If you grew up living and breathing videogames, you can likely remember a few times when you thought "wow, this is the most incredible-looking thing I've ever seen, and it can't possibly get any better". At least I did, a few times.
I can somehow recall many of these moment super vividly in my head. The funny thing is that - looking back at them - some of them obviously look incredibly unimpressive 😅.
The cow - The Ark of Time [1997, MS-DOS]
I know, this is almost pathetic - probably even by the standards of those times. I just remember that cow so clearly, I thought the wagging tail was 100% photorealistic.
I honestly don't fully know why, but I think it's possibly because it had a fairly high frame rate, which made it look really organic and alive.
Only two or three years ago I actually found out that The Ark of Time (which I believe is the first game I might have bought with my own money in a local videogame store in Palermo), was actually an Italian game production, developed by a studio called Trecision, and published by Koei!
The water - Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance [2001, PS2]
This is honestly still super impressive. It looks a bit more like mercury than water perhaps, but this was such an impressive piece of tech, especially when you look at how the ripples even bounce off surfaces.
I think it was fairly rare to see water as such an interactive part of the environment, and for many years (even to this day, to be honest) not many games did anything with fluids other than just spawning some particle effects around the character's position.
I have very fond memories of Dark Alliance, and I think this was was one of the first times when I just had fun toying around in a game without really engaging with the core gameplay systems, but just feeling mezmerized by a visual effect.
The rear bumper - Colin McRae Rally 3 [2003, PS2]
"OMG look at how it bounces!". This one speaks for itself, I think. It might be that - when it comes to racing games - I mostly grew up playing SEGA Rally, Ridge Racer and Gran Turismo (all of which shy away from portraying car damage), but I just recall how mind-blowing this felt when it first happened. A wrong turn and BAM! the rear bumper is busted for good.
It was a mixture of the dynamic decals layering dirt on the car, the breakable glass, and also the jaw-dropping bounciness of that rear bumper whenever you drifted along those dirty roads. I remember thinking "This looks fucking perfect".
The audition - Heavy Rain [2010 - PS3]
This one is actually from a tech demo trailer shown at the E3 2006; I am not sure if it should count as a valid entry in this blog post (it never ended up as part of Heavy Rain), but it's my blog and I make the rules here.
I think what was so impressive at the time was the granular detail in the animation. Quantic Dream was - and still is - at the forefront of pushing motion capture technology, and I think at the time this was just not something I had seen before.
"Look at how she leans onto the chair, and look at the reflection in the eyes!"
I remember I immediately showed it to my dad, as definitive proof that videogames reached an unsurpassed level of believability. He said something like "she looks kinda weird", and he was not wrong at all, especially with that rough lipsync technology 😂.
"God is in the details"
Let's thank German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (whom I honestly know nothing about) for this great quote that I very much abide by in all the things I do. All of the games I showcased today are not examples of "objectively best graphics available at the time", but more like snapshots of immersive beauty achieved thanks to advancements in technology.
I am not a person who cares so much about videogame graphics, but I never fully understood the argument of "better graphics are unnecessary". I mean, sure, we can have a conversation about how expensive it is to make games these days, and I would also agree that, when it comes to gameplay, visual fidelty can end up getting in the way of braver and more interesting artistic decisions.
At the same time to me there is no doubt that advancements in technology have always added new tools in the arsenal of game developers to make the player feel new things in new ways. It can be the increased framerate, it can be new rendering techniques, advancements in performance capture and physics simulation, or even improvements in audio. These are all things that can make virtual worlds feel a little bit closer to us.
We often praise games for the way they blend gameplay and storytelling, but it's important to recognize the crucial role that technology has here. Red Dead Redemption 2 can be disliked for its obsession for animation-driven gameplay, but every small part of the tech driving it contributes to making you feel in that world and believe those characters.
Good storytelling is paramount, but capturing those micro expressions, seeing those eyes getting red, and feeling the fear in the actor's performance all work together to create truly exceptional moments.
Similarly, that rear bumper collapsing during an adrenalinic race or the mezmerising patterns generated by a character running through water are simple examples of beauty living in the details, powered by tech and permanently engraved in my gaming memories.