Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

More on rendered humans in realistic games, and Cyan's new tech demo.

As I recently typed: in the era of choosing to create a fully-CG game instead of a fully-rendered game, such as realMyst was to Myst, the treatment of human characters may be the primary dilemma. They gain nativeness to the rendered world and the real-time benefits it brings, but lose the ineffable qualities of the human as captured on video to the mechanistic qualities of rendered figures. Even the best CG human characters of the last decade stoke that "uncanny valley" feeling; we're so used to real humans that awareness of the slightest wrongness feels conscious and continuous.

I'd never had this problem with Ocarina Of Time, even though its human characters were some of the most geometrically primitive in 3D gaming (or even in the original Legend Of Zelda, far more primitive), nor in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem for GameCube, which aimed in 2002 for "futuristic" realism, landing still far from the uncanny, because those games established their worlds' parameters at their points of creation.

Ironically, though, I think Cyan unknowingly worked itself into a corner by way of its early high achievements. Myst and Riven put players in a world that did have real people, placing the mechanistic burden on the necessarily limited video quality, not the characters themselves. That seems why the CG humans of the "modern" Myst remake paved the way for pages of thanks from fans when the restored video became an in-game option last week: those fans understood what they were missing, and were happy to get it back.

(As an aside, I've left the clever approach to the characters in Myst V out of this conversation, but should mention them. Their presentation combined video of actors' faces with motion-captured body performances – which I think I remember reading were done by Rand Miller; if so, further credit to him as an actor – along with cloth simulations for flowing and draping costumes, which are purely physical enough not to stoke the "uncanny" feeling, and the player's inability to move while they're speaking. My memories of Myst V's monologuing moments are fairly tranquil and content, like watching live theatre. Myst III and IV, largely out of Cyan's control, still used video nestled carefully into 360-degree environments made of other images and video, which all seemed true to Myst's heritage.)

Which brings us back to the primary problem of today. How to solve it? If not a permanent adherence to video and its own inherent restrictions, all I can think of is human characters which groundbreakingly overcome present limitations through even further sophistication.

Conveniently, Cyan just revealed they're reaching for this goal, shown yesterday in the form of a quick demonstration of human characters using an new Epic (the company) tool set.

Humans that look pretty photo-realistic are nothing new, and don't inherently overcome the uncanny valley issue. What finally will? Cyan describes:

… It’s the ability to also capture truly subtle facial expressions – the raised eyebrow, or the slight downturn of the mouth – that take a character from good to great!

"Subtlely" is a reasonable word to describe the moments of this demo that I find intriguing, due to such facial exercises. I might even describe what's conveyed as whimsy – a category of facial expressions real people make when they happen to fall between the "primary colours" of facial expressions, deliberately or just idly and unthinkingly. "Idleness" is the second word I'd associate with them.

I'm a little worried the novelty of this will prove a false promise – it's easy for anyone to fall into that trap, especially a creator invested in their own work – but it blows away my recent characterization of Cyan as a company that specializes in natural and architectural environments at the expense of specializing in human characters. This move, along with the hiring of a new character motion lead, has the potential to being them closer to a state-of-the-art level in this area, where they deserve to be.

This demo came with an update for the backers of Firmament, by the way. Apparently I didn't even back it for a dollar (probably thinking I'd buy it on release instead), because I've been missing the project updates. Here's the full article.