Friday, 23 October 2009

From wood toys to little girls and boys.

For those of you who missed it the newest L4D2 trailer was leaked today.

Now, I had something else lined up for this week, but given the fact that everybody and their dog with internet and even the most remote of connections to videogames have most likely seen this by now, and that it touches a very relevant issue in the gaming (and even movie) industry, I figured I’d strike while the iron is hot.

Here’s the thing, that clip is not even 3 minutes long, and it’s already better than entire movies I’ve seen and games I’ve played. In 3 minutes Valve managed to effectively create and convey more interesting, well-rounded, likable, and above all, believable characters than most videogames and movies do in their hours of extended cinematics.

Now, part of that is obviously due to technical issues like the amazing graphics, particularly the fantastically realistic and expressive facial expressions and features, and the excellent voice acting… Part of it is due to the fact Valve hires real writers to take care of things like “characterization” and “storytelling”, things most other companies brush off as menial and get someone to do in their lunch break… But above all is the fact that Valve as a company just gets it.

For instances, while the graphics are very impressive, it’s hard to argue something like the CryEngine 3 couldn’t pull equal, or even superior quality. Even something like the UT3 engine could potentially go toe-to-toe with the current Source engine. But here’s the thing: The source engine is just as good, or even more detailed, in the places that matter, like facial features that give character and expression to the survivors while remaining pretty good in the other, more “secondary-eye-candy” areas, like the folds in Nick’s jacket. Sure L4D2 may not have nearly as impressive vegetation as Crysis, but you won’t find a single Korean in that tropical island that can match the fluid expression in Coach’s face when Nick tells him that “maybe the helicopter is made of chocolate”. You don’t need Coach to say anything there. His face says everything.

But that’s still the “technical” part. The fundamental, the very core of what makes these characters so intrinsically “real”, far more real than even many movies ever accomplish, is the fact that they’re humans. No, I don’t mean their anatomy. I mean the fact that they behave like normal human beings would. They have consistent personalities, flaws, traits… They’re not generic one liner spewing bullet dispensing automatons, nor whiny hysterical self-pitying “angsty” overgrown teenagers. They’re survivors of a zombie apocalypse. They HAVE to be strong and brave, and consequently a bit cocky, to have endured and survived so far, but they are scared, they are human. Elli nearly looses it in that elevator when he sees a horde waiting for them. He looks like he's about to cry. He’s legitimately scared. And no matter who you are, you would be too in that situation. Nick lets out a smirk when he opens an abandoned cash register, presumably full of money, letting a bit of greed shine through. Coach indulges himself to a chocolate bar while he satirizes the “safety protocol” that obviously did nothing for most people, and even though Rochelle seems tough enough to kick Lara Croft’s ass up and down the zombie-infested street, she nearly curls up into a ball of denial and disbelief when they realize rescue isn’t coming. She’s tough, but terrified. They all are. It’s human nature.

If you’re having trouble seeing my point, think about Pinocchio. Yes, the children’s story. Remember how he’s not just turned into a little boy, he has to grow into one? He starts off as an animated piece of wood with all the character of an empty barrel, runs off, does good and bad. He experiences things that shape the way he grows as a character. By the end of the story, even before the fairy turns him into meat and bones, though he’s made of wood he’s more “real” than any other character presented in that story. That is a perfect, 126 years old analogy to proper characterization. Characters need to act human before they look human. You can’t just tack on skin to a robot and expect them to feel real.

And that’s the bottom line. If you want your story to mean something, you need people to relate to your characters. And if you want that to happen, you need your characters to be real and believable in more than just physics, you need to turn them into real people. More than their body, you need their personality to feel like it’s made of real skin, and not wood.

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