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A Digital Tempest, good omens for Empathy Games

In a couple of days I’ll be getting back in a lycra capture suit, to perform a live performance captured scene for Canada 3.0. It’s going to be projected in real-time to the conference hall, where my co-actors will be interacting with a virtual "Caliban"

Pascal Langlois, Blogger

April 23, 2012

6 Min Read

In a couple of days I’ll be getting back in a lycra capture suit, to perform a live performance captured scene for Canada 3.0.  It’s going to be projected in real-time to the conference hall, where my co-actors will be interacting with the character on the screen.  So obviously, I’m brushing up on my Shakespeare.  That’s right, Shakespeare.


Caliban, Illustrated by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953)

As far as I know this will be the first time that a scene from Shakespeare is going to be performance captured in real time – and I suspect it’s the first time the bard has made it to capture at all.  For an artist that has straddled every media in one form or another over the past 400 years, it’s the right time, place, and material, to demo the results of an ongoing convergent collaboration between traditional skills, and cutting edge technology.

Please take a look at the press release here to get more info on capture and animation studio morro images, and Motives in Movement.

We chose Caliban, and a scene from The Tempestas the conference shares a home with the Festival Theatre, arguably the home of Shakespeare in North America.   The themes of colonisation, slavery, and land ownership, are also resonant in Canadian culture.

This is arguably Shakespeare’s most fantastical play, filled with magic and spirits, but importantly to us, Caliban is human.  Capture tech demos tend to use alien or futuristic characters that reflect the industry status quo rather than pushing its boundaries. However, if the tech itself is progressive, then why not the content?   There are an increasing number of projects that push the medium into new territory, where art, narrative, interactivity and game, are all blending into new experiences. Their success relies on successful cross-discipline collaborations at every stage of development.

 “For something so starkly minimalist in its presentation, and a game without any dialogue, Journey is an extraordinary achievement: a game about life and death, and a tale that's both personal and vast in its scope. It's the story of existence, the enormous number of ways we interpret our lives, and the ways in which we react to those beliefs. Not bad for an hour-long game in which all you do is walk, jump and play.” Lewis Denby, Videogamer

The best art has always been able to speak both on a personal and on a social level.  Some of my favourite poems manage to nail a fundamental truth about the world, which simultaneously speaks to a personal truth, or vice versa.  These moments go beyond the medium.  Something happens to my perception of the world, a shift, a momentary clarity. This experience is not isolated to poetry, but has been provoked in me by theatre film, music, and latterly, in game.

These moments have an effect beyond the medium.  Something happens to one part of my perception of the world, a shift, a momentary clarity.  What makes interactive experiences so remarkable are that they are founded on this visceral link, something that is generally taken for granted.  Something as simple as a quick-time event has immense power to trigger engagement, to give us a vested interest in the outcome as participant, rather than from the safety of being an observer. The paramount question then becomes, what depth of experience are you offering to justify that participation?

The critical reception of Journey (Topping the PSN chart) and the release of two other progressive developers efforts that have occurred since GDC, have captured my imagination.  Quantic Dream’s tech demo “Kara”, and Camouflaj’s POC demo of “Republique”. I believe these can be considered two more positive examples of the progress of what I call “empathy games”.



thatgamecompany- screenshot "Journey"

*spoiler alert* One of the most pleasing aspects of Journey, for me, was the silent complicité that could evolve between a co-traveller and I.  Working out if I was to lead, to follow, or to leave alone, involved reading into simple nonverbal “behaviours”. Sometimes this would involve singing at each other.  If I was alone, I would press the button and the identical sound would become a call for help, or attention;  or just keeping myself company.  The emotional response this created in me may have originated from a game mechanic, but it was interactivity that turned it into meaning.



Quantic Dream: "Kara" Screenshot

Most commonly described as a “Tech Demo”, the boldest aspect was far from technological.  The performance capture and facial animation was some of the best I’ve seen.  However, game engine notwithstanding, the tools themselves are hardly novel.  Animation was used re-create eye movement and the mouth would have needed animation too, as these aspects are invisible, or prone to error in any marker-based capture. (Stephen Olsen, Mocap Supervisor at QD described it as “a pretty "normal" performance capture setup” – Linkedin Group),

Therefore my own judgement on Kara, is less about technology, and more about its nature as a short film, for that is what it has more in common with than the traditional tech-demo.

The short form requires immense skill and efficiency of storytelling, if it is to have an emotional impact.  Looking at the comments, tweets and reviews, it is evident that for many, Kara had that impact.

I’m still split as to whether the short manipulates its audience on a basis of female fetishisation, or whether it was a comment on it. If the former, it simply adds to the strange portrayal of women in game culture.  However, I prefer to believe it’s a subtle joke on the industry’s attitude to women.

Therefore, David Cage deserves a high score for creating something that displays technical brilliance, creative vision, and uses the medium to comment on itself.  Probably.

In my opinion, however, one of the the biggest challenges for Quantic Dream, will not be a question of graphic fidelity, but rather how to evolve from basic Quick Time events towards a more immediate, emotional interface.    Any interactive drama that uses button presses that require cognitive understanding of semantic-based options, must have a user interface that matches its graphic ambitions.

Taking advantage of an alternative interface, Ryan Payton’s proposed game “Republique” hopes to develop an interactive narrative based game that will advance (or invent) the genre of narrative based empathy gaming on the iOS.

CAMOUFLAJ: Republique.


Camouflaj, Republique: Character "Hope" from Kickstarter page

Ryan’s concept thrilled me from the first moment he spoke about it.  It was clear that we shared a love of interactive narrative and gameplay. What Ryan’s done is find a way to bring it to a handheld platform, using the pinch, swipe and tap, to give an immediate and relatively unmediated interaction with the world and the character “Hope”.

In the spirit of disclosure I should come clean about the fact that I had some involvement in this.  I helped cast the mocap actors, trial Dynamixyz’s Performer Headcam, and I’m old friends with the director John Dower from the days before Milo & Kate.

However, I sincerely hope that the Camouflaj kickstart campaign succeeds.  I'm looking forward to seeing more  developers willing to challenge David’s apparent monopoly in a genre that I, and a growing number of gamers, would like to see flourish through healthy competition.

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