Reading 06: The History of... Computer Graphics

I don’t think there is any doubt that improving computer graphics results an improved overall experience. More detailed, vivid, and realistic video games or movies allow the viewer to be more truly immersed in the fantasy world they are observing.

There are some exceptions though. First and most importantly is that impressive graphics can’t make up for lack of content. A recent example of this would be No Man’s Sky. The graphics are stunning, the game play is lackluster. And as a result, the game was pretty much universally criticized and is considered a flop.

Another exception is computer graphics that fall in the “Uncanny Valley.”

Uncanny Valley

The “Uncanny Valley” refers to the subconscious phenomenon that images or computer graphics that are close to, but not quite, human, are universally considered negatively by people. Games and movies with graphics that fall in this valley (like The Polar Express) can be difficult to play or watch.

An interesting result of this phenomenon is that graphics that are less realistic and clearly cartoon-y come across more positively. This is definitely something I’ve noticed when playing older games, like Super Mario 64.

Super Mario 64 may have been the first game I ever played as a kid with 3D graphics. I remember being amazed that it was possible to explore an entire map (compared to the 2D world of Super Mario Bros.), even playing the same level multiple times with different objectives and different results.

Super Mario 64

I played through the first world from Super Mario 64 this week, and while I had a lot of fun, I was also surprised by just how poor the graphics were. Textures were very pixelated, polymers were simple with few edges and vertices, and meshes did not blend together at all.

Super Mario 64 Bomb Boss

Despite the graphical limitations, the fact that the game was in 3D offered so much more than its 2D counterparts. There was more room - literally - for the story to spread out, and 3D movement required more skill than 2D movement. In general, I would describe 3D game play as more realistic and exciting, regardless of graphics quality.

This is especially true when it comes to movies. For the longest time, animation was done in 2D, first by hand, and later with computers. Today however, nearly all animated movies are in 3D. Disney has said that they no longer plan to produce any 2D animated movies. The processing power and technical capabilities have progressed to the point that 3D computer animation is a very feasible option, and apparently the market has decided that it is vastly preferable to 2D animation.

Personally, I find that 2D animation gives a specific characteristic to movies. They are dated to a certain time period. Similar styles are often used across different movies for drawing, rendering, or interpolating. Maybe this is “classic” look is desirable and worthy of being preserved, but ultimately I think that scenes created with 3D animation are more powerful than 2D animation. If old 2D movies were made today, it is likely that they would have been created with 3D animation as well. And because of that, the lasting characteristic that 2D animation will have is simply to age the movie to an era from the past.