It should be pretty uncontroversial to say that software and hardware have something to do with one-another. This idea is very strange, however, given just how opposite the individual natures of software and hardware are. Computer hardware is the physical, tangible component of computer science: if you took an electron microscope and applied it to a computer, you would be able to see the doped silicon lattices in its semiconductors. Computer software, however, in its ideal form, is conceptual. Software is something that is not necessarily physical. Software possesses the ideas and ‘thoughts’ contained in its programming, and this is something that can’t be manifested physically. If we tried to look at software in its physical form–say, on a hard-drive or on an EEPROM–all we would be able to see or sense is the patterns in which a program’s atoms and electromagnetic charges have been arranged.
The Hogfather: Your Ideal Swine
The character Death in a Terry Pratchett work, Hogfather, puts the dilemma rather well. Obviously here Death is talking about morals, but the argument is analogous to concepts or ideas:
…then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.
Admittedly, it’s pretty well understood that software is written for hardware–computer instructions are specifically written for physical machines to interpret and process. And, it is in fact true that the line between software and hardware to be somewhat blurry; take, for instance, firmware. Firmware exhibits the features of both software and hardware by being (a) machine-interpretable instructions, but (b) static and physically manifested. But, if software was hardware, how have we managed to construct complex and flashy edifices like Modern Warfare 3 on top of incomprehensible patterns of transistors? How can we copy and mimic the world so convincingly if we were not, at any point, permitted to employ the use of ideas, thoughts, morals &c? In philosophical terms, we have a real dilemma here: are pieces of software just physical parts of the universe, like hardware, or are they something more? Something… metaphysical?
The direction in which I’m now heading obviously seems perilously similar to the mind-body dualism dilemma that has been so numerously and irritatingly rehashed in philosophical writing, so it should appear welcome to the reader when I say this is not what I’m doing to discuss, but that I would like to take a look at what the alleged divide between software and hardware means to video games as an art-form.
The supposed software/hardware dualism mentioned above has everything and anything to do with video games. Video games feature both hardware and software in their constitution, making them an incredibly complex beast to understand when it comes to dealing with them aesthetically. Why? Take video game graphics/visuals as an example. Kotaku recently ran two articles about the graphical prowess of the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles (Graphics Don’t Make Good Characters and Remember They Have More to Offer Than Just Graphics). Both of these articles make arguments to assert that something other than video game console processing power (if not complex and fantastic visuals, which is probably more on the mark) is also needed in order to make a good video game. This other element, character development, story-telling, plot structure/substance, is not as dependent as game visuals on hardware architecture–it is something that is idealistic; semantically speaking, this doesn’t mean the pejorative term of not being pragmatic, but something that is not physically tangible. A character or a story is an idea, a kind of ghost that inhabits the physical shell of an actor or a 3D hardware-rendered model.
Thus far one could say that we seem to have identified another famous dialectic here–albeit one that is potentially illusory, as physicalists (proponents of the ‘software-is-hardware’ philosophy, as I’ll call it) are wont to interject: hardware determined visuals versus almost entirely software-inhabiting story and character development. This kind of opposition seems to have existed since time immemorial–one can easily think of the way paperback novels transformed the way books were read. The same thing must go for video games in the league of Battlefield 3. The kind of artistic malaise in games that critics like Yahtzee on The Escapist identify is evidently not something new, and will probably never cease.
Indeed this fantastic article on the Gameological Society‘s website performs an assessment of the likely future of the mainstream video game industry within a similar framework to that being pursued here. Speaking in light of the mysterious launch of Sony’s PlayStation 4, the critical component of the article comes right at the end:
Creativity thrives under limitations. People who love games understand this implicitly, since the best players find the most creative ways to succeed within the confines of the rules. The Great Train Robbery is a masterpiece not in spite of its limitations but because of them. So if David Cage doesn’t think he can produce an emotional work of art with a PlayStation 3 and an eight-figure budget, maybe he shouldn’t be in the art-making business.
Expanding the technological capabilities of our game machines is not inherently bad, but treating new tech as a magic bullet is a self-destructive delusion (if a familiar one). The reason that so many games suck is not because the technology is too modest. The reason that so many games suck is because so many games suck. Making art is hard. No microchip changes that.
The really important thing about this quote (and the whole article, really) is not that it reinforces the idea developed above that artistic ideas are independent of their physical medium. The important thing mentioned in the quote is that it brings up the idea that artistic ideas can be constrained by their physical medium. It asserts that the medium through which art forms its expression sets ‘rules’ that artists need to find creative ways in which to work. Here we have a slightly more nuanced interpretation of the software-idealism position, which mixes in a little bit of physicalism: hardware determines the boundaries of software’s concepts/ideas/thoughts/substance. One could almost call this ‘soft software determinism’ because a more radical version can immediately be imagined: hardware outright determines the substance of software. Against software determinism you obviously have software indeterminism (or free-will &c) which asserts that hardware and software aren’t causally related.
Enter Jet Set Radio
It’s important to note that the software determinism position is related to the software physicalism question because the software-as-hardware (physicalist) position directly bears on how software and hardware are causally related. If software is just hardware, its realistic-seeming appearance is just a clever arrangement of atoms and magnetic charges. This will become important later on.
In any case, consider Jet Set Radio on the Sega Dreamcast. Its artistic direction was so influential that it inspired a virtual (in the potential and not epistemological sense) artistic movement in video games. JSR legitimised the use of cel-shaded graphics at a time when realism was a dominant driving force in the artistic value system of the video game industry. Realism obviously still remains an important way of going about and making games today, but if it wasn’t for games like JSR (or Windwaker–I wonder if Nintendo saw JSR and decided to copy its visual style?), we’d be left with an overwhelming corpus of mainstream games trying to copy the visual appearance and mechanics of the real world.
Humouring our determinism discussion, we can arguably put JSR‘s cel-shaded graphics down to the limitations of the Dreamcast. See this useful comparison of the raw processing power of the Dreamcast to the Nintendo GameCube and the original Microsoft Xbox. I find it so illuminating that I regularly go back and re-read it to make sure I haven’t missed anything that it might have said. The particularly interesting point it raises about the very modest increase in RAM and, to a lesser extent, CPU processing power relative to the other hardware features of the Dreamcast in comparison to the GC and Xbox is thought-provoking. The Dreamcast‘s unique Z-buffering technology is also interesting.
Cel-shading is most importantly related to the lighting in a 3D-rendered game. It replaces what would otherwise be gradients of light in shadows on models with a larger incidence of solid colours. One can easily connect this to the way in which a game engine would deal with textures (something the Dreamcast was, on paper, noticeably weaker at handling than the other two consoles), and what you have is, like John Teti said in his Gameological Society article, a creative way to succeed within the limitations of Sega’s (admittedly cool) console. Or, more intriguingly, you have the hardware design of the Dreamcast subtly dictating to Smilebit how they should make their game.
What about Gauroud shading on the N64? It was a solution to the incredible challenge posed by the cripplingly small texture cache on the platform. The N64 had its fair share of games with realistic graphics, but the fact that it struggled with complex textures meant that programmer’s favoured method of dealing with this–shading–lead to better performance with cartoon-ish visuals that dealt with simple colours.
More broadly, consider the transition from 2D to 3D graphics. Games like Tomb Raider were unthinkable in the late 80s–the hardware processing power simply didn’t exist to render such complex environments. Games are more or less forced to resort to 2D graphics when being based on more limited hardware. The kinds of experiences 2D graphics can deliver can be brilliant substantively/qualitatively, but they must be far more limited formally than those based in three dimensions: Zelda-esque RPGs, platformers, 2D RTS games. Indeed, search and you will find that 2D platformers by far outnumbered games published in any other genre (much like first-person shooters today).
Zizek and The Matrix
Slavoj Zizek’s Parallax View gives us a good schema to not only deal with the ideal-software/physical-software dialectic, but also that of the determined-software/undetermined-software simultaneously.
In an extended passage in which Zizek discusses the operation of ideology in today political environment, he performs an analysis of The Matrix series. Following his Lacanianism, he works out that the function of the matrix is based on a kind of perversion. The perversion on which the matrix is founded is two-fold:
- Perceivable human reality is reduced to a virtual domain whose rules can be suspended. It’s theoretically possible for someone to do or have anything in the matrix.
- The concealed truth of this apparent freedom is that humanity is actually the perfect kind of slave. Ultimately passive and instrumentalised, humans are farmed for their ability to generate electrical energy.
This dialectic corresponds to, and informs that of the ideal/physical and determined/undetermined ones. Humans are not only divided into ideal and physical components in the matrix, but they are also controlled and possessed by it, in exactly the same way that a piece of game software is with its corresponding hardware platform.
The perfect conception of software as an idealistic form is that which is totally independent and undetermined by its hardware base, free of any kind of limitation or constraint. The best kind of illusion imaginable, any kind of creative desire could be pursued with this form of software: characters of infinite depth, plots infinitely complex and intriguing. The complete opposite of this would be software as a ‘slave’ to a dominant and ‘parasitic’ hardware base. Instead of being a perfect dream, software would really just be a host from which for hardware to ‘feed’. This image isn’t meant to be literal, it means that hardware is just exploiting software in an attempt to ensure its survival. A good example of this would be the way iPhones are propagated by Farmville, and other kinds of ‘casual’ games (the marriage is perfect, isn’t it? A device that is always with you, always requiring your attention). Some more examples are the way operating system update schedules work, always requiring you to keep your device ‘up-to-date’, and the way console launch titles work–to make their console seem appealing.
The way The Matrix solves this dilemma (ultimate freedom/ultimate slave) is by giving Neo the ability to practice the powers he has in the matrix outside the matrix. Zizek quite rightly regards this method of synthesising The Matrix‘s virtual and real worlds as insufficient–much like revealing at the end of a detective novel that the murderer has incomprehensible magical powers. It merely conflates the original premises of the dilemma by trying to confer upon human-kind, in its slave-form, the virtual freedom it is able to possess in the matrix.
Zizek’s preferred solution to The Matrix dialectic puts us on the right track to conceiving a coherent relationship between games and their platforms: why didn’t humans try to sabotage the matrix by refusing to secrete any more energy into it? The important thing about this possible solution is that it is negative: it destroys both humanity’s slavery by the evil machines, and its ultimate freedom in the matrix. What is left is just good old, really-existing humanity–which is in fact a very complex way of arriving at the same conclusion as John Teti: software is partly constrained and determined by the limitations of its hardware, and is in reality physical.
But by performing all of this work, while we rather uninterestingly return to the position that software does have an existence that partly transcends its physical determination (the form that this transcendence takes isn’t of immediate interest), we learn that software needs that obstacle. The idea isn’t the mundane truism that software needs hardware in order to run, but that hardware presents a game designer/developer/programmer with a mould that needs to be broken out of. A good example to demonstrate this point is the amount of first-person open-world games that proliferate our present gaming culture. We’ve reached a point in our gaming hardware development that allows us to render huge worlds, but they’re not necessarily fun or interesting–it’s basically ‘filler’. As Teti points out, Jonathan Blow’s upcoming game The Witness has attempted to make its game world as compact and as carefully constructed as possible. Like Teti, I regard this as good design, and good art. Blow’s piece is evidence of getting over the obstacle of taking orders from one’s hardware base.
Think about some games you know that did their best to transcend their hardware limitations. A few that I can think of are Exhumed for the Saturn, Super Mario 64 (compare with the horribly linear Crash Bandicoot series which stole SM64‘s hub-world concept–NB that SM64 was a launch title!), id software’s Doom and Quake, and the first two Pokemon generations.