Keyboard GeniusesKeyboard Geniuses is our occasional glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the community’s discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity.  

Keepin’ It Unreal

This week, Jonathan Kinkley, co-director of Chicago’s Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery, joined us for an overview of cel shading and similar aesthetics. Commenters came out of the woodwork to discuss a few of the examples Jonathan brought up. Okami received a lot of praise, including this post from amb:

As much as I love the Zelda series, I think Okami is just so much better than almost all of them. It wouldn’t exist if not for Zelda, but it just has a level of depth and humanity to its story that only Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Skyward Sword possess.

It’s so fun to just go around to each character and read what they have to say; everyone has their own vivid personality and story. As much as I’ve loved the best of the Zelda games, most of them just don’t have the sense of life that Okami does. Amaterasu gets to meet all the various people in the world she is trying to protect and save; whether it’s low-stakes issues, like helping the chef create his greatest sushi masterpiece, or important events, like bringing floral life back to a world that is being destroyed by evil curses, it matters. I especially love how you gett to know Mr. Bamboo throughout the game, while separately helping to rescue Kaguya and eventually discover that they are connected. So many games wouldn’t invest that time into what is ultimately a throwaway scene. At the end of it, it’s a touching to watch Kaguya bid farewall as she heads to the skies in search of her birth family.

What always blows me away is that as incredible as the art style is—you could turn a screenshot of almost any moment into framed artwork—it’s the story and the people that reach me most. The art exists in service of creating the world of Nippon, where every person matters and has a story to tell.

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Dimsmellofmoose thought Okami compared unfavorably to Zelda but agreed that it was special in its own right:

I don’t love the Zelda comparison so much. The Zelda series’ best qualities are what Okami‘s worst at. Its dungeon design was underwhelming at best (with a few good ones), and the boss fights weren’t great. (They were also repeated, some of them a handful of times.) You wind up with very few bosses overall and a lot of repetitive combat. Speaking of which, combat was not Okami‘s strong suit either. I think the smaller battle zones limit the use of the game’s graphical scope.

But Okami is moving and gorgeous and engrossing and about as warm a game as I have played. But none of those qualities really apply to the Zelda series. They’re both adventure games in the same basic build, but they focus on very different things.

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And speaking of Zelda, its first foray into cartoonish graphics, The Wind Waker, was also included in Jonathan’s article. He mentioned how fans initially recoiled when the its now beloved aesthetic was first unveiled. The_Helmaroc_King offered one possible reason for the negative response:

Wind Waker‘s early backlash wasn’t just because it was different from Ocarina Of Time and Majora’s Mask; there was also the infamous “Space World” demo from 2000 that colored expectations with a realistic looking Zelda game running on the GameCube.

Personally, I’m somewhat fond of the semi-realistic style they went for with Twilight Princess, but Wind Waker is simply gorgeous.

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signsofrain wondered why people were upset about the graphics being cartoony when Zelda had always been a pretty lighthearted series:

It always boggled my mind that Zelda fans weren’t excited about more Zelda, and that their only criticism was that the graphics were “too kiddy.” The Zelda games are all pretty darn silly. Just look at practically every Zelda non-player character. They all have some ridiculous story, motivation, or outfit. These were not serious, gritty games. They were lighthearted adventures. Even if the tone was serious or the difficulty high, there was always an irreverence at heart, which I always enjoyed. It surprised me that Zelda fans couldn’t get behind Wind Waker when tonally and mechanically, it’s similar to any other Zelda game.

And DL thinks most fans would have been more supportive had they seen the game in motion:

Certainly some had concern when seeing stills of Wind Waker prior to release, as it seemed less detailed than Ocarina Of Time. I really think most of those would have been allayed had people not dismissed it and seen the game in motion. Being inside the volcano and simply standing there—the hot wind blowing Link’s cap and tunic, glowing lava forming the primary lighting, with genuine model detail and the distortion from heat waves—created a sense of detail that surpassed its predecessors.

Cel shading is best in motion (but I agree that even screenshots of Okami are gorgeous) and needs a fluidity of animation and detail in the models to be truly captivating. The exaggeration of outlines and lack of visual “noise” is able to express a great deal of nuance in animation, and shadows dancing across moving surfaces give the mind’s eye opportunity to fill in the depth and detail.

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Kristopher Wright thinks the backlash might have something to do with Sony coming in and changing the way people of a certain age looked at Nintendo at the time:

I hang out with Nintendo lifers on a forum, and I think a lot of them suffered from a kind of PTSD after Sony took over the console market. One of the main criticisms triumphant Sony fans were lobbing at Nintendo was that it only made kiddie games. It was console war bullshit, but I imagine if you’re a teenage Nintendo fan in 2002, it probably stung a bit to be called childish for liking the games you liked. It seems a lot of them felt the Space World demo was proof Nintendo was going to give them an answer for that criticism, an “Ocarina II” that could stand alongside any Sony offering. And then Wind Waker was a swerve back into supposed kiddie territory.

Elsewhere, beardude says these kinds of non-realistic styles can be even more difficult to pull off, from a technical standpoint, than photorealism:

Non-Photo Realistic rendering (or NPR, the industry term for anything that isn’t realistic) is so rarely done because it is incredibly difficult to pull off. It is hard enough in pre-rendered animation, like Pixar films, where it takes a massive amount of tricks and time to get two hours-worth of footage to look as good as possible.

In games, everything has to be done dynamically in real time. Complex shaders can take a lot of computational power and be difficult to optimize. Models have to be specifically optimized in very non-standard ways to work with different shaders. There is a lot of research and development that has to go into getting an NPR look, and those games tend to not sell the best.

To give an example of the computation power it can take: In order to get a hard “outline” in a lot of older consoles and games you have to double the amount of geometry because you have to have a large but exact shell of the character geometry that is inverted. So a “simple” looking model might easily have a higher polygon count then a “realistic” model. “Realistic” models also have accesses to things that a lot of NPR models don’t—mostly, “normal maps” which give a model much more detail with relatively little geometry. (example: http://features.cgsociety.org/…. The wire frame is the actual amount of geometry. Everything else is a normal map.)

The reason realism is so popular is because it is known, well-documented, and all the tools available naturally gravitate toward it. The only issue is finding artist skilled enough to create visuals of such high fidelity.

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And that brings us to the end of our last normally programmed Gameological week. Next Monday and Tuesday, we’ll be sharing our annual lists of Games We Liked with you all (and a special holiday season Q&A). After that, we’ll be on a break until 2015. Thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you soon!