CG Advances – Part 2: How Close Are We to “Real?”

In Part 1, we looked at the case of the British documentary “Exposure: Gaddafi and the IRA,” and how for about 30 seconds, it used footage of a video game instead of the real-life footage which the creators said they had available. The case brings an interesting question to light. No, not “what the hell were they thinking??” but “how realistic are graphics getting?” The following examples showcase some of the best of video game realism we see today.

Backgrounds

Video game companies are working hard to make gamers feel really “in the moment.” One such companies is Bethesda Softworks (known best as just “Bethesda”), whose games are on such a massive scope that completing every quest or mission is – practically speaking – impossible. The newest game, recently released, is “Skyrim,” and it’s Bethesda’s biggest game yet. In fact, Skyrim is one of those RPGs (Role-Playing Games) that don’t end when the game is over. Skyrim is regarded with high esteem for several reasons.

One of the reasons that I can attest to – from playing earlier Bethesda games – is that the landscapes you encounter in the game are beautiful. I’ve never seen another game series that made me appreciate nature by simply virtually walking around, from town to town. The following video shows Skyrim’s impressive graphics by utilizing the “time lapse” film technique. It shows how the world in the game spins, and reveals amazing scenery such as the majestic aurora borealis. The music seems relatively inappropriate, but the visuals are fantastic.

When it comes to backgrounds and aesthetics, Japanese RPGs often enter the equation. In fact, one of the most romantic scenes in video games was from the 2009 game “Final Fantasy XIII.” Final Fantasy games are generally known for their colourful characters, interesting stories, and gorgeous graphics. Obviously video games have not historically catered to romantic themes, so the competition isn’t exactly fierce, but nowadays games are including more adult content from both Eastern and Western developers. That is, instead of the standard implications and sexual innuendo, there are more games trying to show the more cinematic aspects of passionate romance (e.g., kissing, professions of love, etc.). The scene in question can be viewed in English below (and with Spanish subtitles here), and the graphics don’t disappoint. But you may as well skip the first half, since it won’t be interesting if you haven’t played the game.

Kinetics/Body Mechanics

Before developers were any good at making gorgeous scenery, they were working on character animations.

The opening scene from “Onimusha 3” shows how far graphics developers have come in terms of body mechanics and physics. The main characters’ faces are based off of real people, such as Takeshi Kaneshiro, but that doesn’t guarantee the best-looking faces in video games. In fact, the faces are really nothing compared to the human kinetics seen in the following video. This video has some of the best fight choreography from a video game ever. The Japanese version is here, but the following is in English:

That’s pretty impressive, especially considering it came out almost eight years ago, on the Playstation 2. Games nowadays generally make cutscenes look, in one way or another, like a movie – a far cry from what the technologically-limited games people used to play looked like.

Nowadays, there are games like the “Assassin’s Creed 2,” which seem to have the same caliber of graphics people pay money to see in movie theatres. The way they make characters more realistic in-game (and sometimes in cutscenes as well) is by hooking up real actors to sensors in a process called “motion capture.” This probably isn’t news to anyone, but for the unfamiliar, this link shows a video of one of the motion capture actors in Assassin’s Creed 2. And the following video is of the game trailer.

As you can see, some of the faces (especially the women’s faces, for whatever reason) are not particularly realistic. However, both the Onimusha 3 and Assassin’s Creed videos are good examples of fluid animations. So what you should really be paying attention to is the detail in the small movements, such as when the character stumbles or clashes his sword with an opponents’ weapon. These subtle movements were never seen in the video games of the past, but now they don’t have to be left to the imagine. Notwithstanding the obvious demand for a suspension of disbelief, it’s this kind of detail that makes many games look like the characters seem more bound by the same laws of physics as we are. In fact, in-game physics have been exploited for years to make virtual Rube Goldberg Machines.

But let’s get one thing straight… realism in cutscenes are one thing. The real question is, how close to reality can we get when we’re actually playing the game and not just watching a movie? The answer is: Pretty damn close.

Facial Realism

I had the pleasure of trying out the game “L.A. Noire,” released earlier this year. It’s a detective thriller set in the 1940’s. Like Onimusha, the game uses actors for faces, but L.A. Noire did something very few games have done before: They used the equivalent of motion capture on faces, not just bodies. The entire game took at least seven years to create, but I think it was worth it, as it did it all so well. In fact, it is easily one of the most realistic-looking games I’ve ever seen.

In the 1940's, everyone had to wear hats. See? Realistic.

This game caters to players who enjoy the appeal of discerning human body language. That is, the faces are so realistic that it takes real skill on the part of the player to detect whether or not someone is lying. This contrasts with what many games entail, which is increasing the strength (or whatever attribute) of a character, which essentially requires time more than ingenuity. Here’s a video showing what the game is all about:

I find it necessary to say that these YouTube videos do not do justice to the detail given in the game when it is played on a regular TV set. The videos here pale in comparison, and I was truly blown away by the graphics when I played it. One of my favourite scenes demonstrates that graphical quality lies in the animations of emotions, involving the main character talking to a couple of thugs. Things really heat up when the main character’s partner loses his patience. But the following video shows the technology that was used to reach this level of graphical realism:

And this video talks about the game in terms of the two main gameplay themes, which are investigating crime scenes and interrogating witnesses and suspects:

People are taking facial expressions in video games seriously now. With more video-game technology centred around cameras, we might soon be seeing instant facial avatars in a few more video-game generations. In fact, new developments may come as early as the next year. A recent article from Scientific American said this:

…According to the Eurogamer Web site, the next generation of Microsoft’s Kinect gaming technology will bring lip-reading artificial intelligence closer with major improvements in motion sensing and voice recognition.

The gist is that the Kinect 2 will be able to send more information faster to the Xbox gaming console. This has led to speculation that the Kinect 2 will become sensitive enough to be able to read facial expressions and detect emotions based on the tone of a player’s voice.

The virtual world is indeed becoming more realistic. However, to make a video game truly mimic reality, developers have to do something that I don’t think will happen anytime soon – they have to engineer humanlike artificial intelligence. Graphics will continue to noticeably increase, but perceivably improved artificial intelligence will probably advance slowly. There’s no telling how slow, but for now, gamers will have to settle for the realism in graphics and not in human-like or artificial psychology. So here’s the future of video games, demonstrated in the most disturbing way possible:

What this Means for the Media

I have a feeling that in 10 years, journalists will be taking seriously the fact-checking process for videos in general. In fact, I believe that it won’t be long until propaganda groups start using game footage as deception about the hardships that they face. There are already plenty examples of people doctoring or staging photos to garner sympathy or receive relief funds, so it should logically follow that they will use the more realistic games in their deceit. Until then, propaganda groups will have to settle for ripping off scenes from 1980’s movies.

Whatever the case, games are getting more realistic. One day, I believe that there may be no discernable difference between them and us. And for better or for worse, it may come sooner than you think.

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