Back where I grew up I would often stop and stare at the skies at length. I did this because some days various weather factors aligned to provide me visions not unlike these:
Only they made for much more of a vivid spectacle in person. On most days the sky was drably blanketed with a uniform grey so whenever on a sunny midday I cocked my head up to have such a sight greet my eyes I lingered on the serene beauty of the vision. Later when the sunset threw the same sky into a tantrum of colours I would stare no less intently and be no less mesmerized.
So why is it that looking at the sky never seems to excite me in video games? Doing a google image search for the keywords, “storm clouds”, “cumulus clouds” or just "beautiful sunset" seems to deliver ample inspiration for many exciting skybox designs, so why is it that the skies of the video game world ever strike me as being so dull?
While pondering this I came also to wonder about large scenery objects placed at great distances in general. Anyone who has travelled in mountainous regions, or merely just lives close to an impressive mountain range knows how impressive a sight something so large, placed out of reach can look.
Whenever I went on treks amid raw nature, in rocky and untamed enviroments I would stand equally in mesmer when in view of any distant behemoths of nature, these sights would instill a simple trek with an irresistable adventrous air.
Videogames so far have not been adapt at recreating the aestetic quality of distant scenery objects, which I think is somewhat related to the reason why videogame skyboxes also appear so drab.
These days a lot of games featuring open worlds are being released which feature some fair amount of exploration, in form of trekking around amid raw nature. Would impressive vistas and breathtaking sky formation not help the presentation in such games?
I’ve always felt so, but then most such games do not seem to put much importance on such aesthetical qualities. Usually when the games in question feature third person cameras these are even configured to be situated above the player, looking down, thus focusing eyes away from the background and instead upon on the immediate surroundings.
But what if one were to design a exploration game that wished to emphasize the beauty of its world, thus making exploration a more visual experience?
Well, for one the third person camera could be tweaked to bring the sky above and horizon better into view instead of the standard practice of aiming it at the excitingly lackluster ground texture.
Next then remains to have something visually exciting to be present there, upon the horizon, and upon skies above to draw the player's eyes. So why do things such as mountains, far off cliffs, and cloud formations come off looking so dull in games? What do they lack that makes them so inferior to their real world counterparts?
The answer is easily surmised the second you put yourself in view of such a real life demonstration. It is a question of clarity and detail. Things in the distance, such as cliffs, mountains and clouds look so impressive and beautiful to my eyes because in that tiny space that they fill in my field of view is packed such a dizzying concentration of minute detail, which communicates a humbling sense of scale and distance. Also, these objects look like they are actually there, instead of looking like they were painted on a flat surface upon the horizon.
This presence of minute detail is what is missing from videogames because of the economic rendering techniques employed when displaying said items. Let us look at a few shots a quick image search cropped up for games that are considered to be good looking and which feature natural scenery and skies to look at.
They look all right, don't they, here, on your screen in their current postage stamp sized glory. Almost respectable even, but what about when they are stretched onto the 52" surface of my TV? Well, take my word for it, they come off looking rather quite less inspiring in that case. So let us take a look at close-up shots of these examples to demonstrate their level of detail.
Thus when looking at full resolution versions of the above game screenshots, stretched over a large TV surface there are some problematic patterns that emerge. One, things placed in far-off distances are often subject to a sort of blurring and fogging to lend them a sense of being distant, and to help disguise the lack of texture detail that is necessary for efficiently reasons when rendering large far off objects.
Now, under less than ideal weather conditions you might see some amount of fogging when viewing really distant objects, but during ideal weather conditions that is certainly not the case such as I’ve witnessed it myself. Then far off cliffs or mountains stand in view with stunning clarity.
For cloud formations there is a similar prevalence of blurring and lack of clarity when these are painted upon the flat surface of the game's sky box.
For an example take a look at these pictures I dug up demonstrating the clarity with which cloud formations appear in the real world encounters. What is lacking in these pictures is also the sense of depth coming from them being actual objects present there in the sky, instead of being a flat texture painted upon the sky, such as is the case in most games.
See how defined the details and contours of the real picture is as it stands contrast to the uniform azure of the naked sky? Even in postage sized shots these captured real life counterparts put the ones found in games to shame in terms of detail and clarity, let alone design. But I leave it to yourself to make the much more impressive real life comparison, should you have the chance.
It is this clarity and detail that makes me want to stop up and stare for a while whenever I see great cloud formations outside, or why I feel the effort of going on a trek out in the raw nature is well worth the effort for the scenery alone. But for clouds there are other concerns as well, in most games the skybox is not only dull and uninspired looking, but it is also a very static affair, whereas in real world there is nothing quite like seeing the minute waltz of storm clouds on a windy day.
So, how can these things be improved? Well, a pipedream approach would be to only reserve ordinary rendering techniques with all of their texture filtering glory for the immediate terrain surrounding the player while doing something more exotic for the surrounding far off scenery. The best way to achieve the required amount of clarity to truly capture the beauty of the sky, or surrounding cliffs or far-off mountains is to allow for a one to one mapping of unfiltered image pixel to display buffer pixel.
There is one rendering technique that is very suited for such a one to one mapping, and that is ray tracing, which is also why I call this a pipedream, as ray tracing is quite expensive, computationally, making it mostly unfeasible for real-time purposes.
But since we are just dreaming we could envision a scenario where the nearby game world is first rendered by ordinary means. Then using some sort of stenciling technique all the display buffer rendering surface which is not covered by traditional triangular game geometry is detected and onto the culled remains a ray tracing technique is used to display the required surrounding scenery. When rendering the sky one could imagine that the clouds, instead of being a static image, be generated in real time via some sort of algorithm that will attempt to emulate the most beautiful spectacles of nature, complete with the minute detail required, and dynamic change, ready to be ray traced onto the empty display buffer screen area.
As for surrounding scenery, perhaps mountain ranges and their minute detail could be rendered with ray tracing as well in order to preserve the needed clarity. Mountains, cliffs and other untraversable horizon scenery could perhaps be made using more exotic techniques than just modeling them using triangle meshes. One of the majour shortcomings of far-off rocky scenery in games is the lack of detail that is reserved for it for economical reasons.
Let us take a look at a close-up shot from Uncharted 2's mountain view and compare the level of detail with a shot google image search turned up of a mountain surface placed at a similar distance.
Lossy image compression having had its way with the uncharted example still does not obscure the vast difference in level of detail, both in terms of geometry and texture detail in addition to the depth of field fog which makes the game example inferior looking compared to a shot of the real thing.
Going the pipe dream route once again, perhaps some sort of voxel or pure fractal based algorithmic representation technique for such objects could help liven up far off scenery by adding to it the necessary detail level while at the same time allowing for it to be stored in a relatively small amounts of memory.
Of course other less far fetched, more common rendering techniques could be to use to spruce up surrounding scenery. More geometry and texture space could be reserved for both scenery and sky boxes, and during rendering care could be taken to do away with depth of field fogs, and blurring. Skybox designs could be given a higher priority by having artists take inspiration from the more exotic spectacles of nature and work on trying to carry a similar level of detail and clarity into their texture design.
Perhaps attempts could be made to actually model certain cloud formations as real textured objects placed in the sky instead of having them be an flat image, which would help convey the sense that these are actually there. The same could be said for mountain and cliff scenery which traditionally are painted upon the horizon rather than being modeled, and here obting for quality over quantity could help make one object stand impressive rather than have several that do not have the combined level of eye catch.
It is perhaps not realistic to expect such a level of care be put into displaying anything that is not in the immediate surrounding for the player, but as more and more games featuring open environments are being made perhaps it is high time to give the surrounding a new coat of paint as well. But then we still have a long way to go as I have yet to see a videogame reproduction of something as simple and mundane as a grassy field giving the real thing any sort of justice in terms of visual appeal.