. There are shots in pitch black. There are shots from the air. There are shots from the ground. It’s just amazing to look at. I am also pleased by the HD presentation, but like all of my experience with HD, the differences between “high” and “standard” are more subtle that you would think.

If you spend any time in the TV store, or reading the TV press, you tend to get the idea that the HD screen will be akin to the second coming of Jesus, motherhood and apple pie all at the same time. HD, they say, is so detailed and so stunningly beautiful that it is “like looking out a window out into the natural world”. I say: horse shit. The HD picture is nice. It is even on occasion almost as nice as looking at a decent color photograph. But don’t let anyone fool you, it is not life-changing. High def. tends to come into its own only in certain kinds of shots. If the shot is a wide vista with a ton of small details, then HD manages to hold those details better than a standard DVD. On the other hand, the majority of tight shots and close-ups probably do not benefit, because as you move in everything gets bigger and more clear anyway. This is certainly what I have found when comparing SD sports TV to HD, and also with the few HD movies that I have watched.

This is a problem for the consumer industries trying to sell people on HD. They want Joe Consumer to walk out of the store with equipment that costs an order of magnitude more than the television (and dvd player, and sound system) that he is replacing. They can’t do this very well by telling Joe that his spiffy new television will be somewhat better some of the time. The sales pitch thus tends to be heavy on the “like looking out a window” sort of nonsense. If you are buying a big TV, my advice is to keep your wits about you and evaluate everything carefully. Personally, I was mostly after size so that movies would be bigger and more watchable. My large TV is, in fact, large. So I am happy. The whole HD resolution game was only of secondary importance to me, so I am happy.

The new game consoles from Sony and Microsoft have a similar marketing problem. I think one of the reasons why Sony, and to a lesser extent, Microsoft have not made a huge splash is that they are asking consumers to pay unprecedented prices for a game console on the promise of a huge leap in graphical fidelity, and that leap just is not there. For example, the last game I really played on the Xbox 360 was Gears of War. The style and mechanics of the game are at least partially inspired by Resident Evil 4. I have been replaying RE4 on the Wii lately, and comparing the visuals in the two games illustrates my point. Microsoft and fans of the game would have you believe that Gears is an order of magnitude leap over what the poor Wii can achieve. The real jump is smaller.

Just as HD movies mostly stand out in shots that have a lot of small details, the graphics in Gears stand out when you have time to really stare at all the tiny details in the textures and art design. Once the two games are in motion, or if you are trying to stay alive rather than staring at the environments, the differences are harder to see. I’m not saying that RE4 looks as “good” as Gears, because it doesn’t. I’m just saying that when you are actually playing the game you don’t really care that you can’t see every little brick in the textures on the sides of buildings and such. You are more worried about the zombie people than the low-res textures.

In other words, while Sony and Microsoft would have you believe that their HD graphics are worth a significant premium over the “weaker” rendering engine in the Wii, I think that most people have correctly decided that the premium is not worth it. As a result, they stand in line for the Nintendo console or they go out and buy a PS2. Since I’m a gadget and media whore, I’ll probably buy a PS3 anyway. I appreciate the HD graphics, but I am realistic enough to realize that it’s just not that different from the previous generation. Don’t buy into the hype. Go and look very carefully for yourself.