“In their hoodies and lanyards and baseball caps, they do not look like gods, but after what I have just seen, it is hard not to think in those terms.”
That’s the conclusion to Frank DiGiacomo’s article in Vanity Fair about the new Star Wars video game, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. DiGiacomo’s conclusion is a little over the top, but it is an interesting reaction to some new sophisticated technology that LucasArts is deploying in the game.
As the consoles have become faster and better, the software developers have risen to the challenge of designing a better game experience, and one of the reasons I have come to San Francisco is to see two demonstrations of software that LucasArts is excited about incorporating into its next marquee game. The first program is called Euphoria, and was developed by NaturalMotion, a tech company based in San Francisco and Oxford, England. On a projection screen in a darkened auditorium, I watch as a digitally animated Imperial stormtrooper, the comically doomed cannon fodder of Lucas’s Star Wars universe, is lifted by an invisible force and dropped in various ways—on his head, on his back—and over various objects such as steel and wooden crates. Each time he is lifted, he struggles mightily, and then, every time he drops, he reacts differently. Dropped on his head, he grabs it with his hands before going still. And after being dropped on his back, on a metal box, he arches it in a way that suggests he is in agonizing pain.
His reactions are eerily lifelike, and I am told that what I am seeing is not animation but a kind of artificial intelligence generated by Euphoria, which enables the stormtrooper to react with an almost human uniqueness—in real time, no less—to obstacles and attacks. Dropped 100 times, the Euphoria-imbued stormtrooper will react differently 100 times, unless he is dropped in exactly the same way twice. When he is placed at the top of a sloping roof, he struggles furiously to gain purchase as he slides down, and actually grabs and hangs on to its edge for a few moments before falling to his inevitable fate. But the real pièce de résistance of the demonstration is when the stormtrooper is placed on an unsteady surface and actually begins to shift his weight and pedal his feet in order to maintain his equilibrium. “That’s not animated at all,” says Steve Dykes, the LucasArts senior engineer running the presentation. “That is actually a character trying to maintain his balance, physically simulated.”
DiaGiacomo is clearly impressed, and with good reason. This represents a significant step toward greater realism for video games, a step which will doubtlessly be heralded by most and derided by others. What is constantly interesting about the notion of “realism” in video games (and movies and any other medium) is that the producers select and determine the nature of the reality.
Each program came with its own headaches: When the stormtroopers were first programmed with Euphoria, for example, they were so good at dodging objects that their artificial intelligence had to be dumbed down…Another issue was that, for all its realism, the game couldn’t be too realistic. Getting hit with the real-world equivalent of the Force powers used in the game would be like getting hit by “a cannonball,” Blackman says. “It would probably rip a person apart,” and that would be commercially unpalatable, since The Force Unleashed is being tooled for a T rating—for teen-appropriate—which means that it can’t contain gore or too much blood. From a technical point of view, Star Wars’ comic-book realism requires designers to strike a tricky balance. “To take simulations that are based on real-world math and real-world physics and apply those to an unreal world has been very tough,” Blackman says, but often entertaining as well. The first time that a Euphoria-enabled stormtrooper was placed in the game and hit with the Force, “his body stretched like Plastic Man in all directions and literally exploded.”
The distinction between virtual reality and reality is increasingly important, but much like the line between nature and convention, extremely difficult to discern. For the hoodied gods of LucasArts, that line doesn’t seem to exist at all.