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The Defining Breakthrough In Next-Gen Graphics: Floating Garbage

Until developers have some time to build out engines for the new consoles, PS4 and Xbox One buyers will be left with one thing: garbage. Big, swirling, flying clouds of garbage.

Posted on November 13, 2013, at 11:20 a.m. ET

What is the defining visual motif of the next generation of video games, which arrives Friday in the form of the PlayStation 4? It's garbage. Literal garbage, flying all over the screen.

When the PS3 and Xbox 360 inaugurated the last generation, it was the first time a lot of people had gamed in HD. Glossy, shiny textures abounded. That saran-wrap filter became ubiquitous in gaming circa 2008.

Glossy textures were the "floating garbage" of early last-gen games.

Glossy textures were the "floating garbage" of early last-gen games.

According to Sony, its new game computer is powered by the most powerful console graphics processing unit (GPU) in the world, a full 40% more potent than the one in the forthcoming Xbox One. So what are developers doing with all that graphical might?

We've been fooling around with a PS4 for the past 24 hours, and the graphics are certainly impressive. Some of the games, like Killzone: Shadow Fall, look as good as anything on a high-powered gaming PC.

But there's one graphics tic we've noticed that the games have in common: Floating shit, everywhere, all over the screen. In three of the seven launch titles (and two of them were Just Dance and Madden 25), there is floating stuff — dust motes, seagulls, burning paper, leaves — absolutely everywhere. Once you notice it you can't stop noticing it.

Is this the future of game graphics — the next generation? Tiny particles everywhere?

That the profusion of wee objects is the most obvious graphical signature of the new console is may be more than a coincidence: It may be a sign that developers have a ton of new computational horsepower, and they haven't quite figured out what to do with it yet. None of the games appear hyperrealistic or revolutionarily better; instead, they seem to take techniques that already exist and spread the all the way across the screen. In Killzone, for example, dynamic lighting sources and draw distance seem expanded, multiplied, spread out. There isn't one "gotcha" look that announces the new generation. Except for the garbage.

So perhaps the tiny particles effect is not just a nifty new trick, perhaps it is ultimately a way of signifying graphical advancement for a generation that hasn't quite figured out what, exactly, it's supposed to look like. That saran-wrap look went away as soon as developers had a couple years to update their engines for the last generation of consoles. As for what comes after The Garbage, we'll have to wait and see.