I’m just ruminating a bit, spurred by a pair of excellent game design posts I read last week.
First, there’s Syl’s post about Why Storytelling in MMOs is Overrated. I love her article, and I’ve wished for a long time now that MMO devs would ease off the reins and let players tell the story. (Tangentially, Brian “Psychochild” Green’s work on Storybricks looks like a good step in that direction.) The developer-driven narrative in these MMO things is a mismatch for the game design from the conception, and the devs seem to cling to their sense of authorship too much. I can understand that, as a creative sort. I’ve done a bit of Game Master work in tabletop RPGs in my day, though, and ultimately, the game always seems to run better when the players feel like they are in control. The GM has to keep everything together, but player agency is the heart of games. Even if it means they do things the GM doesn’t anticipate or even desire.
Second, there’s this gem from The Rampant Coyote, From Whom Much is Given, Much Is Demanded. The discussion there about graphics and how cutting edge technology tends to create absurd demands rings true to my experience both in games and when I got my college degree in computer animation.
Today, I stumbled across this interesting tech demo from Activision. It’s, well… creepy. It’s very impressive, but it’s still not quite right. Here it is on YouTube:
That Uncanny Valley looms large. This is one of the huge dangers of chasing the tech edge. Yes, in theory, with enough money, processing power and artistry, it’s possible to make artificial life that can pass for the real thing. The cost is huge, though, and that Uncanny Valley is big.
Also, most importantly, it’s relatively easy these days to make artificial life look good in a still frame, but the real test is when it moves. Motion is ridiculously hard to make, and exceptionally easy to break. We have an instinctive understanding of how living things are supposed to move and behave, from physics to biology to exceedingly subtle emotional cues. (See: Lie To Me, Sherlock Holmes, psychopaths, etc.)
This, perhaps more than anything, is what I really dug into when I was in college. It’s at the heart of the Disney films I always wanted to make, The Illusion of Life that really makes animation work. (By the way, I highly recommend that book if you have any interest in animation, along with a more recent tome, The Animator’s Survival Kit. If you can only digest those two books, you’ll be a long way to understanding the core of animation.) Ultimately, it’s possible for a skilled animator to make a broom or sack of flour (or even a paper airplane) seem more alive than the latest Final Fantasy CGI characters. Or, as I noted over at Syl’s place, animators try to be conscious of the silhouette, making sure it’s readable at all times. You can get a lot of mileage out of just the silhouette, as the XBox LIVE Game LIMBO shows:
And really, a lot of what gets communicated has to do with what isn’t seen. (For a funny riff on this, there’s this take on what LIMBO might play like when you can see more information… but again, selective reveals are what sell the humor; it’s the juxtaposition of what you expect vs. what is “really” there that makes it humorous/scary.)
If you haven’t seen Paperman, go watch it. Seriously, go watch it and then come back. (Or watch the embedded one, sure.)
And then watch this, a video about some of the tech behind it.
So, for a relatively simple-looking bit of animation, there’s a lot of tech under the hood. Some of it is obviously CG, at least to me, having spent as much time as I have watching and producing art and animation, both traditional and computer-assisted. Still, there’s a lot of work going into this… and it’s all to make a stylized bit of art. As with the style of The Incredibles, stylization goes a long way to making something play well. It short-circuits our instinctive evaluation systems, and the errors in animation that pop up are kind of fudged away, filed in mental gaps that we don’t wind up caring about, largely because we have already internalized that these characters are not real, and we don’t expect them to be.
This is how we perceive motion in film and animation in the first place, per the Persistence of Vision theory. The 24 or 30 frames per second that flicker by don’t cover the infinitely reducible time frames that reality can be split into, but they happen fast enough that our brain accepts them as continuous enough to be believable. In fact, sometimes less information works better, as evidenced by some of the kerfluffle around the new-fangled 48FPS The Hobbit movie. All we really need to know is enough to fool our brain into accepting something as real or believable, and then let our imagination and subconscious do the rest of the work. Perhaps we could call it a “Persistence of Cognition” theory when it comes to storytelling and lore; the reader/viewer invests headspace in imagining the fictional world and how it works, or how they could work within it. It’s all about leveraging the strengths of the end viewer/reader/player, making them a partner in the experience.
This is why a lot of the high end stuff fails. It tries to do too much. Our brain takes it at its word, holds it to a higher standard, and finds it lacking.
Most of the time, especially with art, story and anything that really hinges on the viewer getting emotionally involved and engaging the imagination, less, to a certain degree, actually is more, simply because you’re letting the viewer breathe and take a bit of ownership, which tends to be a multiplying factor in the efficacy of a presentation. It’s part of that “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s so important to get people to buy into what you’re doing. There really are reasons not to go into obsessive hyperdetail, not only because it’s a time and money sink, but because it’s also less effective.
Artists tend to understand this instinctively after some practice, since it’s entirely possible to put too much into a piece of art and thereby ruin it. Hinting at detail is often far more effective than rendering it. Even Daniel Dociu’s incredible art, which tends to look really complex, is largely suggestive, relying on the viewer to infer a ton of detail that really isn’t there. Just look at the actual brushstrokes in one of his pieces and compare it to what you thought was there at a glance. Dociu is a master at implying complexity. He’s making your brain do the heavy lifting.
Similarly, as any avid reader can tell you, “head canon” and “mental visualization” of words on the page can never compare to a moviemaker’s craft. They simply function differently. That’s a good thing, and creative types really need to leverage the supercomputers in viewers’ brains to do a lot of the creative work for them. It takes trust, and knowing just what to imply and what to make explicit… but there’s a lot of strength in letting the viewer in on the process, even if it’s only on a subconscious level.
They will fill the gaps, if you can learn what to leave up to them.