Quantum Break: Real Folk

Quantum Break came out in 2016, and is a mixture of animated and live-action content. No, come back! It’s from the people who made Alan Wake, which – wait! Man, it’s hard to sell this shit. I wrote a while back on the Tomb Raider reboot, and described it as cinematic gameplay done right – with Quantum Break as the example of doing it wrong. I won’t talk more broadly about the history of mixed live action/animated games, partly because, frankly, I don’t know a lot about them. But let’s talk about this game and how it comes across. 

So the basic premise is that you play the game, and what you do in the game impacts what happens in a little TV episode that takes place between game chapters. That’s an interesting concept, I guess, but overall it’s a bit of a trainwreck. To me, the core issue is that the real actors are just much more compelling than the animated motion-captures. I’ll give you some evidence below. The game has an all-star cast, including Aiden Gillen from Game of Thrones, Shawn Ashmore, Dominic Monaghan, and the excellent Lance Reddick. They all get animated versions and human versions, and frankly, the human versions are just more compelling.

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I think you can see it even in the stills – if you compare this close-up shot of animated Gillen with the live action Gillen (below), you respond emotionally to the real guy in a way that you don’t with the animated form. There’s something compelling about the human face. It might be that genetically we respond to it more simply because it’s human – it’s related to but not precisely the uncanny valley effect. Usually we think about the uncanny valley in terms of images that make us feel uncomfortable, but more broadly I’m thinking about the ways we respond to human and non-human faces.

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I’m no expert in animation, but there are often suggestions that within drawing (or whatever term encompasses ‘not-photographic visual representation’), more abstracted, exaggerated faces are more relatable to a wider audience. Scott McCloud talks about this in Understanding Comics – if you’ve got a picture of the classic smiley face, just a smile-line and two eye-dots, it’s so abstract that anyone can see themselves in it. If you give that face a beard and a skin colour, suddenly it’s a more specific person. If you don’t have a beard and that skin colour, it becomes harder to imagine yourself into that person. This is again a related idea, but still not quite what we’re talking about. We aren’t necessarily thinking ourselves into the shoes of either the animated character or the real character. It is about our relationship with these depicted characters, but not in terms of how we see ourselves in them.

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I suggest the real issue here is at the intersection of the uncanny valley and the abstracted self – or rather, at the intersection of those fields. It’s about how the two forms (animated and live) display the idea of reality. If you’re watching an animated film that’s set basically on Earth, and you only see animated content, you accept that it’s a representation of reality rather than reality-itself. You know the real world isn’t that colourful, and you know animals don’t really dance like that or sing songs about true love. But animated film doesn’t necessarily make you think ‘Oh, this is so unreal’. It exists in its own little bubble universe, and we read it as a representation and suspend our disbelief and just enjoy the film.

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The issue is crossing animated content with live-action content, especially when they’re two separate streams representing the same reality. We’re basically exposed to two methods of depicting the same fictional world. Aiden Gillen is depicted in live-action and through animation; this stand-off above is depicted in live-action and through animation. When you recognise that these two streams depict the same fictional world, you inevitably start drawing comparisons between them. As audience, what differences do we notice between live-action and animation? What are the framing techniques for each shot? Notice that in the stand-off the colouring is different, even though they’re depicting the same fictional moment. The live-action doesn’t have a light source shining directly in the woman’s face. The light on top of the van’s rear window is red in the film and white/grey in the animation. These are pretty minor differences, but the point is that it’s hard to just reconcile these two depictions. Ultimately it’s not surprising that most people will come to prefer one over the other.

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This is where we return to the face issue from the start. If you’re presented with animated Aiden Gillen and real Aiden Gillan, the real one’s probably going to be more interesting. We automatically respond (knowingly or otherwise) to facial cues and body language in other human beings. Seeing actors in a live-action film just seems to prompt a biological interpersonal reaction that we don’t necessarily get with the animated version, especially not when that animated version is trying to reproduce the live-action environment in a realistic sort of way. I’m aware that we might respond emotionally to exaggerated facial features in animation and so on – big eyes, exaggerated crying, animals with massive bobble-heads – and there’s something to be said for the evocation that happens with non-realist animation. But because these two streams are so closely related, and because the animation here is trying as hard as possible to imitate the real world, we can reasonably judge it in terms of the other, far superior representation of the real world found in the live action content. Basically, this animation’s not hot enough to supplant or even legitimately compare to the depth and connection we feel with the live action representation. For me, this game felt like watching a show and then playing through a shitty animated version of that show’s events. It’s an experiment in cinematic gameplay that simply didn’t pay off. Also the quality of the TV show is piss poor holy shit how did they think that was a good idea.

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