mid the debate about television stealing the film industry’s thunder, another entertainment form has crept up unnoticed, further threatening Hollywood’s creative hegemony: video games. With a new, much more powerful generation of games consoles poised to arrive – Microsoft’s Xbox One goes on sale on Friday, with Sony’s PlayStation 4 due a week later – the games companies reckon they finally have the ammunition to shake off the perception that their digital epics are inferior to movies.
I’m in a place that could not reinforce that impression more emphatically: the historic Ealing studios, where classics such as The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers were filmed. But I’m here to experience the process of making a video game called Ryse: Son of Rome, an epic tale charting the Roman conquest of Britain, which will be a launch title for the Xbox One. And the studio is nowadays home to The Imaginarium, an outfit co-founded by Andy Serkis, who – as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings – is perhaps the world’s leading exponent of performance-capture, in which every nuance of an actor’s performance (specifically movement, voice and facial expressions) is recorded and mapped on to a video game character.
Serkis says: “There was probably a time when people in the games industry wanted to emulate films, but now it’s very much the other way around: the technology is driven by video games. So, for instance, virtual production, pre-vis, many of the tools we use in the film industry have come out of the games industry.” Peter Gornstein, global cinematic director at Ryse: Son of Rome developer Crytek, argues that the sheer power contained within the Xbox One finally allows what techies call the “uncanny valley” – the idea that, in computer-generated realism, little details that are slightly off render proceedings creepily unrealistic – to be bridged: “That has been a big problem with games in the past. But what we can do now, in real-time, is produce imagery and emotional experiences within a game, at a level where the uncanny valley is left far behind.”Intrepidly, I don a tight, grey, reflector-studded motion-capture suit, grab a sword and shield made of plastic rods covered in DayGlo tape, and enact some gladiatorial combat with a stuntman. What’s stunning is that it involves merely a couple of minutes moving different parts of my body. On a monitor by the stage, I can see my movements driving those of a Roman in full armour.
Apart from accidentally connecting with the stuntman, sadly my movements aren’t sufficiently macho and emphatic to pass muster convincingly. I quiz actor John Hopkins (familiar to devotees of Midsomer Murders and the RSC), who plays the game’s heroic lead, for tips about moving like a Roman: “They put about 10kg of weightbelts on our chests to simulate the feeling of wearing armour, which shifts your centre of gravity and makes your shoulders rotate while you’re walking.” Hopkins enjoyed the process. There are cameras at every angle, “so a five-minute scene with eight actors, which would take a day or two to shoot conventionally, can be done in five minutes. It becomes a much more theatrical experience.” To emphasise that point, The Imaginarium shot 93 minutes’-worth of performance in just 17 days.
Serkis is in no way abandoning film: The Imaginarium, for example, is preparing to make the movie version of Animal Farm. But he believes that video games have finally shrugged off any inferiority complex: “I was listening to Classic FM this morningand the third top-ranked piece of music created uproar, because it was from a video game. It just goes to show where convergence is at. Video game technology and video games are acknowledged by Bafta now, and are rightly getting credit for what they are, which is extraordinary pieces of art.”