The Half Life universe has begun to occupy quite a bit of my thought lately. In fact, that's a bit of an understatement. If I came back here in a couple of days and told you that I had gotten a divorce because of it, just don't be surprised. But it won't be because my wife got so bored with my constant banter that she finally decided to throw me out. Oh no. It would be because I got so tired of her falling asleep in the middle of me telling her my thoughts on the subject and snoring away through all of the good parts!
As an addendum to this current work, it may also interest the gentle reader that I have penned a thread dedicated to why I think it's taking Valve so cursedly long to finally grace us with the game that will end the world of gaming as we know it. That can be found here: http://www.pcgamer.com/forum/showthread.php?t=12625
So, to begin. Recently I read back through the story so far on an incredibly well put together site which you can read here: http://members.shaw.ca/halflifestory/
. It's a fantastic read and really puts all of the events of the games into perspective with a lot of the events that we don't see in the games but either are mentioned therein, or mentioned by the man that penned the HL stories, Marc Laidlaw. Since then what's been occupying my mind is a superficially and thus, quite deceptively simple question; just what can we expect when the long wait for Half Life 3 (or Half Life 2: Episode 3, or whatever. Hell, I'm starting to think the numeral "3" doesn't exist within the quantum confines of the space that Valve headquarters occupies. Maybe they'll just pull an Apple and call it "The New Half Life." Hell, as long as it's got the Freeman in it, a crowbar, and something to slay therewith, I'm cool man. I am cool. By the way, this may be the longest parenthetical statement in the history of mankind, so just to prepare you, the rest of the actual sentence picks back up.... now) is finally punctuated by the progress bar finishing its work after patiently ushering us through the download of the game and the "Play Now" button finally goes live? Well, I'll share with you some of the ideas my wandering mind got up to over the last couple weeks and maybe, if you're still with me at that point, you'd be so kind as to share with me some of yours. Mmmkay?
A Better SOURCE
Sometimes we jaded gamers get so wrapped up in petty things such as storyline,
or character development,
or ya know, like gameplay,
that we begin to forget what really matters; dem grafix! Amiright? So yeah, I'll just leave this here ---> /s
But on a more serious note, Valve has crafted something so great in so many, multifaceted ways with the Half Life games. They've given us a rich story to enjoy, an engaging gameworld with a sense of place that few are able to imbue such a digital space with, and then filled it with characters that we truly, truly care about. On top of all of that, they also managed to push graphics technology in numerous ways with the original source engine. To enumerate a few:
Better facial animations than had ever before been seen in games.
DX9 shaders and lighting models.
Freaking drinkable-looking water in which everything from soda cans to dead bodies floated and acted exactly the way you'd expect.
A robust and nearly pervasive physics engine that not only powered death animations, but turned the gameworld into a puzzle to be solved and made every animation move and flow like poetry.
Doing all of that but still enabling the game engine to be run on hardware that was considered obsolete by every day computing standards and horrifically aged by gaming standards (anyone here remember the TNT2?)
There are a number of other notable examples (3D skyboxes were a huge part of the immersion. Think of the constant presence of the Citadel off in the distance), but for the sake of this treatise, I will constrain myself to those mentioned above. If Valve were only to improve on those areas, without even going beyond just those, we would still have a revolutionary game engine. And this is how they could be doing it:
"All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up."
There have been major advances in facial animation technology since Half Life 2 set the bar in 2004. The gold standard currently must be LA Noire. The techniques used to capture and reproduce an actor's facial movements which Team Bondi employed represented a quantum leap in technology in that crucial area. MotionScan, as the technology is called, records an actor's performance with 32 high resolution cameras, strategically placed to create a fully 3D, 360 degree view of the performance. That data is then translated onto the in-game model whereon the reproduction of the performance is rendered quite magnificently.
So that's in then. We've achieved near perfection in facial animation. That's all she wrote, right? Well, not according to Valve man Jason Mitchell. He is quoted by develop-online.net, in a right spiffing article (to be found here: http://www.develop-online.net/news/3...cial-animation
) as saying, "There’s pros and cons to that LA Noire approach." While he lauds the tech, saying, “It’s impressive technically, for sure,” and continuing, “I’m sure it’s something people will be referring to for years to come on the history of interactive facial tech," he's not convinced that it truly fits with what Valve are trying to accomplish. “The system is based on a playback of a performance, which can go against how we like to think about characters interacting with our players.
“We like our performances to be far more reactive to what the player does, and not to something pre-acted on a sound stage. It’s not completely obvious how [the MotionScan] tech would integrate into our work.”
That's the conundrum then. MotionScan and other motion capture techniques have come a very, very long way and we have seen some impressive acting performances acted out through the digital characters of this generation. But it's not enough. Valve need their tech to be dynamic. To react to the player and the gameworld in a natural way. Simply put, they need their digital people to act more like real people, and not just digital puppets.
While developing the animation system for the original Source, Valve needed something flexible and compelling. Not finding such a technology among those on offer at the time, they set about creating a new one with an interesting basis; "...we found a method outside of traditional computer graphics," says Ken Birdwell in the book, Half Life 2: Raising the Bar. What they found was research from the '70s by one Dr. Paul Ekman who had dedicated himself to diagnosing mental illness based on facial expressions. "What he came up with was a set of about 40 or so 'Facial Action Units,'" says Birdwell. These became the basis for the facial expression system in place in original Source. This way, the animators and scripters had a library of accurate expressions to draw on that all naturally flowed from one to the other. It was dynamic and it was compelling. Further I expect Valve to take a similar approach as they push further than anyone else in the area of compelling digital acting.
One company is working on a technology that could give us a preview as to how Valve may be approaching facial tech. Remedy, the makers of Alan Wake, are using motion capture that is accurate to within .02 inches to capture the 64 facial poses that they believe form the basis for all human facial expression (according to this article: http://www.joystiq.com/2011/04/11/re...ial-animation/
). From the article: "Animators can manipulate faces in real-time rather than rely on canned recordings." This bodes well for a future where facial expressions can be as dynamic and context driven as they are in real life.
*Continued in next post*