Normally I don't use journals as actual blogs, but places to rant. The animation of Caius Ballad, however, has been on my mind pretty much since I bought and started playing Final Fantasy XIII-2. If you've played the game, seen a couple of trailers, etc., feel free to comment. I'm curious to know how others feel about my opinion here.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, the latter of which was released in NTSC regions in early 2010. Two years later its sequel was released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The focus of this blog, Caius, is the game's antagonist-antivillain.
Computer animation is a constantly evolving art. Usually it seeks to strike a happy medium between the cartoonish and the realistic, which can make older works going for the latter quite jarring to modern viewers. Avatar gave computer animation a nice step forward, as for the first time, individuals created entirely within a computer came to life on the screen, regardless of one's opinion of the "uncanny valley". Once I was into the film, I nearly forgot that 100% of what I was looking at on Pandora away from the human settlement was complete CGI. However, what has been done on film still hasn't been done to such a degree in a game, although Quantic Dream and Sucker Punch's "Infamous 2" have come a very long ways just using the realtime engine. XIII-2 is no exception.
Caius, however, is just about on par with Avatar in my book. In the first game, Snow and Vanille were animated with the same level of quality during the CGI cutscenes scattered throughout the game. Caius feels real to me. That feeling comes from a combination of small details - the way his hair looks and moves, the textures used for his skin, the way his movements were animated, all combine to create a level of realism that wasn't replicated with the other characters. If you want to, call it fangirling, but that isn't what it is. I have a fascination with CGI and am constantly watching tiny details to see how seamlessly each is integrated with the other. During the opening scene in Valhalla, which is a roughly three-minute-long segment rendered entirely in CG, Caius was the only thing in the whole scene that felt as though he had weight and mass and occupied a three-dimensional space. Lightning was well-animated, but something was off about her face and body proportions - her eyes were the slightest bit too big, and at certain angles her face just looked wrong somehow. I can't explain it much better than that.
In each scene where Caius is present, I am constantly watching him. There's lots of things on him that are moving and changing shape - his hair, his headband, the feathers, segmented sections of his armor - that always catch my eye. And while both Caius and Lightning (and eventually, Serah and Noel) keep the same general shape, Caius felt organic and real in a way none of the others did. The combination of constant movement, impressive motion capture, great texturing, and excellent lighting (did I see a little subsurface scattering in the second CGI scene?) make him look as though he could step into the real world and look no less, or hardly less, real than anyone else. His hair moves like the real thing (watch a frame-by-frame of one of his full-CGI cutscenes to see what I mean), which is extraordinarily difficult to do. It's mesmerizing to watch.
Serah's ponytail catches on her shoulder a lot, or doesn't move until the scene transitions from one shot to the next, which adds to the uncanny valley feeling. Noel sometimes has no animation around his eyes, making him look like a talking mannequin. There's something just weird about Hope's hair. Yeul is generally well-animated, but the way she walks is a way that I guess is supposed to be mysterious, but just comes off as creepy. Her smile, too, is generally just an upturning of the lips (a problem Lightning shares) without changing the width of the mouth, which is just... bizarre. With the exception of a five-second shot in the Dying World, Caius is the only one whose quality remains consistent.
Square Enix has pulled this off elsewhere, too. For example, in Advent Children Complete, an animated segmented that replaced a montage during dialogue between Kadaj and Rufus combined impressive detail with totally organic motion, although it only lasted a very short while.
Still, in the whole game, both in full-CGI cutscenes and the in-game realtime engine, Caius continued to stand out even against every other character. Like Vanille and Snow before him (and Fang, from time to time), whether intentional or not, he stands as an impressive feat of what a lot of animators, great software, and plenty of time and patience can do while building a video game, right up there alongside Cole MacGrath and Zeke of Infamous 2.