Graphical presentation in video games has reached new levels of brilliance and intensity in the last few years. From the lush renderings of forests in Skyrim, to the lovely star-studded galaxy maps of Mass Effect, and on into the recreated historical settings of the Assassin's Creed games, graphics have moved beyond cartoonish presentation into bold near-realism. There are times when it seems that one could reach into one's television and pluck a flower clean from the plant in Skyrim.
So what happens when you are playing a game and something just seems off about the visual presentation? This happens not with environments, but with the physical movements of a character on screen. There is nothing quite like a brilliantly realistic face suddenly not emoting properly, or eyes not blinking, even when a character is staring straight on, to boot you out of the experience of gaming. Immersion nothing, if I see eyes that don't blink, my brain snaps back to reality and thinks Well I've seen this movie before, and I know it doesn't end well.
The unnervingly mannequin like faces are one of the graphical issues plaguing a few games that I'm quite fond of. I've noticed the blank-faced stare in Skyrim a few times, enough to make me not want to talk to certain characters. It's also present in the Mass Effect series, where one moment my character is angry and about to do some serious damage to a person with a sharp tongue lashing, wild eyes and twisted lips at the ready, prepared for some serious verbal battle, and then suddenly has the look of utmost passivity on her face to the point that I suspect someone has been slipping tranquilizers into the commander's food that only kick in when the dialog wheel is present.
Representing the human figure is a hard thing to do, ask any artist, from the amateur to the professional. Getting a two-dimensional image to have a facial or physical expression is difficult, but try doing it in 3D, and making the character walk, talk, and emote. These days in video games, you can't just have a character stare blankly if dialogue is being delivered. Eyes have to blink, lips have to move properly, and small facial tics have to be present to convey a sense of something real.
There is a realism that is needed in any computer generated medium to maintain some sense of immersion, especially for the long hours invested in a video game. Even if a face does not completely emote, if the lips are synched correctly, and the eyes at least occasionally blink, even if there is a small tilt of the head, that is enough to translate as 'this is real-ish enough'. A small amount of realism goes a long way, and in third person games this is critically important.
Third person games depend on a sense of realistic space, and some kind of vague organic feel. In games like Fable III, the environments are varied, but the character faces are rarely focused upon, so realism doesn't come into play as much. In other games like Mass Effect, realism is necessary to keep the player invested, which is why the facial animations are so critical. That is not to say that either of those games are badly constructed; they are fine examples of third person action adventure and RPGing.
I recall the first poorly constructed third person interface I experienced, and it still bothers me to this day. The game itself was not a problem, and the general mechanics of running and shooting were not a problem. Those mechanics were fine and suited the game perfectly. It was the climbing mechanic, one of the most critical bits of the game play, which completely threw me off.
I have some basic understanding of human anatomy. I can name almost all the bones, and I know where the major muscle groups attach. I know how the joints work, and I know in what direction they are supposed to move. I have seen what contortionists can do, and while that strikes me as bizarre, I can at least visualize it as being within the boundaries of anatomical possibility.
Climbing a wall, however, with limbs that don't appear to be working in the way that human limbs are supposed to work is enough to ruin an experience to a point of never wanting to return to a certain game franchise ever again.
Human elbows don't bend at perfect 90 degree angles, even while holding onto things, and the human leg isn't supposed to lift in that perfectly awkward and straight way, while the knee bends at a peculiarly upwards angle. Also, the head does not remain perfectly straight, staring at the wall, while ascending vertically, without the character looking up to see where they are going.
Upon further though, perhaps the human body can twist and move in such oddly angular ways, but it certainly does not look correct. Watching a gymnast do a floor routine is one thing; watching a character on screen motion-captured from a gymnast do that same routine sort of works. Watching that same mo-capped gymnast climb a wall in an oddly staggered and unnatural way? Boom. Immersion is kissed goodbye, and the game is discarded.
I still haven't recovered from Tomb Raider: Underworld.
I'm not asking for my games to be full on realistic. I don't want full on realism in games, as that's not the point of a video game. A video game's purpose is to immerse the player in a fantasy world of their choice and preference.
That being said, I know how an elbow bends. It doesn't bend like that. If it bends like that, there's something wrong with the elbow and the character should go see a doctor. Or a character modeler. Immediately.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays. You can follow Alexandra on Twitter @Al3xandra_G.