Archive for November, 2010

Andy Serkis on Enslaved and Acting in Video Games

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

The Games blog caught up with Mr Gollum himself to discuss the role of Monkey and his passion for performance capture

Since his breakthrough digital role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Andy Serkis has become the film industry’s go-to thespian on all things digital.

And after he won games critics’ hearts (if not, perhaps, consumers) with his contribution to last month’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, we thought we’d find out a bit more about what tempts a high-profile actor to spend hours wearing only a skintight black bodysuit covered in Pritt Stick and ping-pong balls.

What is performance capture, exactly?
There’s an important distinction between motion capture, which is the technology used to track body movement and was developed by the medical industry to assess injuries, and performance capture (PC) which has been developed by the film industry as a means of capturing on film an actor’s complete performance – their physical, facial and vocal performance.

What are the main differences, as an actor, between working with PC and traditional stage and film acting?
If you are playing an ape or a fantasy creature like Gollum, you need to learn to calibrate your movements to match these characters. But there is no difference in the way an actor approaches rehearsal and playing a character for a PC shoot than there is for any other theatre or film performance.

What would you say are the incentives for a high-profile actor to get involved with motion capture?
The incentive is that PC is increasingly becoming part of the storytelling culture for the new generation of cinema and theatregoers and video gamers.

It’s also a liberating tool, an exciting medium to work in, the ultimate transformational experience. Anyone interested in this would see what a powerful and innovative tool it is. It allows you to move into different areas such as video games, which will in future be part of our storytelling culture.

Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre. Over time, I think perceptions will change.

How has technology changed since your first digital role as Gollum as Lord of the Rings?
The technology has changed and the perceptions have changed. Originally, PC was shot away from the main set, treated as peripheral and separate, with computers that would regularly break down. It is now seen as central and core to the whole film, which is now shot in a dedicated PC studio.

The methods of recording give greater fidelity to an actor’s performance, and the technology can now capture multiple actors. It couldn’t be more different.

How did you prepare for the role of Monkey in Enslaved?
We looked at the original novel, Journey into the West, and decided to take elements of that character but – excuse the pun – not be slavish about it. We decided to make him less of a mischievous and chaotic figure and more of a gruff hobo; a loner not used to communicating with others and quite selfish.

It’s complex when playing the leading character in a first person game as you don’t want to lead the player too much in one way or another – after all, they are the character too. A character like Pigsy, on the other hand, can be whatever the actor brings to the role.

I prepared for it by observing a man who walked his dog regularly on Hampstead Heath. He talked to his dog a lot but was really talking to himself. Physically, I didn’t have to do too much – that’s the beauty of PC. Monkey is a well-built guy who can take care of himself, with a lot of upper body strength. But at the same time as filming this, I was preparing for the role of Ian Dury and losing two stone in body weight!

Video games don’t receive the critical attention of theatre or cinema. Was it frustrating to know that your performance as Monkey was unlikely to receive the same attention as your film projects?
Things are changing. In the past, Bafta wouldn’t have recognised video games, but now they have a range of awards for different aspects of video game making, directing etc.

So it is only a matter of time and attrition before video games will be recognised on a par with theatre and film.

Do you think PC performances will ever be held in as high a regard as other acting mediums?
Playing a character in a video game is different to other performances because your character can’t lead the audience of players in one direction.

If you look at the performance of Richard Ridings as Pigsy in Enslaved, I would put that up against any other character performance in film or stage, and think it deserves accolades.

Enslaved wasn’t your first project with Ninja Theory – how were you originally approached for Heavenly Sword?
It’s a strange tale. I was approached via my mortgage broker, who is the brother of one of the Heavenly Sword developers. He showed me a trailer after we’d discussed mortgage rates and I thought it was fantastic. So it was very much a chance encounter.

What were you most pleased with about Enslaved, looking back on it?
The way we worked hard to ensure that the cut scenes and the gameplay flow and are seamless so the dramatic tension is kept up throughout the game. Alex Garland wrote the screenplay for Enslaved, and he did a great job.

There is a huge transmigration from the film industry to video games, not just because people personally like the idea of making a video game but because they recognise that, with the advent of 3D, it is an incredible arena for storytelling.

Do you, or have you ever played video games as a hobby?
I wasn’t a huge gamer in the past, but I do play a lot now with my children. I’d like to think that we strive in film and theatre to tell great stories, and I believe in the power of storytelling in our culture.

But, until recently, this huge gaming force has been neglected when it should have been treated with respect and invested with as much artistry as possible.

Can you still see parts of yourself when you watch a finished digitally captured performance? Or is there a complete disconnect?
You can always see yourself, and people tell me they can see elements of my personality in the characters. It’s subtle – timing, eye movement and gestures – but it’s there if you look closely.

Tell me about the Imaginarium project – why is motion capture something you’re so passionate about?
The plan is for the Imaginarium to provide a dedicated PC studio in London with three main aims: to produce our own films using PC, to encourage a culture that encourages experimentation with this groundbreaking technology by making it affordable and available to aspiring film makers, and to create a melting pot for talented people to push this art form into new territory such as live performances, real time avatars as well as video games.

Why? Because we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what performance capture can achieve. There are so many applications still yet to be discovered, and we have the talent in the UK to be at the forefront.

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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Super Cheap On Amazon, Buy It Now Please!

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Okay. Seriously. We need to talk about Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Ninja Theory’s stunning adventure platformer has been on my radar for a long time (pretty much since I saw the first screenshot), and a few weeks back I finally had some time to sit down and play through it, and what I found was one of 2010’s true hidden gems. And since the moment the closing credits rolled, I have been insisting to anyone who will listen that they need to play it.

And now I bring those heartfelt insistences to you all, because this game needs your support in a big way, and thanks to Amazon, you can now pick up a copy for just $25! If you are one of the those people who cries about there not being any great original IPs to play, it’s time to put up or shut up.

Now, I know Call of Duty: Black Ops fever is in full swing, and there are quite a few big games coming out between now and the end of the year, but, seriously, do not let Enslaved pass you by. There is a reason people have been comparing the game to Ubisoft’s own tragically overlooked Beyond Good & Evil. Not only do both games feature similar character types and gameplay, but they both are drenched in the passion and love of their creators.

Everything from the lush and richly detailed game world to the performances to the character animations to the story is crafted with tremendous care and gives the game a fantastic sense of life and vibrancy. The developers also took some clear cinematic and platforming cues from Naughty Dog’s acclaimed Uncharted series, which adds a spectacular scope and fluidity to the presentation and gameplay.

However, barring some massive and sudden upswing in sales (I’m trying Ninja Theory! I really am!), it looks like Enslaved is destined to go beyond simply being stylistically reminiscent of BG&E and end up becoming the BG&E of this generation. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, but if it does, I just hope Namco Bandai, like Ubisoft with BG&E, doesn’t give up on it.

The fact that there is downloadable content being released before the end of the year is a good sign, but it will most likely be a while before it becomes clear what the next step in the game’s (so far troubled, but hopefully eventually prosperous) journey will be.

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Exploring Enslaved with Tameem Antoniades

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Video games are no longer about dots on the screen and beeps coming from your speaker. Game developers can now tell dynamic stories with stunning graphics, stellar voice acting and true to life motion capture. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West from Namco Bandai is a game that captures all of these qualities to make for a beautiful action packed experience, which should stack up alongside ‘game of the year’ selections for 2010.

Enslaved was developed by Ninja Theory and written by Tameem Antoniades (Chief Creative Ninja) and Alex Garland (writer Sunshine/28 Days Later). The lead character of Monkey was brilliantly voice acted and motion captured by Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy).

The following is an interview with Tameem Antoniades touching on the writing aspects of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

SCRIPT: Enslaved opens with a spaceship damaged and on a crash course to a post apocalyptic New York City – how did you go about establishing the two main characters of Monkey and Trip and their motivations in the opening act?

TAMEEM ANTONIADES: We already had the backgrounds for the characters and the world fleshed out and we wanted to start the game with a bang. It is more important in games to do this – to hook and motivate the player to keep playing. In Enslaved, the opening level just establishes the character archetypes, with Monkey being the brute and Trip being the weak female. Once the archetype is set, there is plenty of space later in the story to subvert expectations.

The motivations are simple: she wants to escape, he wants to escape, she needs an escape pod, he needs one and thus an immediate tension is established. Once they crash land, she enslaves him with a slave headband and orders him to take her home and the set up for the rest of the story is complete. Simplicity is always on our minds as you have to keep the player involved as much as possible and so having long scenes runs against that.

SCRIPT: Enslaved is based on an old Chinese novel called Journey to the West – what challenges did you face adapting the story into a future/science fiction setting?

ANTONIADES: We were very liberal with our interpretation so we didn’t find it difficult at all. We simply replaced the demons with mechs, the magic with technology and built on the sense of adventure and companionship you had in the novel.

SCRIPT: The character Trip is the emotional backbone of the story – she commands Monkey and drives the story yet we never get to play as her in the game. Was Trip always so determined and technically savvy and did your development team ever want to make her playable in the game?

ANTONIADES: No, we never wanted her to be playable. To make her playable would mean making her an action hero. It was far more interesting to us to explore the relationship between Monkey (you) and a non-playable character. Can you have a complex emotional bond with someone who to all intents and purposes, is artificial? It’s been done in movies but not really believably in games.

SCRIPT: The game has been praised for its story – yet an outsider may perceive Enslaved as simply: ‘get Monkey & Trip from point A to point B’. How did you structure the chapters or ‘acts’ to convey an engaging tale in such a minimal approach?

ANTONIADES: We invested a lot in performance capture, that is, capturing the facial expressions, voice and body motions of multiple actors on set simultaneously. This is no different to shooting a film – it stands or falls on the performance of the actors. That’s what the game is really about: what you can see in the faces and eyes of the characters rather than what they are saying. I personally think storytelling works best in games when the plot is simple and the depth is invested in the characters

SCRIPT: Monkey is brutal in a fight yet tender around Trip who is beautiful. He becomes her protector and savior but always keeps his distance – there must have been debates back and forth as to their dynamics in the story – can you give us a sampling of what things were most debated in the writing process?
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

ANTONIADES: Well, Monkey is meant to be brutally tough and pragmatic to the point where he is almost inhuman. We originally had him punching slaves in order to reach his escape pod. Alex Garland (co-writer) thought this just made him unlikeable and he was right. So we talked it through and decided that at his heart, he has to be a good person if we are to empathise with him.

We also had him throwing a screaming fit once he was enslaved. Again, Alex suggested that a character of real strength, a real Alpha male, would be more calculating and calm, that throwing a fit would be a sign of weakness, not strength. These kinds of debates happened all the way through the story.

SCRIPT: Monkey and Trip have to fight robots and transverse difficult landscape until finally facing the antagonist of the story. Since we don’t really ‘see’ the bad guy until the end – what conventions did you use in the story to engage the player to continue on through to the end of the game?

ANTONIADES: The story follows the traditional three-act structure. The chapters themselves were also designed with their own three-act structure in mind. In fact, my advice to Alex was always to write the script as if it were an action movie and we’d figure out which parts would be interactive and which would be cut-scenes. The genre we followed was that of a road movie, where the relationship drives the story forward. The physical journey is secondary to that and almost irrelevant.

It felt wrong to cut-away from the main characters to show the villain. As a player, you shouldn’t have more knowledge of the enemy than Monkey himself otherwise you would feel disconnected with his ID and that would take you out of the immersion.

SCRIPT: What advice would you give someone who is trying to break into the video game industry writing for video games?

ANTONIADES: It’s tough to break in. I think realistically, finding a way in as a designer and getting involved in writing as you develop as a designer is probably the right way. There is not a lot of respect for story and writing in general in video games but that is starting to change.

However, there is still mistrust from both the gaming and writing communities of each other’s craft and so I think it pays to try and get involved from both angles. The only reason Alex worked for us was because he had already proven himself in movies and novels, had a passion for video games and was prepared to work hands on with us for two years. Along the way, he earned himself a designer credit due to his deep involvement and willingness to learn.

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Pigsy’s Perfect 10 Coming to Enslaved, DLC Adds Premium 3D Support

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

The secondary porcine protagonist Pigsy will playable in the upcoming downloadable content for this month’s fresh title Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. But along with an entirely new side-story, it’s going to bring a technical update too.

While the DLC for Enslaved was announced before the game was even released, the only thing known about it was that it would be about the hoggish figure shown above. Namco Bandai has given out a press release detailing what the new expansion will contain. “Pigsy’s Perfect 10” will be completely separate from the narrative of the retail game but the article doesn’t specify if the events will take place before, during, or after the main story of the game. They do however offer some interesting bits of what the gameplay will entail.

Pigsy, the comical porcine character known for his one-line zingers and questionable hygiene, finally gets his time in the spotlight. The Titan Graveyard is a lonely place and Pigsy really needs some companionship beyond the mechs that roam the area. He dreams of the perfect woman and embarks on a mission to build one from scratch using scrap parts he finds around the junkyard. In contrast to the main game which features strong, capable Monkey as the playable character, Pigsy is much more of a lover than a fighter. Pigsy’s gameplay will have a completely different gameplay dynamic, with a focus on stealth and sharp-shooting. He has plenty of tricks up his sleeves including a far-reaching hookshot, trusty sniper rifle, various grenades and devices, Trouble Vision eye piece and the aid of his trusty mechanical sidekick Truffles.

In addition to the new chapter for the title, the DLC will also include 3D support for Pigsy’s Perfect 10 and retail portion of Enslaved. The new tech shift will be powered by TriOviz® for Games Technology, providing 3D for enabled stereoscopic televisions AND stereo 3D normal television sets. But wait? “How is that possible” you ask? TriOviz is the same company that pioneered the 3D technology found in Batman: Arkham Asylum GOTY Edition.

But this 3D update will ONLY be available to those who purchase Pigsy’s Perfect 10. There will be no free 3D update for those people who do not wish to buy the game’s expansion. Will this be a new trend? Publishers deciding to hold back on 3D support at release, only to charge for it at a later date. Let’s just hope that this game will be the exception, and not become the rule. The DLC will be released later this year for a price of $9.99.