As I’ve mentioned before, I’m kind of a graphics snob in video games. I just don’t like the look of Half-Life, Fallout 1/2, or Morrowind. So, I was surprised that Robert Yang managed to convince me that, in at least one case, lo-res is better.


This is a comparison of the original (2006) and a remastered (2017) version of a video game, Final Fantasy XII. And yes, Yang’s contention is that the fuzzy original is better.

(Why the girl is leaning to one side in the remastered version, I don’t know.  It’s distracting, but not the point here.)

His analysis of the “remastering” is helpful:

If I had to guess, the artists probably did this: (1) scale up texture by 200%, (2) increase contrast, (3) desaturated a little for that grayish next-gen feel, (4) apply a sharpen filter, (5) overlay a noisy detail texture on top to try to make the surface look more detailed.

He notes that you can automate this process, so you can handle a whole folder of images in a few minutes.

Now, my first reaction was that I liked the sharper image better. (I’ve never played the game, so I have no nostalgia here to invoke.)  In general, our eyes like sharpness! We can really see the intended patterns; the banner looks ten times better; the leaves are more recognizable.  It’s like putting glasses on!

And none of that is wrong. But look at the things Yang is pointing to: desaturation; the sharpen feature; a noise filter. The way I’d put it: the new image is

  • way too loud– it draws attention to itself, though it’s just a background
  • way too contrasty– if you looked at an actual wall, you wouldn’t be conscious of such a wide tonal range, it would mostly look one color
  • much less warm– look especially at the pavement, which has gone from a warm orange to almost black-and-white
  • too flat; because everything is in focus, it looks like a picture, not a world

You can certainly do realism well, but this realism done badly.

Yang points to another example, a fan remake of Half-Life 2.  I won’t name it, because I’m not going to say anything nice about it and there’s no need to embarrass a hard-working modder. Here’s a comparison.  (The top image is apparently another mod, but much closer to Valve.)


Oh dear. Let’s go over the problems.

  • What the hell is going on in the screenshot? It’s wicked dark.
  • You can barely see what is supposed to be the focus of the scene: Breen and Eli Vance.
  • Contrariwise, the modder has inserted extremely bright lights where they do no good at all. “Here, I really want you to pay attention to this: the floor.”
  • In general, the physical modeling and the lighting effects are far better– e.g. the round hole in the ceiling isn’t an obvious polygon; the lights, like real lights, don’t just light up the air. But all this realism just hides the narrative.  We don’t get an idea of the shape of the area; we can’t see what’s going on; we don’t know where to go next.
  • Why did he blur the red highlights from the windows?  Why did he lose the overhead light? Come to think of it, why don’t those very bright lights actually illuminate anything?
  • Yes, you’ve learned how to do a shiny floor; but what’s the point? All it does is reflect some lights and thus confuse the scene further.  Does the Combine care that much about waxing their floors?
  • What the hell kind an outfit did he put on Mossman?

Not all the images from the mod are this dark, but when they’re not, they’re generally too busy, too desaturated, and less coherent. They look like someone Googled for hi-res versions of every texture in the scene, without any care to making them work together.

Realism is nice, but isn’t an end in itself. You also have to think about consistency of style, and focusing the player’s attention on what is important, and giving them the information they need to follow the story and navigate the world.  The old Valve was very good at this.

As an example of a game that properly shows off the increased realism that’s now possible, I’d name The Witcher 3. I haven’t finished it, but good lord is it gorgeous. And without losing the readability, consistency, and focus that’s needed for a game to work as a game.