There are many factors that people love to judge video games on, anything from the specifics of a battle system to whether there was too much water in the world. Above all, though, the first thing that players notice in a video game is its visuals. The lighting, the shadows, the landscapes, and how it all ties together to bring a sense of realism (or to avoid realism altogether) during the game.
Now, games have been noticed to have excellent visuals despite having very different visuals altogether. Undertale has been noted many times for its ability to express characters and setting through its pixel-art graphics, and Among Us is popular for the simplicity of its player design. Other games, such as Final Fantasy VII Remake and Red Dead Redemption 2, are praised for their remarkably detailed landscapes.
What’s often overlooked is where these graphics come from. Most people can say that gameplay visuals are art and animation, and while that is true, animation isn’t just one category where all the same techniques and technology are used throughout the entire industry. If that were true, all games would look the exact same, and there would be no arguments in the YouTube comment sections as to what the best-looking video games are.
One of the more unknown, more complicated technologies in the field of animation is motion capture technology. The technology is used in a variety of industries, from sports to military applications, but in the realm of game development, motion capture is the process of recording the live actions of actors and using those models to animate character models in-game. This doesn’t mean that the characters will end up looking exactly like their actors (though that is sometimes the case). When using motion capture technology, it’s only the actors’ movements that are saved by the computer, not their actual physical features, which means their movements can be placed on any character model.
Generally, light-reflecting or emitting markers are placed on the actor’s body (or face for facial capture), and the actor is set up around a set of cameras that can specifically pick up those markers. As the actor moves, the camera uses the light from the markers to position them within a three-dimensional space, and are recorded. From there, the animators get a ‘skeleton’ of the actor’s movements and are able to rig it to character models, creating animations for the characters.
Motion capture technology can also work through a markerless method, where the animators instead rely on depth-sensitive cameras to track the actor’s movements, along with extra software compared to that needed for marker-based methods. Despite the extra software, the markerless method is often seen as a more convenient method, though it is generally not as accurate, especially for fine movements.
Now, have you ever played a game that used motion capture technology for its animation? It may not always occur to players, but if you’ve played titles such as Control (2019), God of War (2018), The Last of Us, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, or Detroit: Become Human, you’ve played a game that utilises motion capture. Now, game development teams may use this technology in different ways; for example, Control (2019) and Detroit: Become Human used their actors’ physical traits in their respective characters, while God of War (2018) used actor Christopher Judge’s size in the motion capture for the main character Kratos, they still crafted a much different-looking character model than the actor.
At the end of the day, motion capture technology is the same as any piece of technology in game development; it is a tool that game developers can use, but the way it is used can vary from game to game. It’s why even between games that use the same technology, the visuals may not be exactly the same. Some games may end up with more fantastical character models, while others use the actors themselves as the basis for their characters’ design.
Whether you prefer one or the other, or if you prefer visuals completely outside of those created by motion capture technology, most can likely agree on one thing: the more technology for game visuals, the better.
After all, without different visuals, what would the people making “Ten Games with the Best Visuals” lists do?