Reality is Bokeh: The 2011 Game Developers Conference

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Work on games for too long a stretch and they take over your mind and spirit. Sensation deadens and the hours bleed into each other as you grapple with the problems inside your virtual worlds. It’s partially a result of those long nights in front of the screen, deep into that many-day limbo world of crunch and looming deadlines—but it’s also the enveloping embrace of the medium, the way you can come to inhabit, or be swallowed by, your own creations.

So downtown San Francisco can come as something of a shock, especially after emerging from a protracted period of existence inside rulesets of your own devising. Here people seem to shout at the top of their lungs for no reason, cable cars ding in piercing improvised rhythms, and cars honk at the slightest provocation. Buskers of all skill levels ply their trade, some of whom you remember from last year or long before. Steam erupts from manhole covers in the street, blasting the well-to-do patrons of the famous shopping district nearby; everyone pretends they aren’t being coated with small particles of—of, well, whatever it is that carries such an unhappy fragrance.

Sight, sound, smell; all of it invades and unsettles me even though I’ve brought a thick coat (literally) and a very specific sense of purpose to the Game Developers Conference this year. I’m here to pitch a game.

I have the first such meeting of my career on Monday. The game I am pitching is a hope and a dream, an odd little conflation of music and interactivity that I and five or six others have been crafting in our free time between full-time jobs. I don’t really know what I’m doing; I talk about a certain thing and then I hedge my bets and talk about another thing, just in case. The publisher’s representative nods and smiles as I trip over feature descriptions and a summary of what’s not done yet and why everything will be that much cooler when this or that element gets into the build. I throw out four or five big ideas, hoping at least one of them will stick, and that the man I’ve met fifteen minutes ago will somehow be able to see what we see when we look at our own progeny.

Maybe he does or maybe he doesn’t. He says he’ll take what he saw today and show it to his own bosses back at the company headquarters. Perhaps he loves it but his boss will hate it, or the other way around. It’s impossible to know. We talk about the pros and cons of various platforms: consoles, Steam, the “i-devices,” the portable gaming machines. His feedback is well-reasoned and speaks to his experience and makes me feel out of my depth.

Later I ask a friend: what is the market like, anyway? (If I had been smarter I might have asked these questions before doing the pitch.) Things are a bit confused right now, he says. From the consumer perspective the line between dedicated consoles and devices like smartphones is blurring, but the business models are not. Nintendo has tried differentiating their product with unusual features like a 3D screen, but will that work? Nobody is sure how things will play out.


My friend happens to have a 3DS with him. I squint a little at the main screen of this device and it resolves itself into an image with several inches of very real-seeming depth. The image is bright and crisp, and on first blush the gadget seems to make good on its promise. Additionally, the 3DS doesn’t just feature its namesake display; it also sports three cameras, one on the front and two in the back. My friend demonstrates one of the built-in programs: a three-dimensional photo application. He takes a quick shot of the water glasses sitting on the table in front of us and shows me the result. It’s a cool trick.

Finally, he loads up a little game called Face Raiders. This odd pack-in title takes a photo of your face, then uses that image to create three-dimensional floating heads that swirl and attack you from several directions. You have to move the device around you in an arc to properly shoot at these likeness-bearing enemies, and since the cameras on the back of the device are turned on, the game gives you the sensation that the disembodied heads are swooping at you in an approximation of “real” space. It’s a rudimentary kind of augmented reality and I quickly make a fool of myself in the restaurant where we’re meeting by frantically trying to shoot the incoming enemies. As I start to lose, cracks appear in the picture from the cameras: chunks of the background fall into oblivion, opening up holes in the fabric of the universe. Reality is broken.

As I stagger away from my experience with the 3DS I can’t help but feel there’s a certain gimmicky quality to it, like those old lenticular images that would alternate between a face and a skull, or a dinosaur in two different poses. But if not for 3D, what other big new features are on the horizon? The future of high-end real time graphics feels a little unclear, starved for the gigantic leaps in visual fidelity that have dominated the industry over the last three decades.

Epic Games is at the show, demonstrating its take on the future of videogame graphics with a short movie created inside the latest version of its Unreal engine. The subject matter concerns a tough cyborg man in a dark wet alleyway; he wears a black trenchcoat and holds a cigarette that he flicks meaningfully at least a couple of times. “Psh, dark environments are a cop-out,” someone near me hisses. “Let’s see them show this environment in daylight.” The criticism isn’t unwarranted (darkness enables the elision of detail) but as a demo it is still quite nice, at least in a certain overblown, reheated cyberpunk way.

The core of the presentation isn’t about the movie itself but the advanced features at work in the engine. There is subsurface scattering, a way of calculating the reflection of light so that it doesn’t simply bounce off of a surface but interpenetrates it, illuminating several layers deep inside. It makes the hard-boiled, stubble-faced mandude character look more real and less plastic, at least up until the liquid metal(?) erupts from inside his body and he engages in machine-gun battles with lurching robot cannon-fodder. Epic’s representative covers some more features active in the scene: image-based reflection, multi-sample anti-aliasing, and so on.

Lastly, there is a depth of field technique with a controllable aspect called “bokeh,” which describes a certain quality of blur that we often notice in the more luminous parts of a film’s background and that varies considerably with lens and camera type. Bokeh is a photography term derived from the Japanese boké- blur, haze (the word also indicates haziness of mind, senility, and the funny man to the tsukkomi, or straight man, in a traditional comedy duo). When implemented in games the technique encapsulates a certain kind of second-order removal from reality. We are simulating not the way things look, but how they look after they have been filtered through the eye of a camera.

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