Final Fantasy XIII battling the uncanny valley

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Final Fantasy XIII battling the uncanny valley


Post by Valigarmander » Sun Dec 20, 2009 7:12 pm

1UP's RPG Blog : Final Fantasy XIII: The Eyes Have It
You know the term "uncanny valley," right? The concept-slash-phenomenon which dictates that animated characters feel less and less convincing the closer they come to looking real? Sometimes it's the way they're rendered, more often it's in the animation, but there's always something. To put it inelegantly: Fake people look fake, and the harder they try not to look fake, the faker they look. Yes.

Game developers keep making tiny strides toward creating more convincing computer people, though. The PS2 Silent Hill games gave their characters skin flaws and visible blemishes, and the resulting uncanniness helped make the series feel even spookier than before. Half-Life 2 simply used really damn good 3D modeling and design. And now Final Fantasy XIII has stepped up the game with a single minor detail: Eye movement.


You can't tell from this still screenshot, of course. But eyeball technology in games has come a long way in this past decade! I remember thinking it was a pretty big deal when the main cast of Metal Gear Solid 2 had eyes that were modeled independently from their faces, especially since what passed for eyes on the characters from the first game were these vague shadowy regions between their mouths and hairlines. Giving your digital people eyes that actually move around inside their sockets (instead of simply being pasted-on decals) is a pretty big step toward creating something akin to realism. Unfortunately, no one's really gone the next step since MGS2. Characters' eyes in many games move as they talk, sure, but they always have this glassy thousand-yard stare. They look at a fixed point and stare unwaveringly at it. It's especially jarring in otherwise impressive BioWare games, because the person talking to you in a game like Mass Effect stares obsessively at you until the conversation's over, then they glance to the side, then their head turns in the same direction, and then their body rotates to follow so they can sidle away. It's awfully mechanical.

Well, not in FFXIII. I was struck some time ago by the early trailers for the game in which we see heroine Lightning up-close and her eyes flicker about slightly, but I didn't think too much of it; that was all pre-rendered CG, and CG does all kinds of fancy things that you never see in-game. But no! Much to my surprise, FFXIII's real-time cutscenes feature those same realistic eye flickers for its characters. And I'm impressed.

Does this seem too minor a detail to write about? It probably is, but it's a detail that's really caught my attention. The motion capture and character modeling in FFXIII aren't really that much better than in other games, but the eyes truly sell the characters. There's a flashback sequence a few hours into the game which features Lightning talking to someone at a festival, and the movement of her eyes is really what makes the sequence. As she listens to the conversation at hand, she gazes off in the distance while listening, and her eyes flicker and change focus ever so slightly as the dialogue turns and her mood changes. With those tiny motions, she expresses an impressive range of unvoiced thoughts in a few seconds -- and in a game as heavily story- and character-driven as FFXIII, these subtle cues are essential. Again, it's not really the tech that's significant here, but rather how effectively it's applied.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that it's a Japanese game that takes this forward stride, as the Japanese tend to focus on people's eyes more than their mouths. Or so the explanation goes for the fact that Western emoticons tend to focus around the mouth while Asian emotes are more about the eyes, :) versus ^_^ and all that. Anyway, I'm still not 100% sold on FFXIII's approach to role-playing, but its approach to narrative presentation is as solid as its approach to combat.
Neat, I hadn't noticed that before. That'll look pretty cool.


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