'Uncharted' Territory: Capturing Human Emotion in Games

There will soon come a day when creating a video game will be not much different than filming a movie.

Posted by Paul Hyman on Tuesday, October 30, 2007

'Uncharted' Territory: Capturing Human Emotion in Games

Two games currently in development illustrate the fine line that divides the two processes -- and the actors who were cast for the games, rehearsed for them, and then acted in their "filming" can surely attest to their similarities.

Brand new technologies contributed to the creation of both games: Sony's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune -- expected to be released on Nov. 20 for the PlayStation 3 -- utilizes a state-of-the-art motion-capture process to give the illusion of life-like animated characters, while the martial arts fighters in Creative Edge Studios' Warriors of Elysia don't just seem real, they are real. For possibly the first time, live actors were filmed and their non-animated images placed in 3-D environments and made available for gamers to manipulate in real-time with whatever punches and kicks they choose. Warriors for the PC had been scheduled for year-end release but may be postponed until early 2008.

Sony and Creative Edge both claim that they are creating better games that benefit from being more lifelike because they capture human emotion. It remains to be seen whether gamers will agree when they vote with their pocketbooks.

"Instead of getting the usual over-the-top performances you usually experience in a video game, I expect gamers will say, 'Wow! They seem just like real people.' " - Amy Hennig

Sony's Santa Monica, Calif.-based Naughty Dog studio is known primarily for more stylized, cartoon-like games like Crash Bandicoot and the Jak and Daxter series. But Amy Hennig says that the launch of her new franchise, which is based on the classic pulp action-adventure serials of the '30s, demands a more realistic look.

Hennig's role would be that of "producer" at another game studio but, at Naughty Dog, her title is "game director," since, as she explains, her company has moved slowly toward more of a film model. It is a nod toward how game-making is become increasingly like movie-making, she agrees.

"Naughty Dog has always done all of its animation by hand," says Hennig, "and it was all done by a staff of traditionally trained, Disney-type animators. But, for Uncharted, we have a very strong, very lifelike main character who has a lot of depth, personality, and wit, with a very strong cast around him. From the start, we knew we needed to replicate believable human expressions and emotions, which meant that the casting and the performances were going to be critical. So that's where we started."

She describes the central character of Nathan Drake as very gritty, "very Harrison Ford, very Bruce Willis, with a charm that we wanted when we cast our hero." The role went to Nolan North, a veteran of over 80 video games and TV shows, while Emily Rose became the game's heroine, Elena Fisher.

In order to replicate the human emotions of the actors, Hennig and her team knew early on that they needed to use a state-of-the-art mo-cap process.

"It's very difficult for a traditional hand animator to accomplish what we set out to do," she says. "We didn't want our characters to be caricatures or cardboard cutouts. We wanted an emotional authenticity. That's why a Harrison Ford is more memorable than some forgettable actor in a forgettable film ... because he can create a character that seems believable. We wanted to tone back the squash-stretch exaggerations of nonrealistic characters and do something that's actually low-key and believable with the kind of depth you don't ordinarily see in a video game."

But Hennig doesn't believe that technology was the only key to capturing emotion; rather, she said, it was the production of the game as if it were a traditional movie or stage play.

"Our two lead actors were cast not because they had mo-cap experience but because they had a lot of camera and stage experience and knew how to use their bodies in their performance," she recalls. "And because they had the right personalities and the right physical types and the right voices."

Before each mo-cap session, there were table reads and rehearsals and scene blocking -- all typically unheard of in video game creation. Then came improvisation, the script was revised as the cast contributed new ideas, and improvements were made.

"We worked with Gordon Hunt as our mo-cap and voice director," says Hennig, "a man with tons of stage and TV experience, which I think was critical. Either out of eagerness or arrogance, many video game developers think they can do it all themselves, but there's no replacement for experience, for someone who knows how to work with actors."

Hennig believes that gamers will see the difference: "Instead of getting the usual over-the-top performances you usually experience in a video game, I expect gamers will say, 'Wow! They seem just like real people.' And that's because the performances you're seeing do come from real people."

It was a one-year process for the actors -- from being cast in August of 2006 to wrapping the mo-cap filming in August of 2007.

The entire production process -- including the mo-cap and the duplication of gestures and facial expressions using Naughty Dog's proprietary Wrinkle Mapping Facial Animation system -- took approximately two years and cost upward of $20 million, reports Hennig who had "naively expected the motion-capture process to get us to completion much faster. Somehow we thought we'd just be whipping through this stuff." But, she says, the one-year mo-cap process took just as long as if the game were hand-animated "and the end-result is far better, far subtler."


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