"We certainly had to pay for our high ambitions with incredibly hard work, but in the end I'm happy with the result. And we learned a lot that will go straight into our next production," Matthies says.

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He hopes to reach an even higher level of authenticity for upcoming games, drawing on past experiences, and he says Starbreeze is still dedicated to advance facial animation, even though it could take decades until animations feel genuinely human. "We want to make people really feel something, and this means we want the characters to be as real as possible. There's so much potential to take the medium further with acting, script and storytelling, and we'll keep working on it. This business is a constant arms race. That's part of the fun."

An arms race indeed. Three years ago, Half-Life 2 was the gold standard for facial animation. "The Casting" raised the bar in 2006, and at the moment the cut-scenes Weta Digital created for Ninja Theory's Heavenly Sword are bleeding-edge. In the immediate future, the game to watch is BioWare's Mass Effect.

BioWare has its work cut out for itself: to create complex human expressions by combining modular "performance elements." The reason for this approach, Project Director Casey Hudson explains in an email, is they want to be able to create huge amounts of high quality interactive dialogue, without having to motion capture everything.

Hudson says this generation's hardware power provides new possibilities, like wrinkling skin, and this means interactive scenes, for the first time, can rival the drama of live-action movies. "In one scene in Mass Effect, you can reprimand a female officer for doing something dangerous, and as she looks back at you with eyes that appear to well with tears, you suddenly feel apologetic. At that point you realize that you're experiencing something entirely different from anything you've played before."

BioWare takes the integration of facial animation one step further, beyond synthesizing emotion. As the animation system came together, the designers realized they could use it as a part of the gameplay. "One example is where you find out that a certain character has a 'tell' - an expression that indicates that he's lying," Hudson says. "If you learn this about him, you can call his bluff at the right time and get him to admit to what he's really up to."

Back in Paris, Cage hesitates to make that leap. In Indigo Prophecy the mental health of the main character was reflected in his face and body language, but there was still a gauge in the corner of the screen that spelled it out for the player.

Cage doubts that he will be confident enough to make the performances an integral part of the gameplay in Heavy Rain. Sure, he wants to create avant-garde art, but at the same time he desperately wants people to simply get what he's doing. Cutting-edge facial animation is not an end in itself, but a tool he wields to hack the medium.

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"I started working on videogames because I thought these toys for kids would one day become a new mainstream art form. Now, there are still gamers who want to drive and shoot and fight, but there are also gamers who are interested in a different type of gameplay, based on emotion, characters and storytelling," Cage says with an absent look in his eyes.

As I look down into my notebook, preparing to shut it and thank him for his time, Cage leans forward in his chair, fixing me with his gaze to make sure I'm paying attention.

"If we can make simple scenes from daily life interesting to play, like two people just talking, then we have a whole new world in front of us," he says. "Then we can do anything."

Sam Sundberg is a freelance writer based in Stockholm. He is also the games editor at Svenska Dagbladet, a leading Swedish newspaper.

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