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Open-Matte Video Games?

October 2007


As you might or might have noticed, there have been two changes to the web site one is subtle, the other not so much.

Those of you who use Firefox might have noticed the RSS subscription logo in the URL bar. I have indeed implemented an RSS feed. For those who don't know what an RSS feed does, it allows me to provide you with updated links to new material on my site. Once you subscribe to the RSS feed, you'll see the update in your RSS reader as I add new commentaries, examples, or other bits of information. And because your RSS reader will update the list automatically, you can see when I have posted new material without having to come directly to widescreen.org first.

Although I use Firefox exclusively, you can use any RSS reading software to keep up-to-date with the material on the site. If you need to link directly to the URL, it's http://widescreen.org/rss.xml.

For those like me who use iTunes for managing their podcasts, the podcast is now available through iTunes as well. You should be able to locate the podcast under the TV and Film section or by searching for widescreen under Podcasts. If you can't locate the podcast, you can manually add it to iTunes with the following URL: http://widescreen.org/rss_itunes.xml.

Get Ready For Version 5.0

If you've listened to podcast #2 you know this already, but for those who haven't, I have big news: widescreen.org will be getting a much needed face lift. This current version (its fourth iteration) is now four or five years old and contains a lot of archaic information to it. (VHS versus DVD, for example.) Not only that, the interface is just ... old. As a Trekkie, I love the LCARS-style interface and I've received a lot of e-mail from people who like the design, but the site needs a desperate clean-up and revamp.

Another important reason for the revamp is so that the site can support any monitor resolution and width. The irony that a site that supports widescreen is not written to support widescreen monitors is not lost on me.

I already have a majority of the new site finished, including an updated widescreen animation, but I'm comfortable converting the site to the new version at least not until I get more of it completed.

Widescreen Is Not Widescreen In Video Games?

Unfortunately, it appears that improper aspect ratios are not only restricted to Kung Fu or the upcoming release of A Christmas Carol as I mentioned in my last commentary. Improper aspect ratios are now showing up in video games.

The most notable video game to be affected by this is the much-hyped Bioshock from Irrational Games. As reported by WidescreenGaming.com (http://www.widescreengamingforum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=11658), the field of view (FOV) for both the 16:9 and 4:3 are both the same, meaning that the 16:9 version is nothing more than the top and bottom cropped to "fit" a 16:9 display. What's really ironic it that Irrational Games even admitted that the vast majority of their development was done on 16:9 displays. Instead of cropping the sides or letterboxing the display for 4:3 gaming, Irrational decided to "open the mattes" and show more on the top and bottom for 4:3 displays. This problem apparently shows itself on both the PC and Xbox 360 versions.

Irrational Games responded very shortly after the story broke.

"We understand there has been some concern about the implementation of widescreen mode in BioShock. Hopefully, we can clarify how we've chosen to do this.

The first thing we want to make clear is the mode we developed the game on and the optimal mode for playing the game is the widescreen mode. 90% of our development stations were widescreen displays: artists, programmers and designers.

  • BioShock was primarily developed and tuned for widescreen mode. Artists and designers worked with widescreen displays and chose a field of view (FOV) that best reflected their intentions with respect to the way the world is perceived, the perceived speed of movement of the player relative to the world and the amount of the world they wanted to be viewed for the best game-play experience. We went through dozens of iterations and finally settled upon a widescreen aspect ratio that best suited the gameplay experience.

  • When playing in widescreen modes the game makes use of the full screen resolution, and does not crop or stretch a lower resolution image into a wide screen one. For example, at 720p the game renders natively to the full 1280x720 resolution.

  • Once this FOV was established, we chose to keep exactly the same horizontal FOV for standard def displays, so as not to in any way alter the gameplay experience. [How in blazes would adding a wider FOV display for 16:9 displays alter the gameplay experience??? -- John]

  • Instead of cropping the FOV for 4:3 displays and making all 4:3 owners mad in doing so, we slightly extended the vertical FOV for standard def mode: we never wanted to have black bars on people's displays. (This way, everybody is happy... [by compromising their artistic merit -- John]) This does mean that people playing on a standard def display see slightly more vertical space, but, this does not significantly affect the game-play experience and, we felt that it best served our goal of keeping the game experience as close as possible to the original design and art vision on both types of displays. Reports of the widescreen FOV being a crop of the 4:3 FOV are completely false.

One thing we can assure you that all these decisions were made with the best interests of the game in mind. We didn't save any money or development time by choosing this set of parameters. We did what we thought was the best thing for the game: developing and optimizing it for widescreen displays, and making the decision not to do the usual crop for 4:3 displays. As a consumer, you certainly have the right to disagree.

We understand that not all users might not [sic] be happy with these choices and we will be looking into options for allowing users to adjust FOV settings manually. But as we mentioned earlier, changes to video game code do not happen in minutes or hours. We appreciate your understanding."

And why NOT use letterboxing for 4:3 displays? Why not take advantage of that by perhaps moving status information into the black areas? This is often done on DVDs by placing subtitles in the lower, black area. At least the important visuals would be in their correct aspect ratio. I have to call "Shenanigans!" on their excuse for not letterboxing the 16:9 visuals. This sounds more like they decided to take the easy way out and were called on it.

As of this writing, there is still no patch for this from Irrational Games to my knowledge; however, lead programmer Chris Kline has said that a patch is forthcoming.

"The game will render in full 16:9 aspect ratio, with no letterboxing unless your resolution is not true 16:9. You will see more in widescreen. We use a different projection matrix; there is no squashing or stretching of the image involved."

Of course, the old defense about "artistic vision" and impact on viewing, or in this case "playing", was brought up by Bioshock's developers. However, my previous arguments with respect to the defense of aspect ratios still applies completely. What happened with Bioshock on 4:3 screens is nothing more than a "full screen" implementation of an open-matte movie. The extra information at the top and bottom was never meant to be seen, but the developers opened the mattes for those with 4:3 screens, thus violating their artistic principles that they defend so vehemently on their web forums. If the Bioshock developers are adamant that 16:9 is the intended aspect ratio, then why is the 4:3 resolution not letterboxed to retain a 16:9 AR?

And speaking of widescreen gaming -- what about those of us with monster, widescreen configurations? I use the Matrox TripleHead2Go which gives my PC a 3.75:1 aspect ratio. (That's actually three 1.33:1 flat panels side-by-side that come together to form a single display.) A lot of games support this because of the flexibility in their graphics engines, but not all of them. I want Bioshock and Battlefield 2142 with a 3.75:1 aspect ratio! Now, that's widescreen!

Regardless, Bioshock can be played in a format that it was not designed to be played in. I refuse to support that for movies. Why should I be expected to support it with my games?

Until next time...