Video games have undergone a transformation in recent years.
Today, the best video games are immersive experiences that transport the player to new worlds populated by deep, layered characters and powerful stories. It’s a far cry from earlier games, where characterisation and voice acting were often the experience’s weakest parts.
Part of the driving force behind this transformation has been the increased use of motion capture in video games, and the resulting redefined role for acting.
How has video game acting changed?
Many of today’s video games are high-value productions. They tell stories that rival the best Hollywood movies, and even feature Hollywood stars – Keanu Reeves and Idris Elba played central characters in Cyberpunk 2077, and Elden Ring was co-written by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin.
But you only need to look back a few years to see how different video games were. The traditional role of actors in video games was voicing the characters. They wouldn’t be involved in character animation; that was handled by the animation team, who would create the movements (for 3D games) using keyframe animation.
Keyframe animation involves crafting individual frames of movement. While it’s an often time-consuming process, for many years it was the most cost-effective way of creating complex sequences and character movements.
Done well, keyframing can approximate most movements so characters move fluidly. For most games, such as shooters, this is enough to deliver an engaging experience.
However, it is inherently limited in its ability to capture the nuanced subtleties of human motion and expression. Movements can sometimes appear mechanical, lacking the fluidity and spontaneity that characterise real-life interactions.
Voice acting was also very hit-and-miss in the early years of its use in video games. Gaming in the 90s and 2000s was characterised by voice acting that was average at best, and hilariously bad at worst – like Resident Evil and Dynasty Warriors 3.
Voice acting was therefore not a central part of the gaming experience. However, the rise of more story-driven games, enabled by technology like motion capture, has meant that voice acting – and physical performances – have become far more important.
The Age of Motion Capture
Motion capture has been used in video games for decades – one of the earliest examples is a rudimentary version of the technology featured in the development of the 1988 platformer Vixen.
While it provides more realistic movements than keyframe animation, early iterations of the technology had drawbacks, particularly cost. Those early versions needed a large amount of specialised equipment (cameras, suits and software) and studio space, on top of the animators that would work on the captured data to incorporate it into games.
However, its use delivers stunning results. In games like The Last of Us and Ghost of Tsushima, the player is drawn into the game by the expressions and movements of characters with an unmatched level of realism.
MoCap now is more affordable and accessible than ever, where simple setups require nothing more than a smartphone and an app. As such, it’s now far more prevalent in games, necessitating more skilled actors to don the suits.
The Redefined Role of Acting in Video Games
The increased use of motion capture technology demands a redefined skill set from video game actors – in many cases they’ve moved from voice actors to full-fledged digital performers. And the performances they deliver are now more akin to acting for TV and film, with the same level of nuance and skill expected.
Video game characters have now evolved from static entities to dynamic, responsive beings, making the narrative a more immersive, interactive experience. Take the evolution of the God of War games as an example. We feel Kratos’ rage and sorrow to a far greater degree in the latest games compared to earlier iterations of the character.
The God of War series as a whole tells a powerful story of the titular God of War Kratos on a path of vengeance against the Greek pantheon for their part in his family’s deaths. The most recent titles follow an older Kratos in a new realm protecting his son from a new set of vicious gods.
The early games were praised for their gory action, with the story mainly serving as a backdrop for the player to send the berzerker god up against a range of enemies. In the latest titles, the story is far more important; we feel more connected to Kratos as a character.
Motion capture isn’t the sole reason for this, but it enables a far more successful narrative shift from an arcade-like avatar to a full-fledged character that the player can sympathise and resonate with.
This enhanced immersion elevates not just the narrative but the entire gaming experience, fostering a deeper emotional engagement with the game’s world and its inhabitants.
Motion capture has meant that the acting in video games is now just as important as the graphics, the mechanics and the game design; where once the voice acting was seen as secondary, it’s now often the difference between a game being merely ‘fine’ or something greater.
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