Wednesday, March 28, 2012

From Caricature to Character: The Simpsons and photo-realism in gaming

The Simpsons are just not as good as they used to be. There's no point in arguing it, although I doubt anyone does. I would like to sit here and say "If you disagree, you're wrong", but I don't think anyone would be offended (certainly my primary goal with this blog). The only part that's actually any bit curious about the whole thing, is "why?". There have been enough reasons discussed that the curious bit of it is now boring, but it's still worth considering at least. Most people claim that the jokes aren't hitting because they've just ran out. I think that's kind of a silly idea, but perhaps we've just grown so connected to the Simpsons characters that anything they say feels like a repeat. Others say that the writers are different and just not as good, or that the main ones have just changed. I don't know about the actual personnel, so perhaps, and the argument about them changing is usually tied to political or social messages that run through the characters, and it's certainly true in some respects that the ideology of the show has become too transparent and too much of a force.

The most generally agreed upon aspect that has changed the show, from what I've seen, is that the lovable characters from the old days have just become caricatures of what was always a background trait. They say Burns is less a humorous, evil, old man with as much money as the situation called for, but a nefarious super-villain that is only placed in to create some abstract evil. Or they say Flanders is no longer some silly overly-religious neighbor that is just a counterpart to Homer, but he's now an aggressive soldier of Christianity, and a placemat for commentary on the "Religious Right". And I'll agree with this because it's right and tragic and sad.

There's an inverse, however. With the destruction of the subtleties and charm of the characters, there is also the addition of computer generated models, allowing for more subtleties to be expressed in the characters, and a decreased workload and faster development time and whatever. Something was lost with this, however, something indescribable (lie), something that was a driving backbone for the comedy that many never notice (lie). This charm that came with this hand-drawn creatures of love was thrown aside and forgotten about. In that charm however, were simplified and largely EXPRESSIVE creatures... expressive in ways that were absurd and comical. EXAMPLE: (let me just say that telling blogger to do this was no easy task and i ended up just editing the pictures and html myself)

The first picture is from season something early, fifth I think, the second from season 16. You've probably seen the first picture. You've probably seen it a lot if you are on the internet as much as I am. If you've watched The Simpsons enough you can probably recall everything about this scene and this episode (the one where the Quimby Kid is charged with assault and Bart played hookie, The Boy That Knew Too Much was the name of it) and can most definitely recall the joke about it (meow meow meow meow). However, even if you can't recall all that, you probably should admit that that picture is hilarious to you, because it is. In all its imperfection and disgust you find an absurdity and charm that just feels personable to you. The face is somewhere between worry and agitation, but the unaligned eyes, bold lines and just the general disheveled feel of it give the feeling of something different: it's love (or at least as close as I wish to concede).

The second however, is just too perfect. The face is a perfect collection of determination. The posture is abrupt and bold, the eyes stare into the glorious scenery of soviet flag flying majestically above a wartorn Berlin, it's the symbol of boisterousness and supremacy. But that's it. There's nothing to hold dear to it. There's nothing personable about it. You get the message, but you don't connect to the characters or the inner workings of character. It's just a plain and obvious picture of bravado.

There is something lost when you try to more accurately portray human emotion, mostly because it's not human. Humans are much better at portraying human emotion that humans can replicate (through non-humans that is). Perhaps this is why cat pictures are so funny... we attribute human emotions that resemble something that is not human in the least, and one that we do not accept as human. Or maybe it's just because cats are super cute.

In gaming, photo-realism is no longer a spectacle of how far we've gone in terms of technology... well that's a lie, the industry constantly wants to push the bounds of technology, and gamers love them for it. That's why if you see some Bioware rep promoting Mass Effect they'll put as much emphasis on the character models and the ability to capture the subtleties of body language as they will about the subpar, weightless, thoughtless shooting sections (sorry off track). But even beyond that, photo-realism has become the standard. In every non-nintendo blockbuster, you'll see it. Heavily detailed faces, overtly human gestures, everything about the characters are portraying human. Perhaps this is just a western ideology, something GRITTY and EPIC and stuff, but I'm a westerner and I think in a Western frame so that's how I must write this. The care is really put less into adding personality into the characters, but making them as lifelike as possible, and hoping the personality comes from that. It's even gotten to the point where the game models themselves are basically just the actors that they resemble.

But in the end, they aren't... and they never will be. We accept that a game model is a human as much as we accept they are REPRESENTING a human. We cannot connect to them in a way in which we connect to a human, even when that human is representing a thing. We accept Tom Hanks as a distraught, exhausted Captain in Saving Private Ryan because that's who he is, and that's what frame we're in. This is the same as we accept Jack Shepard as a Captain of an intergalactic force of mercenaries and other well-wishers (or the opposite). We don't accept Jack Shepard as Jack Shepard, however, and we don't connect with him as Jack Shepard, the "Jack Shepard" outside of the game character (even neglecting the fact that he doesn't exist outside the game character).

That's not really important, however. We don't necessarily have to connect to Jack Shepard as a human, if we can connect to Jack Shepard representing human emotions. The problem is, with all the subtleties he's (or she, but for the sake of it, Jack is the default, actually from here on let's talk about Madison from Heavy Rain) meant to capture. When Madison is trying to capture sadness, she captures sadness. When she's capturing sly determination, the same. Madison is as perfect as the creation, and she captures everything with perfection. There are no stringent subtleties that come out of just genuine reaction, everything is meticulous and planned. It's a perversion... we're set in a framework that is forced upon us, and we are forced through the creator's lens (such is art and entertainment).

It's not that it's wrong to portray a human, it's a discussion of "to what end". EXAMPLE:... well nevermind, I'll give you homework because I'm lazy and not really sure it's necessary to include this example explicitly. You know Silent Hill 3, or at the least, you have a vague knowledge of what it looks like, and what the main character looks like. She's a wreck. An absolute wreck. Every part of her face and body projects that; everything about her is romanticized to be a wreck. When she is worried or frightened, or even happy if that ever happens, you are pretty well in-tuned to it. It's not something that is overly-present, but it's something that is PRONOUNCED (with caps no less) with the very design of the character and the game. Madison is kind of a wreck too. I mean, just from what she's going through and stuff, but even in her design. When she looks sad, you can tell she's sad, when she looks scared, she does... but when she looks "not particularly descriptive face F", she looks...? Perhaps this is just me being manipulative, but anyone who has played Heavy Rain can certainly attest to this. And yes, it's true that humans have moments of being nondescript, but A)Madison isn't human B)Does she ever need to be ABJECTLY human, to the point that she gives meaning to meaninglessness just by pretending to be human? and C) what's the point of nothing when something can be there? The question is sure to arise "won't it be tacky and pointless itself to always be expressing something?" and sure perhaps, but expressing something isn't always expressing something. When Heather from Silent Hill 3 is nondescript, she's still something. It's not in your face, but it's present and personable. She is human and expressive, a mess without actively presenting herself as a mess. This is Homer in season 5. That face is somewhere between worry and agitation as I mentioned, but it's neither.

But perhaps subtleties have their place. I noticed as I was typing this, that I had no real direction to go in. I'm not trying to say that photo-realism is worthless and all games that strive for it would be better as a more animated artstyle. Really, I'm only even barely saying that you need more personality in the design of photo-realistic games (take something like MGS or Gears of War or Vanquish. They are heavily detailed faces, but they are characterized and personalized in ways that are sort of inhuman within human). So really, I can accept photo-realism, and I can even praise it if it's used to a successful means. Obviously I'm talking about LA Noire, which had about a lifetime of hype built up for "realistic faces, with the ability to present subtleties that allow for a new dimension of decision-making in games" and stuff. That's really quite attractive too. Just imagine how intuitive that should be. We can be like real detectives, and we can really fail at this in a cool way. Of course, LA Noire was kind of a failure. You couldn't fail for one thing. The faces were awkward and such for another. Maybe we could take LA Noire for a gigantic failure that proves the inaccuracy of "human representations". (note: I once had a rad idea for LA Noire that i think I may make a post about if I'm ever bored and thinking about it. It includes much more mischief than the current LA Noire). Maybe it doesn't... maybe we're just not there, but regardless, the idea is attractive, and I'm not against it.

So what am I saying then? I guess I'm just bringing the question of photo-realism, because it's rarely ever questioned. On the boards (IGN boards, my homeground of sorts), we had a discussion about this, stringently linked to Heavy Rain. I kinda forget how it went, but I do remember one person suggesting that I was saying that humans are just poor at expressing things, and that animated movies are the height of cinema. I obviously denied this, humans are natural at expressing, humans themselves are not the problems, it's tending to human expression and forcing yourself into those rules that is. Photo-realism is rad and all, but forcing the creation to abide by natural habits is unnecessary and, honestly jarring to a player. Even aside from the uncanny valley (I consider it an achievement that I basically got through the entire thing without even mentioning it :D) there is something inhuman about non-human creations, even if they tend to human traits. The Simpsons isn't better because the characters tend to plain human expressions, it was better because it used to present SOMETHING that we connected as both human and absurdly inhuman. That's a comedic goal, but even in a dramatic piece, being inhuman is not necessarily against representing a human emotion, and being human is not necessarily expressive and natural.

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