When the word “fidelity” is laid bare, it has a strange connotation. When you speak of fidelity, it almost always refers to the singular concept of a love, whether a marriage or fresh relationship, and the marred face of it when a physical connection breaks the emotional one. It’s no wonder we hold it in lofty realms of implied meaning and consequences.
The word really refers to nothing more than the faithfulness to a thing, or a loyalty to an ideal. Speaking of high fidelity and the contrasted low fidelity—or hi-fi and lo-fi, respectively—is actually speaking about the faithfulness of a reproduction of sound through a stereo system. (It could also be talking about the Nick Hornby novel/John Cusack film of the same name, but we won’t go there for now.) Is it a fuzzy approximation of the once live performance of a song or is it as close to being there without building a time traveling DeLorean?
What generally concerns us as gamers in this area, though, is the idea of fidelity in graphics. For so long, we chased the rabbit’s tail of photorealism, the belief that when games are impossible to discern from our everyday lives that we’ll have reached the endgame of the art form. We fantasized about the seeing the drool drip out of Donkey Kong’s mouth as he hauled a frightened Pauline from the individual hairs of Mario’s mustachioed upper lip. We wanted to see the mug glisten and shimmer as it slid in Tapper.
Surely you’ve all seen this GIF by now. You’ve at least seen the Ridin’ video, right? (Side note: consider that at over 5.6 million views with ads turned on, YouTuber CZbwoi has earned enough scratch to buy a new car.) If you haven’t, here’s the quick summary in case Know Your Meme isn’t sufficient: Luigi, when he overtakes you with an offensive move in Mario Kart 8, gives you a glaring death stare, highlighted by the fact that the game has a cinematic replay mode.
It is perhaps one of the best, most nonsensical, and organic things to emerge from the already absurd world of video games. Kotaku, the best cataloguer of industry pop culture, even has a roundup of the fad’s superlative output. However, once the glitz and glam of making a silly game sillier wears off, it does bring to light a startling realization.
The chase—the hunt of high fidelity—has led us here. When Luigi first started hurling shells out of the side of a go-kart in hops of clambering to the top of a podium, we didn’t get much beyond an aural blip of recognition and the self-satisfaction of a job well done. Even if Super Mario Kart had the theatrical presentation of a replay mode, the system itself hardly had the capabilities to show the emerald brother’s sinister pleasure of sadism.
It all largely occurred in our minds, or if someone was playing with and against us, face to face. For the moment, Luigi’s giant eyes and bulbous nose were our decidedly more human eyes and nose. We cackled as we snatched a win away from our once closest friend. But this increase of graphical fidelity in Mario Kart 8 has moved us beyond the empathetic projection to a reproduction of it.
A reproduction of our emotions, thrown onto the digital face of a character we’ve actually only recently gotten used to seeing in so many polygons amidst karts and shells. Every character, as it turns out, has his or her own reaction to making the same racing takeover. It just happens to be that Luigi’s is the funniest of them all, fiery yet dead in an otherwise lighthearted game.
This contrast of imagining and mimicking this reaction—or rather its intent, since you hopefully are not as grave—to seeing it performed for you on the screen brings to the forefront an intriguing question of when is enough actually enough. Especially as Nintendo’s reputation for having art design overcome its hardware’s processing shortcomings, where does fidelity go when its necessity runs dry?
I truly and honestly have no idea. Granted, some games benefit from an increase in fidelity to reality and are even designed around it mechanically and graphically, but it does invite the consideration that for any game, there exists a point on the spectrum between Pong and a hologram impossible to distinguish from reality where gains in the fidelity are worthless. Once all the returns are diminished, there is nothing left.
As these new consoles mature and developers figure out to optimize and cheat its discrete systems, the answer will hopefully become clearer. We will collectively inch along said spectrum, marching diligently towards the end, and we will discover together if that point exists, or if the endgame is merely the start to another.