The Ryse of Problems

There! Did you see that! That looked so unrealistic!

Ryse: Son of Rome, while not the most graphically impressive title, does have a distinctively life-like look to it that could definitely not have been achieved on the 7th generation hardware. However, while closely resembling a cut scene produced by Blizzard, it does highlight the next stepping-stone that the games industry will have to overcome. Namely the animation. As games get ever-more photorealistic, there must also be a feeling of organic movement. And this is where Son of Romes facade breaks down. For instance, when you enter combat, certain animations demand quite high levels of precision and this is achieved by every-so-slightly moving both the player character and the NPC automatically, in order to achieve the desired fluency of the combat. In reality however, this resorts to these slight clunky unrealistic movements where the character models sorta click into place so as to carry out the intended animation.

The awkward movement in action

Of course animation in games, more particularly in the character models has kept getting more sophisticated and life-life with every passing year. There are those games however that do retain this unrealistic movement even though technology is more than capable of rendering much more fluid movements. I’m of course referring to a lot of Japanese games. The newer installments of Metal Gear Solid are a great example where visually the game is awe-inspiring and the cut scenes make excellent use of the modern technology that allows us to make our game models look more life-like than ever. Once your popped back into gameplay however, it tends to be a whole different story. Snake for the most part moves around like he’s an action-figure. This is prevalent in many Japanese games as I said but clearly not because of their inability to do any better. The Americans and Europeans made their characters move much more naturalistic in terms of the characters themselves. They feel much more real. But this illusion again seems to only keep up as long as you run in a straight horizontal line. Once you start doing turns and movements, it becomes apparent again that this is purely a video game character. Of course this is so unnoticeable that we don’t even consider it to be immersion-breaking for the most part. Take Uncharted for example, one of the best looking series on the PS3, purely from a technical stand-point. Now the protagonist Drake is equipped with a plethora of animations. Compare him to however a living-breathing human being and you’ll see that no person pops around or does 360’s(pun intended) around themselves like that. But to the developers credit, they did the best they could, considering the hardware limitations. However it did get much better with Uncharted 4, but let’s leave it at that.

The current pinnacle of character animation in Western titles

So what we’ve established now is that the Japanese are more keen to keep it un-naturalistic on purpose, while the Westerners tend to push the animations as far as they can. And here’s where I will ask a question but won’t go into much speculation as it’d take a smarter man than me to figure out how things should, and more importantly, would turn out. The question however stands: Can games reach a level of complexity where character animation can mimic real life movement one on one from a controllers input?

In-Game animation
In-Cut scene animation

From practise it seems in the East not much effort is put into that aspect, while in the West it seems to a very important part of game development. At least for certain AAA developers.

Maybe the problem, or more precisely the answer lies not in better animations but in better controls. Games like Heavy Rain and Until Dawn have tried to implement different control schemes to make the movement less reliant on the player, with even forcing tank-like controls on them, just to slow down the characters movement. But as people who have played those titles can state, the illusion can just as easily be broken. It may be necessary to sacrifice responsive controls for more fluid animation, though I doubt most developers would opt for that.Games like Hellblade, Ryse: Son of Rome and Until Dawn show us that as long as we are viewing a in-engine scripted cut scene, it has become more indistinguishable than ever. However, the facade is quickly broken once actual gameplay is in motion. The player can easily see the discrepancies when in natural movement and when a button prompts a fixed animation that usually jolts the player characters slightly into the desired position, so that all the animations look smooth and models won’t clip.

To conclude, I believe this will (hopefully) just be a passing issue. As the technology for this gen matures, the animation discrepancies will most likely dissipate, at least in the Western AAA scene, less likely in the Eastern market, as they above all else put gameplay. A wise choice, no doubt.