The Illusion of Life
In the ten years since the birth of Sony's original PlayStation and the gaming industry's subsequent leaps forward in processing power and 3D graphics and environments, we, as the gaming public, have been showered with landmark moments of technical and artistic achievement. Indeed, classic gaming aside, there's a fair argument to say that there has perhaps never been a better or more fulfilling time to be gamer.
Yardsticks such as Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Mario 64, GoldenEye, Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and many, many others have contributed to pushing the aesthetic envelope across three successive generations of console hardware. From the somewhat sharp-edged and blocky immersion of Lara Croft's first archaeological adventure, to the textured detailing and slick sci-fi realism of Halo, the environmental and emotional power of videogames has grown so dramatically as to leave us almost numb to its swift evolution. Now, of course, we're faced with overpowering visuals and game-world ambition that leaves the jaw slackened and drooping pathetically as we gawp at the sheer artistic beauty and wealth of unknown possibilities that lie before us. Truly, the sense of expectation that rises when first stepping foot from the dungeon in Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and knowing a veritable living, breathing 'world' awaits you, is almost overwhelming. The same can be said of Rockstar Games' most recent editions of Grand Theft Auto, or Eidos and Avalanche's recent Just Cause, and BioWare's upcoming Mass Effect. The game worlds we inhabit are becoming so vast that the illusion of life is seemingly upon us.
Yet, despite the often-staggering environmental (and gameplay) achievements continually crafted by developers around the globe, there's an integral facet of the creation process that's not receiving the same due care and attention - and it's becoming ever-more apparent as game worlds evolve. To put it simply, the games we choose to play in are progressing far too quickly for the characters that exist within them. That initial breathless pull we all feel when on the brink of stepping into a new and expansive game world is often all-too swiftly tempered by a frown-inducing sense of disappointment at the animation of our own character, or, more often than not, those living around us. And, as a result, our collective suspension of disbelief is abruptly torn in two by the gap in quality between character and environment; sullying the experience, which in turn detracts from the developer's total achievement. For example, while Oblivion is indeed an astounding piece of work when viewed as a whole, its much-lauded conversational interaction and lip-synch is dire, its physical character animation (human or animal) is poor throughout, and its fight fluidity is almost non-existent. All of these problems occur because of an animation engine and/or character animation team lacking the prerequisite ability to mirror the visceral immediacy set down by the environment. The same can be said for most other games; and those developers that do actually evolve character animation in step with the rest of a game's visual elements are sadly few and far between.
For those Oblivion fans presently spitting out their sugared dummies in fits of rage and decrying the authenticity of this writer's critique credentials - and not that justification is at all necessary - but an eleven year artistic career in the feature film animation industry working for studios such as Dreamworks, Warner Bros., and Universal Pictures, grants the right to claim to know more than most of you on this subject. So hush. Now, moving on...
Cast your minds back to the very first time you played Capcom's contentious Resident Evil, which initially spattered gore across the gaming industry in February of 1996. It was obvious then that Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine's terrifying adventures in Racoon City amid hordes of the undead would become a thoroughly deserving videogame classic - and it has. Another thing obvious during that time, was that Chris and Jill (or anyone else in the game for that matter) had absolutely no believable weight of movement, they seemed to float at a singular pace while running, their static gestures were repetitive and puppet-like, and they seemed to love nothing more than moonwalking on the spot when butted up against walls and doors. We forgave these animated transgressions because the game world and the experience it offered us transcended any creeping sense of character inaccuracy. But that was ten years ago. Videogames have evolved so dramatically since then that any restrictions experienced in character animation development during the original Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Metal Gear Solid, must surely have been overcome by now. And, for the most part, they have. But not every developer seems to have got the memo.
As a direct follow on from using Resident Evil by way of example, consider Capcom's latest and greatest videogame creation, the highly-anticipated Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. A detailed and content-packed six-minute trailer is presently drumming up interest across the net, and quite rightly so, the game looks extremely impressive based on the overall feel of the trailer. Yet, while the solid, and essentially lifeless, mechanical vehicles and 'mechanoid characters' move with incredibly convincing weight and fluidity, all of the trailer's in-game human characters - including the iconic Solid Snake - move with an odd floating dream-like rhythm that exudes an almost cardboard stiffness and lacks any of the subtle nuance so integral to believable everyday movement. Apologies to those who see this as an open bash against Konami, it isn't, and the Japanese company certainly isn't the only guilty party. Other wildly popular videogames are riddled with the same problems, games that have received heaps of critical praise but all fail to create a truly immersion-friendly atmosphere by convincing us that our on-screen character, and all those around him/her, are intrinsically real. Xbox 360 titles such as Call of Duty 2, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Perfect Dark Zero all carry the same weight of underachievement where their primary or secondary character animation is concerned.
You should also take a moment to compare the separate videogame rendered sequences running alongside the graphical worlds that we 'actually' inhabit while playing. The step down in quality from a game's opening rendered sequence, or segueing narrative sequences, during the days of the original PlayStation was vast. Indeed, most in-game graphics at that time barely resembled the lush and beautifully produced rendered preambles and interludes, and, of course, the character animation was laughable by comparison. Today's videogame formats have evolved so swiftly from the 3D milestone created by the PlayStation that the quality gap between rendered sequences and in-game graphics has shrunk considerably - but, again, not where character animation is concerned. Granted, rendered sequences allow the animators to breathe subtlety into the life of a character, as though moving them through a scripted scene, and, naturally, there are no abrupt controller interactions demanding instant movement transitions on the whim of the player. But the massive leaps in environmental production value that we're presently experiencing only further highlights the obvious discrepancies in the effort afforded to videogame characters. Moreover, the game worlds we play in are gradually becoming the central character - and surely we must view that possibility as a worry.
It's a worry because we're talking about following the basic laws of animation here, that's all that's required to bring organic character animation up to the same level as its environmental and mechanical counterparts. Disney's 'The Illusion of Life' (written by legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in 1981) is largely considered to be the bible of traditional 2D animation technique, and is perhaps a tome of knowledge all 3D game animators (or uneducated technicians based on some of the final products) should be forced to study and integrate into their work. It lays down a thorough groundwork of animation skill and instils in the reader the absolute importance of 'action' and 'reaction', of 'anticipation', and 'overlap' of 'movement arcs' and 'follow-through' for capturing the essence of human movement. For example, our daily lives are not performed across straight lines, everything we do is carried on arcs; they might break or fracture when moving abruptly or at speed, but we do not move on straight lines. To do so looks unnatural. From moving slowly into a sitting position or suddenly sprinting at full speed, everything we do in life is governed by steep or shallow curves - every limb, joint, and extremity, nothing is exempt from physical law. This is a fundamental failing of many, many videogames and leads to all-too frequent instances of truly awful animation. Some may argue the merits of budget and time constraints against the complexities of character animation - just one part of the layered videogame development process - to which the one and only correct reply is that the videogame industry commands budgets comparative to most movies and makes more yearly revenue than Hollywood - more than $10 billion a year in fact. There's no excuse for poor character animation when faced with that kind of financial return, and with the sad demise of 2D animation, there are literally thousands of experienced traditional artists who can be put to work. Moreover, you can train a skilled animator to use a software animation programme, but you can rarely train a skilled technician to animate.
And, when placed beside the biggest and best of modern 2D and 3D animated feature films, production levels in videogames are no more demanding. Both animated movies and videogames are storyboarded and scripted, both require layouts, backgrounds, and scene planning, and both endure massively labour-intensive work in character and special effects animation. Yet, only one of the two focuses equally on character and environmental detailing and doesn't allow modern technological advances to usurp the importance of character. For proof of that statement, look no further than Pixar's truly staggering 3D animated feature The Incredibles. Brad Bird's animated masterpiece uses all the latest technology to create film characters so perfectly and utterly human that the audience never abandons its suspension of disbelief or is left feeling as though it's watching rendered three-dimensional creations moving through engineered spaces and environments-which, sadly, is a sensation all-too common in modern videogames.
This article may be considered somewhat of an editorial diatribe, or an exercise in personal frustrations, but character animation isn't always a case of bad press for the whole of the videogames industry. Not if you happen to be Ubisoft. The French heavyweight publisher and developer is perhaps one of the only videogame companies consistently producing content as uncompromising in its animation quality as it is in its environmental detailing. There are few games that can stand up against the Splinter Cell series for the subtlety and pacing of its character animation, few that can mirror the gritty human realism of Ghost Recon, and perhaps even fewer that can oppose Prince of Persia for genuinely accomplished weight of movement and fluidity of interaction. In games such as these, we, the players, are given the chance to 'exist' on a convincing stage where the environment complements the character, and, in turn, the character complements the environment - neither occupies a higher billing and both contribute equally to create a considerably more 'involved' experience. Moreover, we never feel separate from games such as these, we never feel we're controlling a lifeless avatar devoid of empathy that's simply there to channel button presses and stick movements into on-screen actions - a reality that can be levelled at a great number of videogames and their creators, who rely on the gut-punching power of sprawling game worlds and environmental aspects to mask the lack of soul inherent in their central characters.