Modders Are Using AI to Overhaul Old Games Textures, With Gorgeous Results
Update (6/2/2020): This is a story I’m truly glad to return to. Since this ran in December 2018, there’s been a huge surge in game mods with exactly these kinds of upgrades. Deus Ex now has New Vision 2.0a. There’s the Remako mod for Final Fantasy VII, Moguri for Final Fantasy IX, Hexen Neuro x4 to improve that title, and an AI upscale mod for The Witcher. There’s a mod for Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and one for Sonic Adventure. Fan of the original Red Faction? Grab the upscale here.
The methods behind these AI upscales vary. Many use Topaz VEAI, but some AI mods use ESRGAN or don’t identify the specific AI model. As always, mods reflect the interests (and skill level) of the creator, and quality can vary, but AI upscaling is emerging as a new way to remaster old games without the original creator’s involvement. In many cases, that’s the only way these kinds of projects can even realistically happen. Only a relative handful of classic and beloved titles like Final Fantasy VII get remastered or remade. Skywind has been in development for a long time at this point. While the mod is much more than a simple remaster of Morrowind, you still can’t download and play it. What you can do is download AI-remastered textures and load them into the original game engine, as discussed below.
That’s not a knock at Skywind, which is an incredible and far-ranging mod project that I’m looking forward to. The nature of modding is that it can take an incredibly long time, seeing as nobody is getting paid for it. AI promises to accelerate the work substantially, allowing users to perform upscales that used to require studio-level attention.
The end of this story refers to the hope that we might see a Deep Space Nine upscale at some point. I’ve actually taken on that project myself. Details and rendered scene comparisons on what I’m calling the Deep Space Nine Upscale Project (DS9UP) are available here, while the project FAQ is here.
Original story below:
One of the promises of AI is its ability to enhance pre-existing visual detail rather than requiring the painstaking creation of all-new work. While there have been plenty of technical demos on this topic, including prototypes that actually deliver the ‘Enhance’ function TV shows have been claiming already exists for decades, consumer applications remain fewer and farther between. That could change in the near future, thanks to the potential for using AI to improve graphics in older games.
If you’ve ever been a fan of PC game mods, you’re aware that most mod projects don’t come to fruition, particularly big ones. Huge texture overhauls and update projects for classic titles can work wonders — I’ve been replaying Resident Evil 4 with an HD texture overhaul pack that makes the game look like something far closer to the modern era, even if the lighting is simplistic by current standards. But the amount of work required to update a game in this fashion is enormous. It has to be done carefully and with an eye towards replacing most, if not all, of the content in the game or else the result is a spliced-together trainwreck that satisfies no one. HardOCP recently posted a pair of updates showing how modders are using AI to clean up two popular games — Doom 2 and Morrowind — and the improvements are huge.
In Doom 2’s case, the author, hidfan, used super-resolution texture tools from Nvidia’s GameWorks and Topaz Lab’s AI Gigapixel to create the upscaling, then downscaled them again, manually removed AI artifacts, and manually adjusted the transparency masks (according to hidfan “AI don’t [sic] know what to do with binary Black&White yet.”)
The Morrowind team uses a method called ESRGAN, which stands for Enhanced Super Resolution Generative Adversarial Networks, a method of adding detail to initially low-resolution images. The team writes:
By doing it over several passes with the goal of fooling its adverserial [sic] part, it will usually produce an image with more fidelity and realism than past methods. I have upscaled the textures in Morrowind to four times the vanilla resolution using ESRGAN. Below you can compare various models’ results to the original (HR).
Right now, such tools are obviously in their infancy, but there’s real long-term potential here. If AI can increase resolution and improve texture detail, it could allow for remastering games where the original assets are no longer available without painstakingly creating new, updated resources from scratch. If this approach can be extended to video, the results could be enormous. Fans of TV shows like Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5 (including the author) have lamented that there’s no appetite for remastering these series due to ugly issues surrounding rights and the need to recreate the CGI scenes from scratch in the latter and the cost and expense of doing so in the former. Anything that moves the dial in terms of making AI more readily available for users to experiment with in such fashion is an advance in our book.
Feature image from the Morrowind Enhanced Textures mod.