Why Here They Lie’s Small Dev Team Bet Big on Character and Facial Animation
By Josiah Renaudin
Our strangest dreams might be populated by floating hammerhead sharks or endless hallways that bend and dip in impracticable manners, but what makes these surreal mental trips so potent are the grounded moments. For the impossible to seem possible, speckles of reality need to dress the dream and keep you questioning the validity of what’s in front of you. In order to blend dream and reality in Here They Lie, the stumbling inhabitants of the red light district and primal “Naked Others” who haunt the alleyways had to move and interact in consistent and believable ways.
Ricardo Tobon, Tangentlemen’s well-traveled senior animator, quickly understood the challenge at hand when development kicked off — create characters who look and feel real to act as support beams for a world drenched in abstraction. But being the only member of both the rigging and animation team early on, Ricardo had to prove to the rest of the group that he could create strong enough animation before committing to more character interactions.
“Face performance and animation is one of my favorite things, so I got to work on tests and examples that would help put Cory, Rich, John, and Toby’s minds at ease,” Ricardo explains. “My hope was that if they got comfortable about our face animation process, they would write more on-screen dialogue scenes for the characters.”
To highlight the importance of living characters, a little trickery had to be used to show just how much could be done with such a small team.
“I built a test setup that was FACS (Facial Action Coding System) inspired but simplified, mostly blend-shape centric, and that could be both driven by mo-cap as well as key-frame animation,” he details. “Once the team saw the results of the setup running in-engine, it was decided that we would have characters talking up close in key areas of the game.
“You can say that my ruse worked a little too well, because Dana got upgraded to be one of these characters.”
Dana, Here They Lie’s leading lady, was always intended as a driving force for the story, but her vivid lighting and face-to-face conversations with Buddy came later. She was originally veiled by shadows — often backlit to match the monochromatic aesthetic of the rest of the world. You were never actually meant to see her up close, but Ricardo’s mo-cap techniques expanded the scope of what could be done.
With new confidence in both the tech and Ricardo’s skills, the Tangentlemen enlisted the help of Sony Visual Arts Service Group to refine Dana’s model, replicate Buddy’s face rig into her likeness, and provide animation for a few areas of the game (Buddy was going to talk to you on screen from the jump, but he was initially represented by a lamprey with a human face. Yes, the game was going to be even weirder.) To encourage emotional resonance, Ricardo paid special attention to character irises, properly framing them by the eyelids based on the authored animation once the engine took control of the character.
“Once the team saw the results of the setup running in-engine, it was decided that we would have characters talking up close in key areas of the game.
Why put such an emphasis on the eyes? Think about how often we make eye contact during regular conversation. Now imagine if your counterpart’s eyes stayed static, or simply didn’t respond to stimuli. It’s almost unsettling, right? Eyes add life to in-game models, and this life carries even greater weight in virtual reality. Believability when a character is in the same room as you rather than trapped behind the screen is critical, and fully understanding how eyes react during conversations became a fun learning experience for the entire team.
“I would bring the programmers to my desk and show them how much more alive a character would feel once the eyelids got incorporated in the facial solution we had created,” Ricardo says. “It was really cool because they quickly jumped onto the idea from their point of view — pretty soon they were sending me medical reference videos and articles on how the eyes work, how they affect the skin. It started to become a very collaborative effort between animation and programming.”
But realistic eyes on a realistic frame tied to realistic emotions doesn’t add up to the bizarre. Early on, the team themselves performed the character motions, using a small mo-cap space that led to some gauche yet effective material that actually made it all the way to the final game. Ricardo was captured for the player motion set, so you’re quite literally walking in his shoes when you tour the world.
However, what the early results lacked was the sense of danger, awkwardness, and (maybe most importantly) weirdness that the game demanded. Thankfully, Ricardo’s experience working on “Dawn Of The Planet of The Apes” gave him insight into how those actors would begin pacing around, doing quadruped sprints, ape calls, and other strange activities before getting into character. The team loved the idea of working in a similar creative space, so they developed a human-quadruped style of movement to perfect their own brand of animalistic body language (since the “Naked Others” represent humans reverted to a savage state.) Working with talented actors like Kevin Dorman, Noshir Dalal, Scott Lang, Jason Chu, and Isabella Miko worked wonders to bring that sense of danger to a head.
And somewhat organically, the various “Dirty Others” — the residents of the world sporting a variety of animal heads — began to take on animation styles all their own.
“Whoever was implementing motions into the game was able to choose which mask to use for the characters and organically, people just started using certain masks for certain types of actions,” Ricardo continues. “Justin Pappas, one of our level designers, tended to favor the hyena mask for the surly, menacing encounters he built in the subway tunnels. Stephen Ratter, our senior environment artist, ended up implementing a lot of the motions in the city area; he used these animations to build upon the environmental storytelling that the art team was creating. So Stephen was the one who created this narrative of the zebra heads being the goofballs of the game.”
“It was really cool because they quickly jumped onto the idea from their point of view — pretty soon they were sending me medical reference videos and articles on how the eyes work, how they affect the skin. It started to become a very collaborative effort between animation and programming.”
When it came down to Dana and Buddy, though, nailing the faces was paramount to the success of the narrative. And while the Tangentlemen are a small group, Ricardo believes that even small teams can create believable, authentic animation.
“If you find that face performances are important to your game, you can have characters that look believable and feel alive with a small team,” Ricardo asserts. “But you have to fully commit to the idea and keep a scope that allows for success in this area. The bigger the scope, the bigger your team is going to need to be.
“Audiences these days are very savvy. They understand animation, as well as performance, better than before. They care about the quality of these elements in their games; they consider animation an important part of the game experience, so you want to be able to follow through if you choose to introduce these types of elements.”
Ricardo takes pride in the final product. Thanks to the hard work he put in and the talented people who gave chilling performances, the characters of Here They Lie have presence in the world. But more than anything, Ricardo values that he was given enough rope by his small team to create powerful animations for the sake of immersion.
“I’m even more proud of being a small part of a team that embraced the animation process as an integral part of the video game-making endeavor,” Ricardo admits. “From engineering and programming, all the way to environment art, people took animation seriously. They had a say on it, helped whenever they could, and I believe the game is better because of it.”
Here They Lie is available now for PS4 and PSVR. Check it out: http://play.st/HereTheyLie.