The rise of the lo-fi

The rise of the lo-fi

By Develop

January 9th 2009 at 12:57PM

The march of media sometimes seems a long trudge upcountry from cave paintings and papyrus to the latest multiplex space opera.

As movie posters and game reviews assure us, our entertainment experiences are ever richer and more realistic. Big isn’t all that’s better – better is better, too.

True, no self-respecting Develop contributor would decry the thrill of snazzier special effects. But were Charlie Chaplin to see Disney’s Wall-E, he wouldn’t spend too much time marvelling at the graphical step up from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – he’d be too busy contacting his lawyers about all the inspirations lifted from the heyday of silent movies.

Things change, yet stay the same. Boy meets girl, one way or another.

TECHNOLOGY TAKEAWAY
So far, so familiar: eye-candy alone doesn’t cut it, on the big or small-screen. 15 years after CD-ROMs and 3D graphics first derailed games, we all know this.

Yet there’s another strand to the interwoven evolution of technology and content that’s less often appreciated: other technology-determined factors, such as convenience, novelty, and price, can trump even our love of high fidelity.

How important a badge is realism when the superior resolution of film has been tossed aside for mobile phone snaps? Sure, digital photography, especially at the high-end, has now caught up. But we are happy to then lose millions of pixels to put our images on Facebook. Who prints out high quality images today?

Or consider music. Once the hoi polloi had to go to church, the nearest capital city, or to war to hear anything but folk music. Cheap printing and mass manufacturing brought sheet music and instruments to the masses, followed by phonograms and radio broadcasts, and eventually LPs and CDs. Having already traded authenticity for convenience, fidelity also proved negotiable, as we’ve swapped CDs for lossy digital music, and professionally recorded albums for bedroom demos propagated on MySpace and YouTube. When it comes to pop, we’re all punks now.

NEW WAVE GAMES
Video games have long withstood this counter-trend – indeed, critics have regularly complained a new hardware generation’s top shooter is just a higher resolution Space Invaders.

When successive consoles had easy wins to plunder, such a development focus made sense – the fidelity gap between 1982’s Pitfall and 1996’s Tomb Raider being far more meaningful than between 1997’s Gran Turismo and GT5 Prologue. Moreover, big budget game developments’ arms race has developers fighting on every front: no good having a jittery frame rate but a great gameplay mechanic if your rival is silky smooth. Getting your millions back means ticking every box.

But after years of talk, change is in the air. One of the highest-rated games ever on Xbox 360 is Jonathan Blow’s Braid, which might be summarized as Mario meets Tennyson’s Maud via the Shoot’Em-Up Construction Kit. Not only is memory a feature of the gameplay and the narrative, the game winks at the medium’s veterans like a Tarantino movie. The critics adore it, and gamers are buying it.

Are Braid’s homebrew credentials, 2D backdrops and brief longevity the future of games? No. But Braid does confirm an extra dimension to that future – room for art house games where something other than graphical realism or gameplay underwrites the experience (narrative, social networking, or nostalgia, say).

Not everyone is convinced: Simon Byron called Braid over-rated in Develop two issues ago. However, Simon’s column comes later in the magazine than mine, which signifies that, while funnier than me, his views aren’t quite so valid. (It also means he’s worse at games.)

More seriously, any game tiptoeing towards art is absolutely certain to garner a rotten reception somewhere. If anything, Braid is too loved to be a work of art; Jonathan Blow certainly hasn’t provoked a Stravinsky or Monet-style moment of critical revulsion. Myst came closer to inspiring that reaction in the nineties – and indeed was closer to art (for what that’s worth) than 99 per cent of games.

Vast quantities of rubbish will pass through unfiltered (and filtered) distribution channels like Xbox Live Arcade, Apple’s App Store and even Facebook for every Braid or Myst that extends what games offer. But we’ve been on this march for 30,000 years, there’s no rush.

Over time, we’ll increasingly trade away better graphics and even gameplay for something different. Such games won’t be better, or worse, necessarily. But they will be progress.