Cinematic Director Jonathan Perry discusses how BioWare’s storytelling process has evolved.
If BioWare is known for one thing it’s the abundant quality of their storytelling. Telling a good story is no mean feat, with BioWare’s unique RPG formula combining a good plot with believable characters and cut-scenes which offer a good payoff for time that a player has invested. We caught up with BioWare Edmonton’s Cinematic Director to gain an insight into this process and how development on their latest game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, is progressing…
BioWare’s cinematics have evolved greatly over the years but one of the complaints that has only recently come up is the tendency for cameras to point at a character’s booty parts. Is that something you recognise and will that approach come over to Dragon Age: Inquisition?
When it comes to placing cameras and filming a scene, we really want the camera to reflect the personality of the character or the mood of the scene. So the kind of posterior shot that you mentioned was down to a cinematic designer, I don’t know if they were trying to be clever or whatever. I think a lot of it was commenting on the fact that Miranda is this perfect creation, but she has her flaws as well. I thought that was a funny shot and it’s come up quite a bit. I wouldn’t say we’ll be doing those shots in Dragon Age, but as much as possible we do want that camera to reflect the personality of the character and react to them. So if you’re in a fight you’ll see a different camera [compared to] everything going well, and if you’re slowly moving into a romantic scene we’ll be framing [characters] a bit tighter.
You can definitely notice that evolution, with characters boasting greater visual. Varric’s character model for instance seems much more emotive than before. Will that extend to other characters as well?
I think so. Even just pulling in the old characters from Dragon Age II into Frostbite 3, you notice a huge improvement in terms of how they look. We certainly don’t stop there though, we go in and do a lot more customisation on those characters, really making them look a lot better on next-gen [consoles] and high-end PCs. Having the opportunity to rebuild a lot of those, we certainly want them to be more expressive. Those relationships are really important to us and it’s really important for fans to see those relationships grow and change – how you impact that follower and how they feel.
How does the cutscene camera system actually work? In Mass Effect, the camera cycled through pre-defined templates. Will that system be used in Inquisition or will you adopt a more hands-on approach?
It’s a bit of both because of the scale of the games and how many conversations we have to do. In our previous games we had around 10,000 lines of dialogue and around 30 hours worth of custom cinematic content. A lot of games have maybe 30 minutes to a couple of hours, so we can’t necessarily hand touch everything or build everything from scratch.
We have what we call stages which are essentially a collection of co-ordinates where you can say, ‘Okay, in this situation where one guy talks to a party of three other guys, here is where they can stand’. We give them poses and emotions and really generate a performance based on those inputs. Early in production we can start to play through that dialogue to see that people are talking and doing things, which allows us to evaluate the narrative and make rewrites and changes where needed. Once we’re at that playable state we can then go in and start to customise a performance.
For some of the scenes, that aren’t as important as others, we might leave the default camera switching back and forth and in other ones we’ll go in and hand tweak; move the camera around, move the characters around etc. You’ll see a spectrum of different quality conversations or scenes with more action in them than others.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of the first titles to use DICE’s Frostbite 3 engine. What’s that like?
One of the things I’m excited about with Dragon Age: Inquisition is that we have all new tech allowing us to build a lot more reactive systems. So instead of just switching back and forth between these over the shoulder cameras, still using these stages, we can create cameras that are intelligent. They can react to what’s going on in scene, so if you’re really upsetting somebody or the relationship is taking a turn for the worse we can start to drop the camera down or pitch it up, so it feels a bit more hostile, or if you’re making all the right moves in that romance conversation, flirting back and forth, we can have the camera push in. I think it’s really cool that we have an intelligent camera at this point, so it opens up a lot more opportunities to make these scenes feel unique. We might experience the same lines, but the framing of the characters in the shot might be completely different based on what we’re doing. Previously when a character said a line they would always have the same emotion, but now we have systems depending on how you’ve been treating that person. They could say the same line, but have a stern look or a happy look based on how the conversation is going or what has come before that.
One of the things BioWare RPGs are known for is their romance scenes, particularly the PG-13 camera angles and the soft focus Cinemax style approach. Has that changed at all?
We certainly could push those romance scenes in any direction we wanted really. Something that didn’t work well is that we tried more, well I won’t say graphic, but in Dragon Age: Origins we had characters crawling around in their underwear and it looked weird because they were wearing these lacy Victoria Secret panties and outfits which looked out of place. Certainly when you have these characters interacting with each other in such an intimate way it’s incredibly expensive in terms of animation fidelity and getting it to look like they are really there and touching each other. I think Mass Effect’s scenes were done really well and I think we will take Inquisition’s scenes in that direction. You might have a nude character but they are framed in such a way that parts of them are in shadow, or having characters in various states of undress.
We also want to focus not just on the sex itself, but also that this is the culmination of spending a lot of time with a character and getting to know them, and so we’re giving scenes a mature and tasteful treatment I guess. We’ll see where it goes for Dragon Age: Inquisition, it’s something that we’re working on right now so we’ll see how these scenes pan out.
A prominent movie director recently said that games would never evoke the same kind of reverence as film, due to the inability of developers to render a love scene correctly. Do you think games will ever get past that uncanny valley feel?
At some point it’s inevitable that we’ll be able to achieve the same result as a film. Part of it is crossing that uncanny valley, but I think that games can be powerful in a very different way because they are interactive and they are based on your choices. They can react to what you’re doing and that’s something you don’t get in film as you are a passive viewer.
Tags: Dragon Age: Inquisition
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