Identical voices and phantom swords

Publication date: 28 January 2013
Originally published 2012 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 04-Feb-2013.


Every now and then, somebody mentions the amazing fact that the video-game industry is now bigger than the movie business.

Calculating the exact value of the various entertainment industries is complicated by the ancient cultural tradition of those industries, in which all accountants must tell as many lies as possible. But, by some measures, the coin-operated arcade-game business beat the US movie and music industries, put together, in the early 1980s:

There was a small dip in the home-video-game market in 1977, and a much bigger dip in 1983. And 1983 was also the year when Return of the Jedi, Scarface, WarGames, Trading Places, two Bond movies, and several other movies about which I care less, came out.

So for a year or two there, the video-game money graph may have not been on top. But video arcades were still doing fine. Whichever way you add the funny numbers, video games have been very big business since Space Invaders.

(Space Invaders, by itself, made about two billion US dollars in 1982. Total box-office receipts for E.T. in 1982 were about 360 million.)

So, today, we've had going on for 35 years of that business getting more and more money from players, and ploughing more and more money into games.

Which leads me to wonder why games so often look so... cheap.

I'm not talking about technical limitations, here. The early arcade games had awful video and sound and little variation in gameplay; in 1980, this...

...was absolute cutting-edge stuff. And today's games still have problems forced on them by hardware or engine limitations.

Skyrim, for instance, finally managed to stop the Oblivion engine making everything on a table levitate slightly when you touch one item (I think that was originally a workaround to minimise the number of items that fell down through the table, thus becoming un-gettable, when your magical touching of a nearby object caused the physics engine to start affecting them).

But when you walk through a door into a Skyrim building or dungeon that has a separate map, you, like anybody else who passes through such a door, still mysteriously dematerialise and then pop into existence inside. (And then, in certain buildings, your follower comes jogging in from the back room, having somehow managed to enter via a different door.) And Skyrim has precisely 24 pre-calculated world-lighting shadow-angles, one for each in-game hour, which tick over in disconcerting steps. And so on.

I've no quarrel with game-makers who stick with antiquated engines in order to reduce development time - or, of course, because they're developing PC and console versions in parallel, and current consoles are now rather elderly.

I'm also not talking about games that really are cheap, in the non-pejorative sense. Indie outfits with a permanent staff of three or fewer people are obviously not going to have a lot of Lance Henriksen character voices, or fifty trillion pixels of hand-drawn textures.

But there are some failures for which the makers of modern top-end triple-A mass-market super-games have no excuse, just as George Lucas had no excuse for casting Little Wooden Boy Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace.

One large inexcusable sin is massive re-use of voice actors for multiple characters.

Stephen Russell voices thirty-one characters in Skyrim. He could, I feel safe in saying, be better at making them sound different. A new player should not, on first visiting Whiterun, discover that the priest Andurs and the merchant Belethor sound exactly the same.

(If you're wondering why male Nords sound so similar, it's because Michael Gough voices sixty-two of them!)

I do not know why major game companies can't hire more voice actors to avoid this problem. They don't need a real Actor of a Thousand Voices like Billy West (Fry, Farnsworth, Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan? All Billy). Just cast a few dozen unknowns.

Voice work isn't as easy as it looks. When you play a game or watch an animation and all of the voice work sounds strange and stilted, that may be because Liam Neeson was having a really bad day, but it was probably because the production people failed to get him to realise what situation his character was in and what they were thinking, or because they just couldn't afford more than one unrehearsed take worth of Liam Neeson's time.

But the world teems with underemployed actors who'd jump at the chance to do voice work, and would do as many takes as you liked for McDonald's wages. You could audition over Skype, for pity's sake.

And yet, for some reason, for every Bastion narrator, there are ten Sunny Smiles... es.

A less obvious shortcoming is character animation.

To pick on Skyrim again, Bethesda did at least take the bold step of occasionally making people you're talking to shift from side to side a bit, or fold their arms, rather than just zoom-stare into your soul for the duration of the conversation. Other games try harder, but not much harder; BioWare have been recycling clunky robotic NPC-movement loops since the first Dragon Age, and the generally excellent Deus Ex: Human Revolution has "dancing to music only they can hear" animations for NPCs in conversation.

But then look at Saints Row: The Third, which has fantastic character animation. When I was originally writing this piece for Atomic magazine, people were oohing and aahing about the 2012 E3 gameplay videos, but even the gobsmackingly realistic Watch Dogs... no better than SR3 in the idle-animation department.

And then, there are combat animations.

Some combat-animation problems may be truly insoluble. I'm not sure how you could ever animate a humanoid avatar so they move realistically when the player, in the name of keeping gameplay fun, is allowed to instantly transition from running forward to running backward. (Anybody who manages to make circle-strafing look realistic deserves a major award.)

But melee combat in most action games is a big old mess. Even when it's a single-player game with no lag problems, you commonly see a fist clearly miss by a mile, but "hit" as far as the game is concerned. Or a sword clearly slices clean through a person from shoulder to hip, but does only one hit worth of damage. Or, to pick on Skyrim one more time, the game pops out into sexily blurred third-person for a finishing move, allowing you to clearly see your character brutally stabbing the ground (with, uh, a mace...) two feet in front of a fallen foe, who then dies, presumably of embarrassment.

(And, yes, it's been said before but it bears repeating, no bandit should ever respond to his neck being pierced by an arrow by saying "is someone there?")

There's a decent technical reason why most of this happens. Character models, you see, have very little real existence in most games. As far as the game engine's concerned, humanoids are all pretty much Dalek-shaped. The visible arms, legs, weapons and equipment are just cosmetic, and insubstantial.

People have made games that don't work like this, and the result looks, if anything, even worse. If a sword passes through you in Mount & Blade then you're in very big trouble, but fights in that game involve much strangely wooden flailing:

Don't get me wrong, the game is great, and not only because you can do this.

And then there's Bushido Blade (from 1997!), and its one one sequel, which both look like normal fighting games at first.

Weapons can still pass through each other, and the player models. And it can be just a little ridiculous when you hew through a bunch of mooks as if you're playing Golden Axe or something, and then fight a pimp in purple...

...and enjoy some very bad dialogue.

But then you notice that instead of the traditional fighting-game flurries of dozens or hundreds of blows, fights in the Bushido Blades often contain exactly one successful attack. Hitting the enemy more than a few times without winning is almost impossible.

And then there was Die By The Sword, in which you may have been fighting skeletons and other such silliness, but you had complete (if rather difficult...) control over your weapon positioning at all times. And said weapon is deadly at all times, too; it's perfectly possible to die by just running up to an enemy and impaling yourself on his unmoving sword.

But again, it looks ridiculous.

It was ten years before the first Mount & Blade, but just the same - this is Clash of the Incredibly Drunk Fantasy Warriors. Or BattleMechs Attempting To Play Tennis.

Zipping back to the modern age, there's Dark Souls...

...which is rather hard, and kills you over and over and over again, but gets... pretty close... to having realistic-looking combat... some of the time.

Only when melee combat is restricted to a few pre-generated animations, as in some of the more dramatic deaths above, or in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, can it both look and work "right".

(Whenever I link to that video I feel compelled to point out to anybody's horrified, or indeed delighted, auntie who happens to be watching that it is false advertising; Human Revolution is not actually like that. You can even finish the game with a body count of only four, though it's not easy. And if they actually play the game, I think most aunties will agree that you meet a few people who really do need shootin'.)

So, yeah, there's a long way to go.

But if you take Space Invaders' year of release, 1978, as the starting point for the mass-market game industry, and similarly arbitrarily say that Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, released in 1902, marks the same moment for cinema, then when the movie industry was the same age as the video game industry is now, Hitchcock had just made The 39 Steps, and Reifenstahl had just made Triumph of the Will.

Triumph of the Will was such big news in cinematography (as opposed to, ah, politics...) because it was the first use of many filming techniques that rapidly became ubiquitous. Telephoto lenses, aerial shots, the basic visual and musical structure that makes a documentary impactful; all were new then, and all are of course done much, much better today.

So it's asking too much to expect games to have already come up with their 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Dark Side of the Moon. (A hatful of games have been already been called "gaming's Citizen Kane"; personally, I think one or another early Final Fantasy should qualify, on the grounds of being similarly innovative, tedious and interminable.)

We're still in the stage when movies were black and white with lousy sound, low-light shots are either incomprehensibly muddy or obviously fake, and even minor visual effects, all the way down to making indoor lighting look realistic, are jarringly clunky. Computer entertainment may be developing faster than film did, but it is still early days.

But dammit, that's not going to stop me demanding something better.

It's Just Not Right that Captain Kirk had more realistic fistfights than the Dragonborn.

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