Sometimes the strangest things become little buoys along the path of progress. Sure, graphics are easy and the nuance and complexities of a mature narrative are obvious, but every once in a while, my brain connects two otherwise unrelated elements and like a drunk switchboard operator, just goes with it.
For wrestling games, it was usually the hair that does it for me. Hair, for the most part, is tough to pull off in video games, but it’s sometimes integral to a wrestler’s persona, such as is the case with Triple H and Mankind. So as little incremental improvements consistently appeared over the years in WWF and then WWE games, a little section of my brain popped up a sign that said “RESERVED FOR WRESTLING HAIR” and now I tend to use that has my first litmus test for progress in the sweaty, muscly genre.
Some of these rather innocuous mental checkpoints apply across the industry to all games of all platforms. In lieu of the obvious physics (are we all past using Havok now?), foliage is a pretty good indicator. I remember when I first saw the trees in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I thought “this is it. We’ve done it. We’ve reached a new peak.” Now, of course, they’re old news (the rest of the game’s graphics, in fact, were dated upon release), but at the time, I could tell that they were some important little happy trees.
The question, I guess, is why do I do this? Why do I use these oddball metrics to judge a game? Well, to clarify, I don’t use them to judge a game; they are more like meta signs that are a thermometer in game development. If these inconsequential details get refined to a degree where it’s impossible not to take notice and be slightly to greatly awed, then you know we’ve hit a new milestone. When developers and artists have the time and resources (not just money and the aforementioned fiscal ability but memory, processing, etc. within the engine and platform), it means something. It means that they’ve learned how to more efficiently use these strange architectures and that our machines are becoming more powerful and that they now have time to devote to these small, usually unnoticed details.
Of course, they may also be signs of a mismanaged development. Maybe if more time was spent on gameplay systems and less on hair simulation, then THQ might publish a decent WWE title in my lifetime.
Sometimes, though, it’s just pure curiosity. Sometimes it’s an inexplicable obsession, a little bug that burrows deep into my brain and won’t come out, itching and scratching away until I sate it with what it desires. The earliest incarnation of this that I can think of (and is now the longest running of the sort) is walking animations. A main character’s gait tells me so much about a game and speaks loads more to me as to who this person is than a cutscene ever will.
The Grand Theft Auto series post-3D transition is a great example. Claude in GTA3 had such immense swagger, but it was a calm and cool kind of walk that told me a bit about Rockstar as a studio in addition to building on the kind of person Claude was. The laid back confidence found in each step went past the game and told me that was how the studio viewed itself, too.
And that carried on throughout each sequel, as well. Each lead character from Tommy Vercetti to CJ Johnson to even the main dudes of the one-off stories like Liberty City Stories and The Lost and The Damned each had a unique stride to them that fit both the game, the character, and where the studio was at the time.
Claude, for example, was a silent, proficient killer, and his walk reflected that. His strides were smooth but quick and deliberate. It was almost utilitarian but also a bit showy. It also reflected that Rockstar North—then known as DMA Design before being acquired and renamed—had a similarly quiet confidence about them, having released a string of hits in a span of a few years, including Space Station Silicon Valley, Body Harvest, and Uniracers, not to mention the original Grand Theft Auto. Not flashy, but deadly—an epithet applicable to both the character and the developer.
Go on to Tommy and you get the evolution of the form of Rockstar as well as the character. Tommy, true to his Scarface inspiration, was a little unhinged. He didn’t question himself because he was not only capable but really full of himself. His confidence occasionally dipped into narcissism, so his walk was a bit more ornate than Claude’s. His steps were unnecessarily bloated and seemed to have a lot more movement going on than you’d think would be required for the distance he traveled. Extrapolate that into Rockstar, a studio that not just two years prior had released what would later be considered a landmark title, and you see that they had turned a bit into Tommy. Flush with acquisition cash, a seminal game under their belt, and currently making one of the most anticipated games to ever hit the industry. How could you not get a little Vercetti in you?
And that goes on for Rockstar, though GTAIV wasn’t as memorable as I’d hoped for Niko’s walking. It was too obviously borne from the Euphoria character animation system and thus too impersonal for me. But that’s not to say programmatic animations have to be impersonal. Look at Assassin’s Creed.
Spend any amount of time playing any Assassin’s Creed game and you’re likely to notice that Desmond and his ancestors walk a bit funny. Pelvis a little forward, shoulders wide and set back, and arms that kind of stick out to compensate for the severe kick in the legs that occur with each step. Combine it all with a shadowy hood and some cloaks and somehow it all comes together. It is, without a doubt, one of the most memorable walks to ever grace a game.
But it is also all based on systematic programming. Like how the Euphoria engine places limbs accordingly to uneven terrain, Ubisoft’s Anvil engine does the same but also allows for such a personal touch in the animations. But that kind of goes without saying, or at least without saying anything more than I already have.
The progression in the series happens instead in the running. Altaïr kept his head down a bit longer, his arms swinging wide to compensate for the lack of mobility in his legs. His legs moved like a locomotive, straight and with purpose, but his wide wingspan and head-first approach allowed for counterbalance for quick turns and stops.
Ezio came to us in three incarnations from varying ages and thus we had three states of progression for his run. He, like all of Desmond’s ancestors, charged head-first with the first couple of steps, thrusting his momentum forward with reckless abandon for the sake of quick acceleration. But in AC2, he is a brash, young noble, his body still lithe and taut. His steps are compact and able to be pushed and pulled like springy willows. In Brotherhood, arguably his physical peak, his strides become longer and perhaps stronger, but by Revelations, he is visibly aged and now an old man fighting time as much as he is fighting the Templars. His steps become loose and uncontrolled but every bit as assured as in his younger days.
AC3 is possibly the most unique of them all, and perhaps the strangest. It’s almost as if Connor’s legs simply cannot swing straight forward and back. They almost necessarily swing out in circles, which appears goonish at first but also gives such a mad show of grip to his run. Each step is aggressive and expansive, much like Connor’s personality. It’s like watching a ferocious dog running off the chain.
Or perhaps I’m just reading too much into it. Perhaps the developers just wanted to give a superficial veneer to the supposition of progress, much like new helmet reflections in each iteration of Madden. I mean, it is strange that Desmond’s run is dependent on the game even though he is the one constant throughout the series (I guess it could be the bleeding effect of the Animus…), but whatever. It personally gives more meaning to the games for me. It’s the little things that make games your own, those small touches that you think no one else would notice or that could only affect you in this way. It’s taking a mass-pressed disc of data and images and turning it into your own private world.
And it’s knowing that progress is being made, that we’re learning to walk.