Using graphical flaws for good

First, I’m pretty happy Retro Magazine made its Kickstarter goal today. But feel free to nudge it along toward its new stretch goal. I’m not an active part of the magazine — I’m contributing a monthly column and don’t get anything extra out of further funding — but I always like to see worthwhile ventures do well for themselves.


Today, Pete Davison posted a review of a game called Eldritch, which I’d never heard of. Out of curiosity, I checked out the review and was really intrigued by what I saw:


Just a chunky first-person shooter in an ugly shade of green? Yeah, maybe. But Pete’s review talks about how the shifting graphics create an unsettling sensation. Take a closer look and you can see what he means — the textures appear to be all warped and misshapen, out of alignment with the actual shapes that contain them.

But of course, gamers of a certain age will recognize this effect immediately: Eldritch simulates the PlayStation’s most unique graphical quirk. For whatever reason, Sony didn’t bother to build perspective correction into the hardware, so graphical textures never lined up correctly. As you would move through a 3D space, the textures on floors and walls would warp around you, jumping around as the system struggled to figure out how to draw them convincingly.

The PlayStation is the only place I’ve ever seen that particular effect, because it was specific to the hardware. Later consoles all incorporated the ability to handle proper texture perspective, even the DS (which otherwise created graphics reminiscent of the PlayStation). It has since all but been forgotten; the closest I’ve ever seen to anything along those lines was in the DS Dragon Quest remakes, which presented their environments with warped, uneven geometry — not exactly the same thing, but a definite echo of the visuals in Dragon Quest VII and the PlayStation remake of Dragon Quest IV. I was never sure if that was a deliberate attempt to mimic the PS1’s graphics or just a stylistic quirk, but the echo was unmistakable.

But Eldritch definitely riffs on the PlayStation hardware’s flaws, consciously reproducing the effect to create an unsettling atmosphere. It’s a clever idea and a fascinating choice. Good horror often denies the viewer detail and information, but the idea of using regressive technology to create a sense of fear is one I’ve never seen expressed in precisely this manner. But it’s pretty rad. I’ll definitely be checking it out when it hits Mac (whenever that happens to be).

9 thoughts on “Using graphical flaws for good

  1. I thought I was the only person who loves the visual effect of a lack of z-buffer. I’m not alone :O

  2. Does anyone know why the original Playstation had that quirk? I’ve always assumed that it’s due to it lacking a floating point unit, with the trigonometry somehow being approximated by integer math. That could cause wonky rounding errors that might manifest that way, but that’s just conjecture.

    I’ve always found that warping rather charming; it made the game worlds feel more lived in. I particularly recall it accentuating the holy city in Xenogears (Nisan, I think), with its garden paths and bronze roofs.

    • Yeah, lack of an FPU would be my guess. That tech was still a pricey bonus on PCs in 1994 – makes sense they might have skipped it to cut costs on a console.

  3. To be as non-technical as possible, the issue with PS1 textures is caused by the fact that primitives are sent to the GPU without any depth information, which is required for perspective-correct texture mapping. (Since the PS1 doesn’t have a z-buffer, the only use for depth information is perspective correction, so it was omitted presumably to reduce the chip’s complexity and conserve memory bandwidth.)

    Because of this, lines that are parallel in the texture will remain parallel when drawn on-screen, rather than converging to a vanishing point as they would with perspective correction. This is also why the effect is more noticeable the more a polygon is tilted away from the camera.

  4. Ah, brings back memories of Tenchu 2 in particular, with its impressive (albeit severely warped) traditional Japanese architecture.

  5. My thoughts exactly, Jonathan. So not only is the graphical quirk used to serve the game’s purpose as a creepy shooter, but it also serves the material. Great stuff, very interested in trying it.

  6. Grygor, thank you for the technical explanation! I did some more reading on it last night and that’s the clearest explanation by far–using an affine transformation requires less data and avoids a division (which is even more ungainly without an FPU). That also explains the connection with the z-buffer, which greatly confused me as I couldn’t think of a reason why using priority fill would cause that. The lack of a z-buffer allowing further optimizations and approximations completely clears it up.

    Apparently the Nintendo DS also doesn’t have an FPU, which might explain why (some?) developers would choose to use an affine transformation, particularly those (like the DQ porters) who could explain it artistically.

  7. Since the warped perspective is being used as a creative choice and not as a technical limitation, is it simply imitating the look of the PS1 or is it doing other things as well?

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