Early Video Games

Water Games, an Archeology of Water in Video Games

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) erupted with the development of software and hardware. CGI is ubiquitous in our contemporary culture, and its history is relatively short, compared to other traditions such as art, film, or photography. However, the field of CGI interacts with the precedent fields, blurring the disciplines.

The approach to computer graphics in this paper is made in material terms: computer power and processes. The evolution of CGI is intrinsically attached to the development of computing power.

For instance, the growth of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) transformed CGI. After the year 2000, the advancement of the technology supporting the GPUs happened at an exponential pace. During the early 2000s, the rendering rate, measured in pixels per second, has doubled every six months. The incorporation of GPUs to computational systems has allowed a degree of flexibility as well as increased performance in the processing of graphics.

Water has always been present in video games. We might often see a realistic simulation of water in contemporary video games; however, the development of its representation can be traced to the early days of gaming, from the 8-bit programs through to the birth of 3D graphics. The representation of water is one of the hardest things to be done in a game, especially if the aim is to be realistic.

A Short History of Water Rep

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

Three fundamental elements make up the display of water in games: the first is the visual element of the water’s surface, including the animation and reflection of light; the second is the wave patterns, which sometimes can be interactive; and the third is the rendering of an underwater segment and the associated water caustics.

Early Video Games

In early schemes, the representation of bodies of water relied on the creation of the surrounding environment and modifying the controls of the characters. The graphics limitations were supported by external conditions that would suggest the presence of water. For instance, early games developers invested in the simulation of buoyancy as one of the characteristics of water in our physical world.

The body of water was not simulated. Instead, water effects were driven by pictorial techniques with the intention to create the effect. Among those, we should pay attention to the different treatments of the background and foreground in combination with the impact of the limits of the display imposed by the screens at the time. One video game that exemplifies some of the connotations we are going to study is Vice: Project Doom, developed by Aicom, Sammy Corporation for Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991. In the background of the game’s first stage can be seen reflection ripples aiming to represent the reflection of the buildings by taking advantage of the scanline effects. Additionally, the parallax effect displayed using mid-frame adds a sense of depth and constructs an urban landscape.

Platform games such as Vice: Project Doom use a similar structure. In this archeology, we could see the divergence between the different approaches to the representation of a body of water by comparing the various methods of its construction.

Video game developers would use the hardware limitations of the screens at the time in their favor. The design of their schemes was developed for use on CRT monitors. In the CRT monitor, the image is divided into lines (explain what scanline is). Games like Vice: Project Doom used this constraint in favor of their design (Materiality). Consumer video consoles were supposed to be plugged into televisions or CRT monitors; however, companies developed a small type of video console with a built-in screen. One of the most notable examples was Nintendo Game Boy (develop Game Boy)

The scanline trick was the base for representing horizontal ripples from the water where other techniques would construct atop. Batman: Return of the Joker for Nintendo Game Boy (1992) built on top of two other effects: one was a warping effect as the water passed in front of the scenery; the other performed a flickering, blanking out the water every other frame. This technique reduced the cost of scanline manipulation, and also took advantage of the slow pixel response of the Game Boy’s LCD. This accumulation of effects resulted in the impression of transparency, since the screen could not update fast enough between frames.