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It Takes More Than Blood And Gore

The adult gamer isn't just looking for a shoot-em-up type game. They are looking for sophistication. Jacquie Kubin looks at three games that are offering just that.

From the portals of the PC to the Playstation 2 console, games designed for the mature audience are more than blood, guts and gore. Adult gamers are looking for sophisticated entertainment that requires more than a quick trigger finger. The result is that studios are working to create full-length, fully interactive cinematic movies that draw the player into a gaming scenario.

The guns and skin-tight clothing are just the hook, the underlying story is what keeps people playing. © Edios Interactive.

"The games are becoming more complex, in that, before it was about having a visually captivating game with the blood, gore and slashing," says Richard Gray, a.k.a. Levelord, level designer for Ritual Entertainment. "Now it is also about game play and heavily imbedded story lines. Almost like being in a movie where you are participating as much as watching."

Ritual Entertainment is part of the Gathering of Developers, a Texas-based consortium of computer and video game developers that also includes 3D Realms, Edge of Reality, Epic Games, PopTop Software and Terminal Reality.

Ritual's Hyper-Immersion

Ritual Entertainment has experience in creating hyper-immersive computer games and the team has worked on some of the industry's most successful adult titles such as Duke Nukem 3D, Terminal Velocity, Links LS and Rise of the Triad.

Their current project is Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2, which stands for Federal Assigned Kinetic Kill Zone, an action game based on the popular Heavy Metal ( property developed by Kevin Eastman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) that has gone from sci-fi comic magazine to movie to video game.

Can a video game lure in the Heavy Metal films' adult following? © Trixter Films.

Richard Gray has earned his nickname Levelord for his expertise in building the game infrastructure, or the levels, that the animated character moves through. Level designing is similar to blue-printing a house or building using a CAD-CAM program. Levelord places the staircase that needs to be climbed, the rock that needs to be pushed or the cannon that needs to be shot into the game play, throwing obstacles, puzzles and rewards, such as additional life force or weapon power, throughout the game.

"I go in with a wire frame software system and place the levels and the various elements that go onto those levels, building the square rooms that the animated characters move through," he says. "It is almost like being an eight-year-old kid who is creating this play scenario in an order designed to keep the game play on the razor edge between dying and finding new health and ammunition."

The answer to the question of which comes first in today's games -- the animations or the levels -- is neither. The game concept and/or script are first decided usually by a game's publisher or financial sponsor, who then hires a group like Ritual Entertainment to create the game.

Many of the designs from the movie carry over directly into the game. © Trixter Films.

Kevin Eastman turned to Ritual Entertainment to create the Heavy Metal game. The game's lead character, as in the movie, is Julie Strain, a buxom, brunette vixen capable of mortally wounding a man, or many men. Graphic and comic artist Joel Thomas (Evil Ernie, Prime, Ultraverse Annual) created many of the original visual concepts for the Heavy Metal franchise.

"The inspiration for my lead character animations are Julie Strain and her attitudes about what she represents -- a back street protector character -- tell me a lot about how she would move as a female with a warrior's gait," says lead animator Darrin Hart. "I also look at other games, looking for unique styles that I might be able to borrow from. Finally, as an animator my job is to be an actor and breathe life into the character, giving them expressions and body movements that exhibit if they are happy, hurt, scared."

Is this a shot from Heavy Metalthe game or Heavy Metal the movie? The line is very blurry. © Trixter Films.

Another character to be found in this game is an MP by the name of Gruff, an outdoorsy, wise woodsman type with a bit of a rastafarian tilt to him. "Before I could begin to animate that character, a lot of work had to be done including inspiration, original design and concept sketches," says Hart. "Sometimes those original design and concept sketches can be too complicated and require too many polys, meaning that we have to simplify that character."

For Heavy Metal F.A.K.K. 2, main character poly counts went as high as 1,100, while supporting characters were given from six to seven hundred, while background creatures had as few as eighty to one hundred. The number of polys assigned to a character depends on its function. Higher poly count models are not found in large groups or in complex environments and a first challenge to game creation is being able to divide the polys up between the characters and the environment.

Eye candy from Kronos' Fear Effect.© Edios Interactive.

Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Part of the "eye candy" appeal of a game for the mature gamer are the short movies interspersed between levels that help to propel the story. For as many games that are created there are new ideas on how to create these cinematic bursts.

Fear Effect for Playstation by Kronos is a new game on the console shelves this year that was created as an interactive movie. Unique to this design house is that they do not use 3D Studio Max, opting instead for Alias|Wavefront software.

"Stan Liu [Kronos president] was a teacher of Alias and is considered a bit of a guru, so we began working with this program initially," says Ted Warnock, animation director. "The extractor and converters we use are all based on reading Alias files and as a group we are very good at working with what we consider to be a stronger and more powerful program."

The whole approach to creating Fear Effect began with the script, complete with story and dialogue that the game was then built around.

A first person survival-horror-adventure, the game takes place in a real-time world and real-time cameras are used to provide the player with an immersive view of the environment. Adding to the game's visual appeal is that the illustrated backgrounds are actually animated movies that allow for the character to walk past such elements as a revolving light or tendrils of steam escaping a pipe.

Rich landscapes create a lavish world from which the story begins... © Edios Interactive.

As the player traverses the game's environments -- an urban brothel, Eastern jungles and a stylized version of Chinese Hell -- the player automatically switches between the three different main characters, Deke, Glas and Hana, as the plot progresses.

Because the game streams data directly from the disc, there is a feeling of interactivity between the player, the character and the environment while the scenes seamlessly change through switching camera angles creating a sense of unease and fear in players.

The developers' goal was to create Fear Effect with a true cinematic feel with the art more along the lines of what you would see in an animated film.

"In a lot of games, part of the graphic problem is that you only get so many polygons that you can draw from, and texture mapping has to be small to fit in RAM so when people make the decision to have a free roaming real-time camera in the game, that limits the graphic quality," explains Ted Warnock, animation director. "We decided to use locked cameras so the character can walk toward and away from the camera giving a more cinematic feel. Locked cameras also allowed us to have each background shot play back as a looping animated movie."

Adding to the "in the game" feeling are Fear Effect's illustrative backgrounds which are elaborate movie sets that the animators built using Alias software. The sets are built similar to how they are built for CGI films, such as Pixar's A Bug's Life according to Warnock.

The characters in Fear Effect are not overshadowed by the complex backgrounds. © Edios Interactive.

The game's visual look has a strong anime influence that began with the director John Platten and artist John Paik, who drew the initial character sketches from the beginning pre-production stages. Art directors John Paik and Pakin Liptawat created the backgrounds using hand painted illustrations and Photoshop which were often combined with 3D models created by a team of CG model builders.

"We then put in touches such as lights that turn on and off, things moving in the background," says Francis Co, senior animator. "The result is that you are playing with an interactive, animated character within an animated movie. "

This approach to game development follows the company's earlier efforts to put traditional 3D characters against lush backgrounds. Challenges began cropping up when those characters got lost within the non-static world and how the characters, with their lower poly count, lacked detail against the illustrative backgrounds.

According to Warnock, the Pakin/Paik paintings allowed the artists to keep the anime look consistent in characters and backgrounds. First Liptawat would classically illustrate a scene, painting the path that the character would be walking on, and then giving that to the background artist to layer the shadows and things moving over it. The character animations were layered on top of that.

Fear Effecttruly creates an anime feel throughout the entire adventure. © Edios Interactive.

"When you walk through the backgrounds, the city scenes, skyscrapers, the second and third layers, are Pakin paintings and by keeping our backgrounds illustrated it kept that anime feel throughout," says Warnock. "If you made it to Hell, which is the fourth disc, practically every background is hand painted by Pakin because Alias could not do what we wanted it to do, which was give Hell a moody, outdoors, very organic feel."

Kronos' approach to the production of Fear Effect paralleled what would be done for a movie in many ways and the result is stunning. From the Pakin painted backgrounds to the slinky way that the character Hana moves, most game players will find something to like, which is the overall goal of the game developer.

"The production cycle was storyboards, to model building, to rendering, to animation," says Co. "It is the closest I have come to working on a movie in that this is the first project we have had with extreme facial expression, giving the characters emotion. We did that well and it is important that we have successfully connected the player to the characters."

And There Is More To Come

At this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3, Los Angeles, May 11-13) a game not even available for live demonstration, Metal Gear Solid 2, unofficially took "Best of Show." The hourly showing of a filmed sequence of the Playstation 2 game's play had gamers, retailers and creators packing the Konami booth.

Where the games designed for computer play have been able to take advantage of the increased power of the hard drive over the limitations of the console, next generation consoles such as Sega's Dreamcast, Playstation 2, Nintendo's Dolphin and Microsoft's X-Box to give designers more graphic power leading to more gaming for players.

"Creating this sequel game for the Dreamcast certainly gave us a larger number of polygons and a wider color palette to work with," says Ken Ogasawara, producer. "One of the goals of Metal Gear 2 creator, Mr. Kojima, has been to keep the player immersed inside of one graphic cell throughout the game. To keep them playing on one layer of reality and this is done by creating a movie that continues the look of the rendered game."

kubin09.gifkubin10.gifMetal Gear Solid 2 wowed audiences at E3 and hopes to do the same with game players once it hits shelves. Courtesy of Bender/Helper Impact. © Konami. The first person game play helps keep players immersed in the game. Courtesy of Bender/Helper Impact. © Konami.

For Konami artists, instead of creating a separate computer graphic movie, or cut scenes, the backgrounds and animations used within the game are combined with a still camera that allows the player to walk into the environment and take a role in the movie. This is easier than creating new computer graphic cut scenes because the character models and animations already exist.

"A lot of people are still using the CG graphics and will continue to do so," explains Ogasawara. "It is a matter of style, but, the impression we have is that people want real, pretty movies that seamlessly continue the adventure they are on."

Pretty graphics and movies aside, the core of any title continues to be the story line and the adult game varies drastically from the youth title by incorporating more technical dialogue within an even increasing in complexity story.

"One of the aspects of Metal Gear Solid 2 that I really like is that it propels the scenario of a lone operative trying to neutralize a situation and stop something from happening," says Ogasawara. "And while sometimes violence is called for, the game actually rewards the player that is able to solve a problem without using violence and probably 90% of the game can be played without taking a single shot. "

Jacquie Kubin, a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, enjoys writing about the electronic entertainment and edutainment mediums, including the Internet. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and Krause Publication magazines. She has won the 1998 Certificate of Award granted by the Metropolitan Area Mass Media Committee of the American Association of University Women.