Limitations and How They Strengthen Games and Art

Borderlands 3 is a 125 GB download. I know that because it was the free Epic Games Store title this week and I finally grabbed it (fun fact: Randy Pitchford from Gearbox has my personal Twitter blocked because I made a joke about his USB drive one time without tagging him, the name-searcher!). It’s a pretty large and expansive game, all told, and so 125 GB of download requirement doesn’t necessarily feel that big.

Yet, at the same time, it is a curious indicator of how games and much of media has grown over the last several decades.

My friend and FFXIV FC leader is a big Gran Turismo 7 fan, and he was telling us this weekend of how he was learning proper vector graphics editing for car decals in the game. The max filesize it allows? 15 KB. Having round fonts in a vector file was pushing him north of that regularly, so solving it was this puzzle – frustrating in this particular context, yet a reward dangling at the end. Solving it meant his car would have a weird decal that would encourage people to look.

Borderlands 3 is a game that is estimated to take nearly 70 hours to beat completely – all the extras and side content knocked out. That means the game nears 2 GB per hour of gameplay. Crazy to think that the original PS1 version of Final Fantasy VII, on 3 CDs, is around 2 GB total for the same amount of gameplay!

Now obviously, filesize is a uniquely bad argument to make here because it says little of the quality of the content – but I find it interesting all the same. In a lot of ways, some of the best and most interesting games I have ever played are defined by the limits they had to adhere to, and so for a fun Sunday post, why not discuss it?

Diablo and the whole isometric ARPG genre as a whole was born out of a simple-enough limitation – randomized maps were just easier to piece together that way, and this becomes apparent when comparing attempts at doing the same in full 3D, like Hellgate: London or Torghast in WoW. WoW itself has a painterly art-style and large, exaggerated details both as a stylistic choice but also because it meant that the game could run on a large variety of hardware at launch, a game that started life in 2004 running on 256 MB graphics cards and now today can routinely use 8x that amount of video memory with upgraded visual fidelity that maintains much of the original charm and character of the art style in spite of those upgrades. Much of the JRPG genre on the original Playstation was defined by limitations – the use of fully pre-rendered backgrounds to increase character detail, the use of pre-rendered cutscenes to tell big story moments, and the need to span multiple discs causing games to use gameplay barriers to keep you from going to a place too early (and thus, when the data was not present on the disc you were currently on by story progression) – all of these products of wanting to do more with less.

The games I remember most fondly in my mind are ones where the limitations of the platform, era, storage media, or development scope caused developers to find creative solutions around the limits they faced while still reaching their creative goal. Pre-rendered backgrounds were pretty bad in a sense – they hold up poorly, they made for terrible PC ports, and they are a big part of why doing any remaster of a game with them means a full reboot – if you don’t have the original data to rebuild on, you’re kind of stuck in some ways because the resulting images stored on the discs are locked to the intended resolution and aspect ratio, so techniques like AI upscaling can only do so much. At the same time, I appreciate pre-rendered backgrounds as a solution of the era – it blew my mind back then that a game could look so detailed, so cool, even when it meant huge disconnects between the character detail levels and the background. Stuff like the Nintendo 64 port of Resident Evil 2 is so interesting to me because you have a game that was multi-disc on PS1 and yet somehow was smashed down from over a gigabyte of game data on that platform to fit on a single 64 MB cartridge without losing content, including the FMV cinematics!

As time moves on, it is interesting to see what happens to efforts to move forward and preserve gaming history. A lot of pixel-art games are notoriously hard to properly remaster because the original sprites and backgrounds were made with the limitations and presentation of a CRT TV in mind, so while you can reproduce the data-accurate pixel map, it often lacks the detail that was seen when played as intended, because the scanlines and display methodology worked with the raw pixel art to produce a different final display. The biggest marketing point in the most recent Final Fantasy pixel remaster series of I-VI isn’t upgraded graphics in the traditional sense, but that effort was made to make modern pixel art that is closer to what was intended originally, by accounting for some of the effects a CRT would have had on the art. One of the primary selling points of Good Old Games when it launched as a marketplace was this idea that they would take these PC classic titles and keep them intact, making versions that would work on newer versions of Windows (or Windows at all in the case of old DOS titles) but wouldn’t change the core workings of the games past that.

But why does all of this matter?

Well, I think that older games had an aspect of imagination to them that was the result of the limitations placed on them. Sonic platformers on the Genesis, my bread and butter as a child, have an artstyle and distinct visualization about them, but if you look at fanart of those same titles (not the other Sonic fanart) then it becomes apparent that we all see the title just slightly differently. Where most modern games strive for hyperrealism and fall just short in ways that we all are drawn to differently, older games had to pick a style and the ways in which our brains filled that in or imagined it in grander scale were more open to each individual’s interpretation. I remember stuff like Sonic, Mario, or those PS1 RPGs I loved so much, and a big part of the memory is the ways in which my brain auto-completed the artwork. It’s also true of the music – a big part of the early days of sites like OCRemix was built on the back of fan interpretation of music, taking MIDI notes and low-details synths and turning them into sweeping, high-fidelity tracks. Nobuo Uematsu is a beloved composer for his work on the Final Fantasy series, and yet most of his catalog is defined by the limits of cartridges and limited audio processing. In spite of that, he wrote a whole opera scene for Final Fantasy VI and created iconic melodies that still define the series to this day, even though he hasn’t been the main composer since Final Fantasy XII nearly two decades ago.

While I don’t think the intent of working around these limitations was to create a malleable canvas for fans to paint on, it is something that I think increases attachment to those classic games. Obviously, the primary function was to work around the limitations of hardware, storage media, and time crunches, but that process also opens up the imagination of the audience to fill in the gaps in detail however they like. Modern games don’t often have that space as much – they’re either fully-realized cinematic setpieces or artistically-stylized pieces of work that have a specific aesthetic shown in full detail. That isn’t always bad – the rise of very stylistic games is cool and I like the way stuff like Genshin Impact, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and other titles look, and I think horror titles or war stuff like Call of Duty have a chance to be more impactful through a detailed portrayal of the subject matter in all the gruesome specificity that merits – but I do think that relatively few games today capture the charm that was possible when developers were stuck within very narrow and specific platform and storage limitations.

I finally regained access to my original Guild Wars 1 account the other day, and on first login, my impression was that the game was quite ugly, moreso than I remembered it being, and yet at the same time, I can see how my memory made it feel more than it was – a mix of being pretty sharp and nice-looking for a 2005 title and the ways in which my brain then was wired to see flat alpha-textures railings and fill that in as a realized visual element in my head. I’ve used single textures in some of my 3D modelling work that are larger in filesize than the entire VRAM usage of a title like Guild Wars 1, and yet GW1 puts that amount of budget to much greater use.

Either way, it’s an interesting thing to me – to see the impact of technology’s constant forward march on how games are conceived, created, and perceived, and how the stuff I like, even (high-detail models and textures, fully-realized virtual worlds) often comes at a cost of the imaginative prospects that could be had when games were much, much less detailed.

5 thoughts on “Limitations and How They Strengthen Games and Art

  1. Look up some of the discussions on how they made Doom and Doom 2, along this same line. Some of the things they did to give the illusion of real 3D are crazy. These guys these days truly stand on the shoulders of giants. There were no tools like Unreal to dip into back then. These were some hairy-chested code monkeys. I have nothing but respect for Carmack, Romero, and the whole crew for what they managed to do with so little.

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  2. fun fact: Randy Pitchford from Gearbox has my personal Twitter blocked because I made a joke about his USB drive one time without tagging him, the name-searcher!

    What a petty bastard! I sure hope he has fun blocking me off this comment because my Twitter account is actually never used!!

    But aside from that, I found it interesting that the Sid Meier Civilization games used to strive for greater realism, especially with the leader interactions, but the transition from Civ V to Civ VI meant that the series took a step back into more of a cartoonish look. And I also remember the Wildstar design team –please don’t make me look the reference up, because I simply can’t remember where– decided to go with the cartoonish style look based on the fact that WoW’s design as somewhat cartoonish (if based on the old Warcraft RTS games) because that style would hold up better over the long run. And I do have to agree that despite the age to them, I do like Classic’s look and feel to the toons. Despite the “roid rage” look the male Humans, Orcs, and Draenei have. In a very real sense, it feels like WoW lost something when they modernized the toon designs for more modern monitors.

    (Note that I’m not saying that it was a bad thing to make toons more diverse in look –I’d complained about that before– but that the “sharper” image design just looks somewhat “less” than the older look.

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  3. I can’t listen to The Beatles in headphones – man, they put bass guitar in one ear and guitar in the other! Cause no sound engineer apparently could mix both in both… But it’s the most inventive band in 20th century for sure, the things they experimented with – instruments, genres, and all. Same approach with video games.

    Also, 90s are my golden age – the unsurpassed freedom in every media, less restricted by conservative folks of pre-90s, but not yet restrained by glamour 2000s/aggressive tolerant 2010s.

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    1. Sorry to tell you this, but they did that kind of stuff on purpose. Thought it was neat.

      If you haven’t seen that series about the making of their final album, it’s well worth the watch – I mean, if you care about the Beatles at all, which I admit is a decreasing number of people since … we’re dying!

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      1. Interesting 🙂 I was born in early 80s, The Beatles is my dad’s favorite band, but of course I had my share of inherited beatlemania for a while. I may watch the documentary, although I think it was one of the earlier albums I was talking about, Revolver or smth, need another check.

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