In the early 90s, game companies looking to expand further into the mainstream (and increase their valuations) foretold a merger between themselves and Hollywood. They took this literally — meaning games that used the methods and format of video with the lightest sprinkling of interactivity to provide gameplay. This resulted in memorable cheese-fests like the infamous Night Trap, a 1992 entrant in which the player embodied a special agent tasked to surveil a girls sleepover, lest the ladies be interrupted by ninjas (actually). There were more serious entrants as well, like the 1998 psychological thriller Tender Loving Care starring John Hurt (also very cheesy, but you saw there were greater ambitions).
This lesser-celebrated chapter of video game history came to a close in the late 90s as the success of real time 3D games like Doom made laps around the humble sales of interactive stories. The flexibility that realtime graphics afforded players and developers alike made for more responsive, interactive experiences than video, and the genre was largely abandoned.
In the past few years, real-time 3D and video have consummated to birth a new format— volumetric video. Is it time we revisited the possibilities that reality-based capture affords creators in telling interactive stories? The success of linear, interactive stories like Until Dawn (“Will the attractive teens make it through the night alive?”) and Life is Strange (“Will the attractive teens solve the murderer?”) has proven a market for games in which the player makes decisions and watches as the consequences unfold. These productions cost millions of dollars and employ hundreds of people with elaborate and high-touch motion capture and animation workflows. What if making them was more like an independent film shoot? What stories would smaller teams explore, free from the need to rely on genre, tropes, and attractive teens to ensure their budgets be recouped?
It’s not just interactive stories, either. You can easily imagine volumetric video being used as the basis for cinematics in a more traditional game, as assets for a modern version of Street Fighter or even a top-down role-playing game. Thinking this through, one starts to see the disadvantages inherent in playing back a series of clips— namely, how do you ensure the clips transition smoothly? How do you ensure characters do things like maintain eye contact, or reach out towards the player appropriately? Our friends at Arcturus are developing technology to create a skeleton to underpin video, allowing for dynamic retargeting to achieve the best of both worlds.
Volumetric video is a one-to-one capture of a human being. With it, one doesn’t have to be limited to art direction and the production realities often used as an excuse for limited representation. Being yourself in-game is as simple as showing up as you. Players can create avatars that truly embody themselves, talent can appear without filter. This matters especially for underrepresented and minority communities who no longer need the support of gigantic companies to appear visually in real-time, interactive media. You don’t have to be a triangle person or a smiling cartoon-face character designed by someone who has never seen you.
It may have taken 30 years, but we’re finally starting to see the ease of video capture and the flexibility of real-time graphics combining to create something new and revolutionary for interactive media. What will you make?