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Shader Hacking: Seeing 3D’s potential

Hacking our way into 3D gaming culture.

Art by Chloe Callow.

When James Cameron’s Avatar hit cinemas in December 2009, it wowed audiences with beautifully rendered 3D visuals and alien landscapes. Despite a vacuous plot, Avatar holds a special place in popular culture for its immersive set design centred on stereoscopic 3D technology. Avatar wasn’t the first nor the last 3D film – studios have been captivated by the possibilities since the 50s. Yet, the dominance of children’s films in the 3D space speaks to the commercial motivations behind 3D production. My grandparents paid handsomely to take me to see Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D but like most offerings, it failed to meaningfully deploy the technology beyond gimmicky visual flair.

Hoping to further wow (and/or extort) consumers, the video game industry piled on with its own offerings. For the same reasons that Avatar worked in 3D, so too did video games. But poor implementation, expensive hardware, and rapidly dwindling support killed the niche before it found its footing. In 2021, the grip of 3D media on both the popular conscience (and our wallets) has loosened into a gentle hand hold. Yet a small community of so-called Shaderhackers exclaim proudly that playing games in 3D is to experience them the way they were meant to be seen. Grassroots and commercially unshackled, they keep the stereoscopic 3D dream alive.

During a mid-lockdown stupor, I rediscovered a Linus Tech Tips video on his 3D gaming rig from 2010 – “but can it play Crysis?” the description read. That night I saw sunrise as I deep dived into the world of the Shaderhacker. While official support for Nvidia 3D Vision technology ended in April 2020, the last game to get the 3D Vision Ready tick of approval was released in 2013. Less than 40 games made the coveted list. At the time of writing there are over 1200 games playable with Nvidia 3D Vision available on the Shaderhacker blog Helixmod. Even games with official support have been improved by the community. Helixmod-giant Pauldulser developed the 3D Fix Manager to help automate the process of installing 3D mods (shader hacks) for games. Despite abandonment by Nvidia, 3D gaming is the best it has ever been.

Stuck at home and no longer having to pay rent, I invested in the equipment required to play games the way they were ‘meant to be seen.’ I started with a few big-name titles – Metro 2033, Half-Life (well, Black Mesa), and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order before really hitting a stride with Alien: Isolation. Hiding in a changeroom locker, leaning back, intermittently checking my radar as I watched the xenomorph crawl past was brutal – as was the scream that broke loose when it tore the door open. Playing Star Wars in 3D was cool, but playing Alien was transcendental. I held my breath whenever the xenomorph was nearby, my heart pounded whenever Ripley – rather, I – had to sprint. The shader hacks for Alien were unofficial yet I’d argue it’s how the game should be experienced.

The tools built by the Shaderhackers have allowed gamers to re-envision the ways they experience their favourite games. There is a community wishlist published on Helixmod but anyone may hack as they please leaving us with 3D-modded gems like AER Memories of Old and ABZU. For the now-defunct studio Forgotten Key, developing AER in 3D would have been an expensive (and nonsensical) commercial decision. Likewise, Alien wasn’t going to sell more copies were it to have shipped 3D Vision Ready. DHR, the Shaderhacker and AER’s modder, didn’t need to make a business case. Without big-name publishers breathing down their necks, or the economic pressures of running a small studio, the Shaderhackers are free to ask if a game could be improved by an extra dimension.

Games that find their way onto Helixmod’s 3D list are there because someone truly wanted them to be. No Shaderhacker is yet to extort my grandma either – so that’s a plus. The video game medium is neatly suited to stereoscopic 3D and the Shaderhackers recognised this potential when the industry deemed it unprofitable. I’m able to immerse myself amongst playful sharks, run from deadly aliens and soar between floating islands thanks to this visionary community. They recognise that the medium is held back by the suffocating demands of the industry and dedicate themselves to personalising their experiences. They correct the shortcomings of the AAA-title and elevate the humble indie game. I share this admiration for modders of all stripes, but for the Shaderhackers especially. Thanks to them I can play games and appreciate their visuals with as much depth as I choose. And yes Linus, that includes Crysis too.