Hellblade 2: The Origins of the Realism Obsession | Xbox One

Ninja Theory broke out five years ago with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a film that plunged us into the psychological horror of a schizophrenic protagonist. With an independent game budget, the British studio was able to offer an innovative and engaging experience. Xbox gamers are more than excited for the release of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2, which will benefit from a bigger budget and be showcased in chunks played with great graphic fidelity.

Dan Crossland, Ninja Theory’s Character Art Director is a reference in video game character design. During an interview on the studio’s YouTube channel, he found time to explain the reasons for his crazy pursuit of realism.

Realism, seeing is believing

As well as being a game that tries to share the experience of a person with schizophrenia, Hellblade is played in a third-person view and therefore features Senua’s vision. In many ways, the game is a simulation, but Crossland reminds us that realism affects the gaming experience. Every element of anatomy has a role to play, and not understanding its importance will spoil the design. He will go so far as to focus on the color of the hair, but also the wave, the thickness, or the transparency of the cartilage of the main character Senua’s ear.

Similarly, Crossland argues that clothing and fabric have their own ‘anatomy’. Always wanting to immerse the player in a story designed to be realistic, Ninja Theory’s artists seek the utmost fidelity so that the player can “feel connected to Senua” and feel emotions during a play session.

Although we won’t pause to comment on the appearance of the ear or the eye, Crossland is convinced that attention to detail affects our subconscious, helping us to immerse ourselves better and allow us to participate more intensely in the story. .

Also, while everything shown so far isn’t in-game, Senua’s model has many layers, including muscles that are faithful to what’s seen on the surface. However, the interest of this work does not end with the photography: when the muscles tense, the collarbone tightens or Senua’s arm reaches, the transmitted feelings (fear, stress, etc.) come out and strike the sword.

Not entirely satisfied with the capabilities offered by existing tools, the studio is now focusing on Machine Learning, which it hopes to use to more effectively capture the performances of live actors and respect the physics of 3D models through clothing and muscle deformations.

A story and scene worthy of the big screen

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 was unveiled three years ago at The Game Awards. After a long hiatus, the game presented itself with a surprising game sequence this time in the 2021 ceremony. We see Senua and her friends face off against a 16-meter-tall troll who recognizes the main character and shouts his name. help.

It’s this familiar, at first glance terrifying relationship between Senua and the troll that the studio tried to convey to the audience based on reviews and succeeded. For this, Ninja Theory used the deformation of the muscles, the appearance of the skin, as well as the control of lights. This work served to make this remarkable creature more believable in image, but above all it served to make him more “human” through outward emotions.

If we instinctively think of his visual aspect when we think of his design, this also includes his character, which is defined and developed during his adventures. For the design process, Crossland always starts by looking at the story and ultimately just the character’s physique and costume before moving on to the adventure. Hellblade 2’s realistic size means that every accessory carried has a function. The accessory is an integral part of the costume, which itself develops during the story.

To illustrate the importance of visual evolution in a character’s character, we can use the example of a neck warmer that breaks off in a collision, an eye that is lost in a fight, or dirty nails after a crawl. Studio artists make heavy use of actor makeup to conceptualize these “flesh and blood” aspects. This approach allows you to aim for loyalty and is closer to cinema.

More conceptualization than perception

Ninja Theory’s ambitions are high for their next game, and they’ve had to overcome some obstacles to bring them up. So the studio went beyond sketches and digital concepts to take advantage of the actors, fabrics and mannequin costumes behind the lens. This “live” design allows you to get as close to any result as possible. However, if they no longer serve as a privileged reference, sketches are still available, but more functional thanks to work on other supports.

Another aspect of Ninja Theory’s work that is reminiscent of the movies is the scanning of the actors in their costumes. According to Crossland, these scans provide access to a realism that CGI doesn’t allow: a piece made entirely digitally would be devoid of substance. Artists use programs like Marvelous Designer to play with parameters like material density and adjust them based on scans. So, a thin fabric will have more wrinkles, while a thicker one may be smoother. However, there is the temptation to over-sculpt the fabric and the risk of distorting it, hence the importance of referring to the “ground truth” which is the scanning of the materials in this particular case.

At the intersection of art

As we’ve seen above, Dan Crossland and his team go beyond the design techniques traditionally used in the video game industry. The experienced artist tells us that his references for design are never video games: movies, the paintings of Francis Bacon (British artist of the 20th century) or the monstrous sculptures of Sarah Sitkin are his inspirations. These are broken down by the artist trying to capture their appeal while presenting the aesthetic Crossland seeks. Crossland acknowledges that none other than multi-arts giant Disney has taken this transversal approach.

Since its release, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 has emphasized attention to detail and featured shots of scenery or objects via a blog. If the footage ironically showed real scenes and objects without being specifically considered by the players, now we know what the basis of the studio’s philosophy on realism is. Although no release horizon has been announced yet, the title is one of the most anticipated from Xbox Game Studios and will enrich Xbox’s first-party catalog, which badly needs a AAA third-person story to compete in the industry.

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