1. Past Is Present
In February 1997, Next Generation magazine splashed its cover with an image of a red-eyed reptilian humanoid boasting an Olympian’s physique and a pair of Wolverine-esque knuckle-mounted claws. The creature’s confrontational pose dominated the frame, leaving only enough space for an abbreviated view of a beige stone castle and a murky lime sky behind it.
The creature’s contours were all hard, straight edges rather than organic curves. Its face was a lifeless, scowling mask. The textures on its mottled flesh and the castle’s craggy stones looked equally and obviously manufactured. And it felt as though one could individually count every polygon on display.
Yet a one-word headline doubled as the featured game’s title and the editors’ breathless opinion about the image’s quality: “Unreal!” And lest its readers miss the point, Next Generation tagged on the gushing parenthetical “Yes, this is an actual PC game screenshot… Unreal could be the best looking PC game of 1997.”
Even so, none of this should be considered an indictment of Unreal’s graphics team. Their work was innovative, if not revolutionary, in its era. Instead, the Next Generation cover represents a more vexing problem for any digital artist: the dysfunctional relationship between time, technology, and our own visual standards.
A history of low-poly art. Part Two and Part Three.