Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Actors in Games

A few years ago, as long as ten maybe, when console and PC games entered into their CD-ROM era, videogames had actors in them. They combined film footage with gameplay, to mixed effect. You had some passably good ones, like the Wing Commander 3 and 4 stuff – which though not high drama was at least watchable – and you had some pretty awful stuff, like the interactive movie fad. And then games stopped using actors (for the most part) to tell their stories.

Obviously in some cases there was no need, like Grim Fandango, because the game was largely in the 'animated' style anyway. In many cases, games moved into the territory of trying to recreate humans for their stories using animation instead. As games increased in their technological oomph, they could get more and more realisitic characters on screen. Voice acting remained, but increasingly the action consisted of these cgi people talking and shooting and whatever.

Today, actors have all but disappeared from the visual side of games, although many are doing quite well out of the occasional voice acting work that they garner. Games like the Metal Gear series, the Grand Theft Auto series, Max Payne, Resident Evil, Halo and many others now use exclusively animated actors to tell their stories, costing millions of dollars in animation and time.

The problem is that they don't really work.

Emotional Connections

Game directors want more emotional connection in their games. Emotional connection, it is thought, is the key to games becoming successful in the wider media. If we can enjoy games on a more-than-just-fun level, then they and we are the better for it. This I broadly agree with (although not with the idea that the emotional connection is therefore a heroic one).

Cinematics and the emotional connection idea of are often closely tied. In the last few years, some of the most powerful games have featured a variety of cinematic moments. Ico and Rez, for example, use sparing but well-judged scenes to maximise impact. Grim Fandango is far more famous for its characters and story than its puzzles.

What these games, and many other like them, have in common is that the characters in them are not realistic humans. Grim Fandango's characters are all skull-dolls and big demons. Ico and Yorda are very ethereal versions of a boy and girl. Go further afield from videogames to CG animation in films and you see a similar trend. Sully, Gollum, Woody and Buzz and, yes, even Jar Jar Binks are all successful 3D animated characters who are not realistic humans.

Compare the emotional connection of those creations with any realistic human. There is a noticeable difference. Re-created humans look weird. Their lips don't quite fit, their eyes aren't quite right, their hair doesn't feel real, their body weight seems floaty. They get more and more detailed, yet still all we can seem to notice is that they're not quite correct. It bothers us.

Even today, we have the upcoming release of the Godfather game, with that picture of the CGI Marlon Brando. He doesn't look quite right, but why exactly? We watch the extraordinary lip-syncing and such in Half Life 2, and yet it doesn't quite work. It seems a little spooky, and we can't quite get into the story as we might because of it. When watching the demo video for 'Dawn of War', does anyone else find it odd that the orcs seem more real than the humans?

And yet, when we look at Monsters Inc the lip syncing of Sully with John Goodman is just as imperfect. The hair is very impressive but also seems a bit floaty. Criucially, it doesn't really bother us. We can get on and laugh and enjoy the film immensely. The same is true of The Incredibles. Whereas Final Fantasy the movie just seems very odd for reasons that we can't quite place.


An animator friend of mine told me that the reason for this weirdness is nothing to do with the animation skills or technology problems. He calls it the 'Frankenstein Effect'. It's a psychological problem.

Our brains devote a lot of effort to visual processing, and of that a significant proportion is given over specifically to recognising human faces. We instincively understand faces as patterns pretty much from birth, and we associate feelings with them. Our recognition routines are very sophisticated and are what allow us to read subtle expressions, recognise people from afar, and so on. And we are able to recognise when something's not right about a face. That's how we know when people are lying to us. Wrong faces make us instinctively suspicious.

My friend's explanation is that because we are looking at realistic characters on screen, our minds instinctively move into 'human face recognition' mode, especially for close-ups etc. And because we have a lot of our mind devoted to that specific task, we are hyper aware of imperfections. The more realistic the character becomes, the more we become aware of the imperfections.

That's why The Incredibles doesn't bother us. The characters are exaggerated and their expressions are suggestive rather than simulacrum. Pretty much every successful animated character works on the basis of an exaggeraed aspect of humans. Things like huge eyes, spindly limbs and very wonky teeth etc produce exaggerated expressions, and these we emotionally respond to (Gollum, for example). Caricature artists tend to find that their customers usually recognise exaggerated versions of, say, politicians than realistic versions of same. It would seem that exaggeration and animation go hand in hand, something Disney figured out a long time ago. It gets around the Frankenstein effect. That's why the orcs look more real than the humans in that Dawn of War video.

We instinctively know the difference between art and reality. With a realistic character, our brains are all the time flagging that something is not right, and because we are in a suspicious mode, we aren't really able to emote with the character. It's hard to feel empathy for a liar.

So, the obvious question is, if you want to make game stories involving realistic people, why not do what the film industry does. Why not use actors? The usual first answer is 'transitions'.


It was common when playing a game circa 1995-98 to have FMV (full motion video) sequences between gameplay sections of a game. You would be playing a shooting game, for example, and in between each level you'd have someone like Christopher Walken or Mark Hamill or some rent-a-day actor do their bit, followed by a long loading screen, where'd you'd go back to your character who didn't really look a lot like Walken or Hamill or rent-a-day. So it was thought that those were disassociative.

This didn't really stop Square producing Final Fantasy VII with clear differences between the animated cut-scenes and the gameplay sections. Plenty of noticeable transitions, and yet no-one was bothered. So perhaps the problem with FMV was not the mechanic of disassociation, but the material. Back in the FMV days, most game stories were just plain awful. However, the idea that the whole FMV mechanic was bad took hold because of 'transitions'.

EA's The Two Towers shows that transition issues were not that big of an issue any more. Using shots from the film of the same name, the game would then overlay the action with an animated sequence of lower quality using the same moves, and then the player would be in control. It worked very well and made for quite a fun and epic game which captured the spirit of the film. You watch Legolas fighting, you see the change into animated Legolas, and bang, you're in the action without having the time to think about loading screens.

So if transitions can now be done well and actors can be placed inside fully CG backgrounds (Sin City), then why not use actors? Why are Konami continuing to create more and realistic Solid Snakes, at greater cost, with increasing Frankenstein problems, when they could hire a half-decent action star and film their sequences to much better effect? Control.


The second counter-actors argument is the idea of control. I.e. if you can fully control every aspect of the production of cut scenes, from the movement of the camera to the expressions on the characters faces, then you can get exactly what you want. You get the exact emotional impact.

There are two problems with this approach. One is that the Frankenstein effect is still present, no matter how much control you have. The second is that this much control deprives material of spontaneity, and if you want an emotional connection, then spontaneity is vital. For example, both “The Phantom Menace” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” are very unemotional films to watch, but the reason why is not clear.

The scripts in both films are not great by any means, but then this never stopped many an 80s action comedy from being basically entertaining. These films should be more entertaining than they actually are, and yet they fall very flat. I'm not the first one to suggest that the reason for this is the controlled way in which they were made. Both films are almost wholly made in blue-screen, with an actor mostly delivering lines to empty air. They were both made in very controlled circumstances, in otherwords, and they lack spontaneity.

Contrast this with Sin City, also shot largely in CGI but, crucially, with a lot of group acting scenes and with some amount of sets. It was also directed in a very informal and specific way, between Rodriguez and Miller, whereas George Lucas's creation was very much “It want this. More intense. More intense. More intense” sort of direction. Sin City gave its actors enough room to breathe, and made for an excellent film as a result. Phantom Menace treated them like dolls, in much the same way as the hypothetical 'total control' argument for game cut scenes. Why would we expect any different results?

I think, secretly, we all know that we wouldn't, but that there is a larger issue that this actor issue is masking, and that is to do with control over a whole project.


It's easy to live in denial and say that things like the Frankenstein effect are just temporary problems, to be overcome by technology. There is no evidence of that. Games remain on the cultural margins, game stories are far less emotionally engaging now than they were in the Lucasarts adventure game days. As the technology develops to make more realistic skin tones, eyes and lips, the situation is getting worse, not better.

A good example is the promo video for Fight Night (I think) for PS3 (I think) which I saw again recently at an EA party. There's a lot of shots of fighters getting hit slowly in the face, and a speaker talking about how this is making the emotional connection more visceral and real etc. When in fact it just looks weird.

Denial is covering the real reason: The deeply held fear, especially on the part of developers, of Hollywood. In short, nobody wants the games industry to turn into the movie industry. Nobody wants movie stars calling the shots.

This is just hugely irrational. Game developers are, apparently, quite a conservative lot. They fear change. Even the indie side of the industry is largely devoted to trying to re-create the past. Game developers really don't like the idea that a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise might come in a make all sorts of unreasonable demands, charge a giant fee and then ride off into the sunset.

The answer to this is very simple. If you're terrified of movie stars, don't use them. There are scads of TV actors, stage actors and so on out there who'd kill for a break in a big game and they'll do what you want for reasonable fees.

It's more a reflection of our lack of experience and practicality issues as an industry that we'd think it better to spend 2 million making freakish movie sequences with not-quite humans than to just hire a few actors and facilities for a week and shoot what we need for 250K. It reflects our continuing problem with getting in touch with reality, a problem that is rife across the games industry. It also reflects a deep trust issue, also an industry staple.

The Cost

Costs more than anything else are the convincing reason to start using actors again. They are cheaper and far more 'real' than any CG Solid Snake is ever going to be. What studios need to do is get their heads around the fact that there are better and cheaper ways to do the same things, and that now that we don't really have transition problems any more, what we are doing with all of our money is essentially inefficient and unworkable.

Why go through the heartbreak and failure of trying to recreate reality for the game's story when you could simply hire a writer, a director, an editor, a blue-screen facility and some actors and just work professionally instead. And that, more than anything is why we need the actors back. The current method of realistic game storytelling does not work because the principle element is suspiciously unreal.

It's time to let the past be the past and move on from these destructive denial issues that cost so much and pay off so little.

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