How 'Injustice 2' Advances the Visual Design of Its Female Characters
Are we scratching our way out of the uncanny valley?
Image: Warner Bros.
Injustice 2, the fighting game sequel to Injustice: Gods Among Us, is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The reviews are positive; the fighting controls are fun and easy to pick up. The game receives high marks for its single player campaign, which continues the Batman vs. Superman story where the prior game left off.
Warner Bros' marketing has focused on Injustice 2's beefed-up multiplayer and new Multiverse mode—a ever-changing ladder of unique challenges and modified gameplay. But a more understated, impressive aspect of the game is its character design, particularly its female characters.
When the game's first trailer was released in June 2016, this was not the case. The female's faces had a rough, ill-defined look to them. Take, for example, this screenshot of Supergirl's face.
It was widely panned and promoted a solid round of memes, the best of which was this photoshopping of Chucky and Supergirl:
But when NetherRealm released new footage in December 2016, the visuals were vastly improved. Here's a Supergirl screenshot from the final, released game, which shows a higher level of detail and polish.
Perhaps the initial backlash was premature; developers will continue refining and perfecting their product even after its release. But according to Brendan George, the Character Art Lead at NetherRealm Studios, the feedback was a "positive motivator" for the team.
"It took an enormous cross-discipline team effort to replace the whole facial creation pipeline and put the first demo together," said George in an email interview with Motherboard. "The early reactions were not what we hoped for, but the passion of our fans helped the entire studio to focus on solving the problems."
"We determined that we needed to add new lighting features to achieve the softer look we were after," continued George. "Facial animations were adjusted to become less exaggerated, which made them more appealing. All these changes combined with some small model and makeup adjustments gave us the look we were after."
George started at NetherRealm in 2015, and one of the first things he focused his attention on was the characters' faces.
"My fundamental approach to art is scientific," said George. "Emulating styles without an understanding of the fundamental construction leads to everything looking very similar. My first studies in this approach came from Andrew Loomis, an American illustrator from the early to mid-1900s."
"Today, my go-to artist for this approach is Scott Eaton," said George, "who teaches a fantastic facial anatomy course and continues to have an enormous impact on the anatomy skills across the industry… without the correct anatomical construction, the character face will fall apart when animation is applied."
George decided that NetherRealm's approach to facial modeling needed to be updated, and so the team developed a facial scanner. The data from that scanner was then used to create an "advanced facial rig" which would animate realistically.
From there, however, the details had to be more finely adjusted.
"Fundamentally, the construction of female faces is similar to male faces," said George. "However, since female faces have more subtle forms than male faces, making the smallest changes has a dramatic impact on the final result."
"The expectations of how a video game character should look, especially super heroes in a fighting game, adds to the complexity of the execution," continued George. "To meet these expectations, we added a measure of stylization; we made the faces a little more symmetrical and enhanced the features."
Injustice 2 takes a middle road approach to the characters' anatomy. In NetherRealm's Mortal Kombat IX, the characters were idealized and sexualized to an extreme.
Mortal Kombat X dialed this back, and presented more proportional, athletic character models, which received high praise from critics.
Injustice 2 splits the difference. Superheroes, after all, are idealized by their very definition.
"Cheetah's athletic build and Bane's huge muscular build help to sell their characters," says George. "Designing believable characters is imperative for us, and we intend to continue to improve. It is also my personal passion to develop character looks that help support our stories, as well as deliver the information the player needs during gameplay."
And lastly, a key component to designing female characters is to consult women and include their input.
"Our Art Director reached out to our female artists for fashion advice when designing some of the female character costumes," recalled George. "Our lead user interface artist dressed as 'casual' Supergirl to model what she felt Supergirl should wear in that role. We then scanned parts of her costume to create the 'casual' Supergirl look."
George also credits Viktorija, his wife, with helping the female characters to look their best.
"We spent most weekends from June 2016 through September 2016 researching makeup techniques and applying them to all our scanned faces to find just the right looks," said George. "Viktorija has helped me understand how different makeup techniques work with different face shapes and in different lighting conditions."
"Also, she is a harsh critic," added George. "That always helps."
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