Square Enix didn’t just cross the uncanny valley, they more or less filled it in.
For those who don’t know, the “uncanny valley” refers to a phenomena that happens in computer animation (and, by extension, video games) when digital characters look and move almost exactly like real people, but don’t quite hit the mark. Some viewers’ brains can’t deal with the discrepancy, and they find the resulting image unsettling – or, in extreme cases, absolutely revolting. That’s why, for example, despite all of Rockstar’s bragging about LA Noire’s advanced facial animation system, many people found the game’s graphics off-putting. The game looked too real, and yet not real enough.
In a recent presentation, however, Square Enix might’ve proved that the uncanny valley is a thing of the past. As part of a presentation for Microsoft’s upcoming DirectX 12 graphics API (an API is basically a collection of tools for programmers), Square Enix shared a demo called The WITCH CHAPTER 0 [cry]. The demo features a woman kneeling in a ruined castle, sobbing. That doesn’t sound like much, but the woman in question looks 100% real. It’s stunning. The video isn’t pre-rendered, either. Everything in The Witch runs in real-time, powered by an Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan X graphics card.
Why is the woman sad, by the way? Because, traditionally, crying is considered the hardest human emotion for animators to get “right.” At this point, Square Enix is just showing off.
The video is impressive on its own, but it also has huge ramifications for DirectX and the future of video game graphics. The Witch features over 63 million polygons, over 6 to 12 times more than would’ve been possible with DirectX 11. Textures are 8k by 8k, which is huge, and everything, including each individual strand of hair, is a polygon, with over 50 shaders working in concert to create the final effect. No texture tricks here.
The Witch isn’t just some technical pipe dream; Square Enix is applying the lessons it learned producing the demo to current and upcoming titles, including Final Fantasy 15. As that game’s director, Hajime Tabata, says:
Our team has always pursued cutting-edge pre-rendered and real-time CG…. As a part of the technical development, we created this demo using world-class, real-time CG technology with generous support from [Microsoft and Nvidia]. The efforts from this project will power future game development as well as Final Fantasy XV, currently a work in progress.
Ever since the PlayStation era, Square’s been pushing video game graphics to their limits (back in the day, the pre-rendered backgrounds and blocky characters in Final Fantasy VII looked amazing), and it’s not surprising to see the company taking the lead once again. Between The Witch and the breathtaking visuals in games like Uncharted 4, photorealistic characters are no longer a far-off dream. The future is here.