Water Games

An Archeology of Water Rendering in Video Games

The research focus of this project is on the material history of computer-generated graphics and how the interface informs the construction of cultural techniques. I am intrigued by the importance of the technical specificity of post-photographic image production in the contemporary visual culture—a topic that is often misunderstood. In Water Games, the approach to digital imaging is multifaceted, on a historical level and also conceptually, and the research intends to demystify technical processes and philosophical perspectives on media operations.

Water Games is a survey of the materiality of the digital image. My premise is to emphasize how the image is constructed, focusing on the computer, particularly the development of cultural techniques that let us interact with the machine through the interface. I am interested in the formal digital materiality, a term that Kirschenbaum used in Mechanisms (2012). He argued that there are two forms of digital materiality: forensic and formal. The forensic is associated with the physical storage of media, such as hard drives that preserve mechanical remnants of the previous existence of data. The formal is focused on the materiality of the abstract and the symbolic.

The digital image is a very broad concept and is also understood as a practice, an object, an art form, and a field within computer science. For this project, I will be focused on the representation of water with computer graphics. This form of imagery is at the center of a large industry that is commonly linked to film, television, architecture, product development, industrial design, and gaming; where I will take a closer look for this research project.

Water has been present in video games since its origin, from the 8-bit days through the birth of 3D graphics and beyond. While today we tend to see a realistic simulation of water in most video games, there is a long history of its representation that can be traced back to the early days of gaming. Water is one of those elements that has always been difficult to be represented, and computationally expensive.

In early schemes, while a visual representation of water needed to rely on an appropriate scenery with a specific color palette such as blue and modified controls used to simulate buoyancy, often the stage themes were dedicated to the concept of swimming. Although the swimming was successful just in some instances, the water was typically simplistic.

There are three fundamental elements which make up the display of water in games: firstly, is the visual element of the water surface, including the animation and reflection of light. Secondly, the wave patterns, that sometimes can be interactive. Finally, the rendering of an underwater segment and the associated water caustics.

Most retro games focused on one element such as the scanline trick in Vice: Project Doom ( Aicom, Sammy Corporation for NES, 1991), in the background can be seen reflections ripples and the entire parallax background effect are displayed using mid-frame. Another example is Batman: Return of the Joker for Nintendo Game by (1992), where the programmers utilize a pair of tricks to create a vivid water ripple effect. By coupling lines allowed the developers to create a warping effect as if the water were passing in front of the scenery. This effect combined with flickering where the water is blanked out every other frame reduces the cost of the scanline manipulation. Additionally, thanks to the slow pixel response of the original Game Boys LCD, it helps give the impression of transparency, since the screen can't update fast enough between frames.

This research project will select remarkable games that represent key milestones due to its technical and artistic solution to the problem of water simulation. Through the short history of the medium, game designers and computer scientists have continued to refine and perfect the display and simulation of water: revealing a history of cultural techniques.

Importance of the project

Computer-generated images are an essential part of our contemporary culture. A group of crucial scholars has studied those images as an evolution of film or photography. This project focuses on the aspects of digital creation dismissed by those scholars, involving the technical apparatus behind those images, from the processes whereby images are created to the technicality underlying them. The difference between image and computer generation can be confusing based on surface level observation, but conflating them is an oversimplification.

That confusion occurs since the goal of computer-generated images might be to simulate physical reality, and that process involves amalgamation with former visual mediums. The use of CGI in film is one of the most obvious cases.  The computer is a medium for the simulation of complex objects and practices. This has brought about new cultural techniques by changing the ways we can think about, understand, conceive, and reproduce the world.

On the other hand, videogames have an "official history", as Lana Polansky mention in his Towards an Art History for Videogames article in rhizome.org, predicated primarily on the advancement of technology, change of markets and consolidation of multinational corporations. It is common to study the history of SEGA and Sonic the Hedgehog as one of the corporate ventures and not as an artistic value. Nevertheless, video games have a significant impact on our culture. Besides driving the technological advancement to process complex computer graphics, it has aesthetic value, and this research project will aim to expose it.

Francisco Alarcon