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Beyond – bridging the uncanny valley?

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We’ve seen, recently, a push by game developers to develop more realistic character animation – something that blew people’s minds when demonstrated in games like Heavy Rain and L.A Noire. Even those, technologically impressive as they are, failed to bridge the uncanny valley by plastering life-like, believable heads on to rather video-gamey bodies – breaking the intended digital illusion. Beyond: Two Souls, from Quantic Dreams aims to fix that – by capturing entire actor performances.

One of the behind closed doors sessions I enjoyed most at Gamescom his year was one presented by Quantic Dreams’ David Cage – who comes across as genuinely passionate and not the pretentious twat the media would have you believe. In an extended look at how motion capture for the game’s been handled, Cage explained how they’ve managed to craft more believable visuals by employing performance capture – which takes in an actors whole performance, instead of splitting it up in to motion capture and voice work  in a sound booth.

Heavy Rain, for example, was done using motion capture – with the body and voice work done separately, and then digitally stitched together. the sort of whole body performance capture in Beyond eclipses that by some several orders of magnitude. It makes for a more consistent performance,  that synchronises and coagulates the actors’ performances – which grants an extra dimension in the way of performance, because subtle nuances in body languages synch with what’s being said.

“We gained another dimension in the actor’s performance as we used full performance capture to record body language. If you look at me as I say this, you can see how I’m saying it. You lose that in motion capture.”

It allows – and this is where Cage’s passion becomes apparent – developers to genuinely convey and extract emotion, something that’s largely missing in games that are driven by adrenaline.  In order to do it, the actors faces had to be fitted with 90 little balls that the performance capture software could pick up – in addition to the usual ping-pong sized balls used for traditional motion capture. The result is quite frankly incredible, and Beyond was one of the most impressive games I saw at Gamescom this year.

Funnily enough, the sort of technology used allows Quantic Dreams to film on a pretty meagre budget – because it allows them to import the performances in to the game without much in the way of post-processing.

"The amazing thing is that it’s incredibly cheap," Cage said in the closed-door session. It’s a good thing too – because if it cost what a Hollywood film cost to film, Quantic Dreams would have been bankrupt forever ago. "We shot for about 12 months, which is a very long period of time,” he told us. “Sometimes you shoot a scene on day one, and the next part of the scene will be in a month. So you need to be consistent. Budget wise, the production schedule is for around three years, which isn’t crazy. And regarding the development budget, it’s not public but it’s nothing crazy. We try to be very clever about how we produce this thing, and we try to be very effective.

"It’s a triple-A title with a triple-A budget. It’s not much more than Heavy Rain, but for much higher quality."

You’d imagine, with his focus on narrative (and less so on interaction) that Cage is just a film director stuck in working with videogames – but that’s not the case at all.

"I’m not a frustrated movie director," Cage said. "That’s really not why I’m here. I love this medium, and I’m genuinely passionate about this new medium being born and that’s growing every day, and I just want to be part of it.”

He then showed off a section of the game (the same shown at E3), running in real-time on a PS3 – which you can view below, thanks to some sneaky cam footage.

What do you think?

Last Updated: August 20, 2012

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