Think Kubrick was obsessed with detail? Games design is going much further than film

The social and cultural implications of bringing massively increased realism to upcoming video games design go way beyond anything to do with games.

Few would dispute the claim that Stanley Kubrick’s fanatical obsession with visual detail probably exceeded that of just about any other cinematographer.

Watching the video below (which includes some truly astonishing and previously unseen graphics demo footage) it soon becomes crystal clear that even he would have been profoundly impressed (not to mention shocked) by the fact that at the leading edge of today’s games development process there is a level of attention to detail which would easily put even his most insanely fastidious efforts in just about every single visual aspect of his work to shame.

What should strike anyone watching the video who is not directly involved in game development, is the fact that each finicky kind of detail (like the particular size of the stitching in the cloth, small holes in the leather, the number, position and individual structure of specific wrinkles and the precise shapes of the folds on a shirt as well as the exact way that it moves once half of it is tucked in at the waist) shows unmistakable signs of having received the kind of time-consumingly meticulous attention (from multiple specialists at several different stages of the design process ‘pipeline’, each working on these things at length, both individually and in collaboration) that you might imagine would normally be exclusively reserved for some major strategic feature of the game.

Sure, Kubrick would put in a ton (often many years) of research before embarking on anything, build vast, intricate, high-concept, budget-busting sets and then, once he was filming, he wouldn’t balk at doing hundreds of takes for each shot.

But even Kubrick at his most outrageously obsessive did not have to spend countless hours systematically sculpting the flesh, skin, bone and yes, even the visible blood vessels of his characters, let alone find himself worrying about how every single inch of the clothing that he draped over them not only fitted their body in the way intended, but also how it responded to the laws of physics.

Is attention to detail getting out of hand?

In theory, there’s nothing all that new about actually being able to do any of this, because computer generated imagery (CGI) has been used in film-making for decades and also the tools for creating quite detailed 3D animated imagery has been around in games design for almost as long.

However, recent advances in graphics technology are enabling unprecedented degrees of potential realism which are in turn driving the commitment to ‘attention to detail’ to overtake all other resourcing requirements.

The tools are getting better, but…

We can certainly anticipate that a very significant proportion (perhaps even the lions share) of the tens of billions that are expected to be spent on the development of the upcoming generation of games (one leading game alone has costs rumoured at $500m – possibly an exaggerated upper limit, but almost certainly not for long) will be specifically allocated for ‘attention to detail’ (can anyone remember the good old the days when notoriously expensive movie stars would be the most newsworthy contribution to inflating a production budget?).

In the video above there are regular references by the panel to the transition from an unspeakably demanding and (at least with hindsight – it probably offered developers a huge advance in capability when it first came out) under-performing ‘last generation’ content development tool to a far more flexible ‘next generation’ tool, offering superior flexibility, ease of use and even greater opportunities to be even more fussy about detail, creativity and realism.

What makes the Topsy-like growth of this process seem even more unstoppable in game development, is that unlike in film-making, many aspects of the visual design process of today’s most realistic games are not just about the design of the ‘appearance’ of items of clothing, props, characters, buildings and scenery, but in fact they also involve the design of ‘behaviour’ (and even ‘personality’) into the on-screen simulated artifacts.

This requirement for ‘designing behaviour’ into game content is essential because unlike in a film, where you can get away with a ‘set up shot’ in which you can conceal the fact that that an item is ‘just a prop’, in games the item will need to ‘perform naturally’ so that it will look realistic when viewed from any angle and also be able to retain its intuitively convincing sense of realism when it is being ‘interacted with’ by the player (and where the game’s ‘camera’ can potentially get ‘up close’ to anything in the game’s ‘world’).

These ‘behavioural’ and ‘interactive’ imperatives and the design workload that they impose which is required for putting together game ‘assets’ have the potential to vastly exceed the effort that even the most fanatically zealous ‘conventional’ film director would ever need (or even want) to deploy, although those film makers of today who are heavily reliant upon CGI are already finding that many of the same technological developments (and their attendant attention to detail implications)  are directly affecting their ‘workflow’.

Have you noticed the invisible elephant in this room?

Nobody speaking on this panel gives the impression that they see (or even expect anyone else to see) what they are doing as being in any way ‘excessive’ or ‘unreasonably meticulous’.

Exactly why this is so different to the way just about everyone who worked with Kubrick talked about his obsessiveness is an important question for the future of media.

It would seem that the typical tools and methods being deployed in the leading comparable game content production processes of today ‘mandate’ (or at least more widely legitimise and encourage) heightened levels of attention to detail which were very much the exception in the past, seemingly irrespective of cost.

Will the attention to detail requireded by games mean that the future of media going to be ‘bimedial’?

First: Bimediality 1.0

In the BBC there is a concept called ‘bi-medial working’. The BBC has both radio and TV broadcasting infrastructures.

Bimedial working means setting up a content creation process for a particular production (say, for news/journalism documentary ‘packages’) where the content from that process can be broadcast in some form on TV and also on radio.

Bimediality: One commissioned content idea, one content creation process, one set of ‘content assets’, two different productions/treatments, each with its own different broadcast media ‘target’.

The idea with bimedial working is for the BBC to get more ‘bang for the buck’ (‘audience reach’) from a single content creation initiation process.

Well, perhaps tomorrow we’ll be making games which will be ‘inherently bimedial’ (bimediality 2.0?) in the sense that the game content created will also constitute a set of perfectly repurposable resources for a movie.

Who knows? The cost of making games seems so inevitably set to get so high that once it is deemed technically feasible to create game content that is ideally suited to be used in a movie, one could quite easily imagine a time when instead of merely commissioning the production of a movie as a follow-up to a successful new game, the game and movie are both commissioned together as a single bimedial content creation project.

Today, anyone speculating about doing this any time soon would attract understandable guffaws and mutterings about ignorance of the ‘uncanny valley’ phenomenon.

Such scepticism is nothing more than an undeniably pragmatic acknowledgement that almost all of today’s most realistic video game content is still nowhere near realistic enough to be used in movies without ‘breaking the movie’s spell’ (where a jarring sense of cartoon-animation unreality creeps unbidden into the viewer’s subconscious and irredeemably compromises their capacity to suspend disbelief (i.e., to prevent them watching the movie without snickering, or more likely, wanting to stop watching).

But watch the video and tell me, hand on heart, that you are still convinced that even the very best of the demos in it was nonetheless just not good enough to be used in a blockbuster feature length movie.

Even if you turned out to be right about that, don’t expect things to stay that way for long.

In my next article I’ll be looking a little more closely at the ‘content consumption’ implications of a convergence between the content creation processes of games and movies.

I’ll also look more closely at how the increasing realism of games content will not just allow it to be used in movies, but will open up brand new ways for us to ‘consume’ the content, ways that hold out the distinct prospect of representing as profound a departure from from the way we watch video content today as the advent of domestic TV viewing had been to an audience whose audio and visual media technology consumption had been dominated by playing vinyl records, listening to the radio and going to the movies. That’s right: it’s quite possible that this next change could be at least as big as the emergence of TV was in the 60s.