In Praise of Video Gaming’s Old Dalliance with Distance Fog
It’s a problem rarely faced today, but the necessary mistiness of fifth-generation games could sometimes be a blessing.
Above: it's cheating a bit, but you get the point. 'Silent Hill: Homecoming' screenshot courtesy of Konami.
You're running across a vast plain, past trees and rivers, over hills and down valleys, weapon drawn and ready to strike. All around there's a strange mist, a grey-white block of pixels that contorts and spasms like putty as you scan the horizon. Arms, legs, shields… whole skeletons emerge from the void. How many? Impossible to tell, but they keep coming, waves and waves emerging from the darkness. You button-bash, hack and slash, but before long you're surrounded, swinging that axe in vain. Congrats, you're Dead.
Distance fog was the great scourge of early 3D video gaming. Anyone who spent the late 1990s glued to a Nintendo 64 or original Sony PlayStation will remember the strange combination of joy and confusion that accompanied those first lumbering strides into new, 3D immersive worlds.
Free roaming usually meant dodging a lot of random polygons: arrows, bullets, and lasers that would chip away at your health, seemingly from nowhere. Puzzles were bogged down by tedious searches for pathways hidden in dense cloud. Co-op shooters lost all sense of drama when your teammates vanished without warning into the murk.
Even alongside the glistening beauty of today's game worlds, there remains something surprisingly beautiful about those shrouded fifth-generation landscapes.
Thankfully, advances in hardware have seen distance fog all but confined to the past. I remember playing Crysis for the first time back in 2008 and being totally blown away by its expansive landscapes and clean, crisp, distinctly fog-free air. Those vast kilometers of wild jungle set a new standard for open-world environments that holds its own to this day. While rendering problems still provide headaches for developers—even last year's No Man's Sky is afflicted by an annoying fog—games like Grand Theft Auto V and ARMA 3 both exhibit the kind of draw distances that yesteryear's developers could only have dreamed of.
And yet, even alongside the glistening beauty of Rockstar's Los Santos and Bohemia Interactive's luscious Mediterranean, there remains something surprisingly beautiful about those shrouded fifth-generation console landscapes.
Above: the first stage of 'Turok: Dinosaur Hunter' on the Nintendo 64 showcases its generous portions of distance fog (video by YouTube user Killertamagotchi).
A few weeks ago I played 1997's N64 shooter GoldenEye 007 for the first time in years. Initially, I was filled with admiration for my younger self. "How did we ever put up with this?" I wondered as a guard nailed me through the dense clouds of the "Statue" stage for the third time in a row. Yet as the muscle memory started to kick-in, I found myself enjoying the strange loneliness of that grey pixel-wall. That barren park was right out of an Ian Fleming novel, charged with all the danger and intrigue of a post-Soviet thriller.
In Banjo-Kazooie, also for the N64, the fog changed color to reflect the theme of each level. There were blue sea mists on "Treasure Trove Cove", white snowstorms on "Freezeezy Peak", and cauldron-like fumes at the summit of Gruntilda's tower. The dystopian smoggy backgrounds of Lylat Wars—aka Star Fox 64—worked like a kind of chiaroscuro, accentuating the brightness of the game's melodramatic explosions. Then there was the spiraling sand-walls of the "Haunted Wasteland" in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time—a gloriously simple effect that really reinforced the isolation of the mysterious Spirit Temple.
The impenetrable mist of Silent Hill was at the center of its horror, an ever-present adversary that seemed to close in and choke the player.
In Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, enemies would jump out as if from nowhere, reducing even the most hardened players into a panicked frenzy. The 2015 "remastered" version, with virtually identical graphics but increased draw distance, totally missed this point. The game is a lot less frightening, and far easier, when you can see those pesky dinosaurs coming a mile off. And who could forget Silent Hill on the PlayStation? Its impenetrable mist was at the center of its horror, an ever-present adversary that seemed to close in and choke the player.
Of course fog can be a pain, too. It's hard to get nostalgic over the bland myopia of Superman 64. (Want to watch real humans suffer? Here's Waypoint trying to play said disaster of a game.) But what these rather more classic examples show is how exciting a little mist could be when wielded in a creative way.
At its best, distance fog worked almost like a poetic form, providing structure, containing the action and emphasizing narrative. This philosophy is something this generation of developers would do well to remember as they work to harness the possibilities of HDR and 4K. Tech problems aren't just obstacles to be overcome, but vital motivation for progression in the gaming medium, a constant invitation to innovate. Lose such obstacles, and you risk losing the impetus to evolve.