Over the holiday break, I took pains to finish my extended playthrough of Insomniac's excellent Spider-Man. It ended up taking me substantially longer than anticipated, but it did afford me the opportunity to enjoy the game's superb range of faces.
Spider-Man got plenty of plaudits when it launched, not just for its mechanical prowess but particularly the game's performance. It's especially apparent on the PS4 Pro with HDR in full bloom, but something that was called out less often is the amount of work that's gone into the faces.
AAA games often invest a ton of time into sharpening up a few key models, like the player character, main antagonists and player sidekicks, with extra work done for cut-scenes. And you can generally tell the difference pretty easily when the B-tier NPCs appear on screen: the hair is often muddier, the clothes less defined, and the skin textures are less detailed.
As a result, it's pretty rare for games to use super close-up shots of characters bar one or two models. Using a slightly wider shot - one that includes at least the upper chest, rather than just the neck up - helps mask some of those differences.
But Spider-Man has a ton of faces in cut-scenes from the neck up, rather than the more traditional shot from the chest up. And while there's plenty of the latter, a lot of characters get some great close up shots that show off just how much work has gone into the tiny details.
One small note: there are technically some spoilers in here, for those who haven't worked their way through the main campaign. None of these shots were taken from the DLC episodes, however, so if you've finished the main story but holding off on that content, don't stress. I don't have pictures of all the characters in-game
Right then. As with the two shots above, all of these were taken using the in-game Photo Mode. You can pretty much pause the game during any point, although the camera view and controls are restricted in the middle of cut scenes.
What's interesting about this shot of Morgan Michaels - taken not long after Parker retrieves the antiserum for Devil's Breath - is that it's a substantially sharper model than the one that appears earlier in the scene. It was one of the few inconsistencies I saw not just of disparity between Parker and another character on screen, but also of a model initially appearing at a lower resolution. (That does't mean it doesn't happen, only that it was one of the few instances where it was visually apparent for long enough to notice.)
Something the shots also reveal is a difference in texturing between the male and female character models. Most of the male characters, especially the older ones like Norman Osborne, Otto Octavius, Morgan Michaels and Martin Li to a smaller extent, have deeper frown lines and vastly more pores.
It's something that doesn't become really apparent until you see the shots of the female characters on screen, whose faces are a little smoother. At a glance, it's easy to mistake this for them being lower in quality, although a closer inspection shows it's more of an aesthetic choice.
What's worth pointing out, and something that's relatively easy to do with Photo Mode, is the high quality of the facial models during regular gameplay. Below is a shot taken of Octavius during the final battle, before Octavius lights up the top of Osborne Tower in flames. Underneath that is Octavius shortly after the fight, which offers a good highlight of the kind of touch-up work done for cutscenes.
One large giveaway is the goggles - when gameplay can be stopped at any time, it's too visually demanding to be able to maintain the faux reflection in the goggles. (And as has become apparent with the advancements in real-time ray tracing, those reflections are always faked - because traditional screen-space reflection techniques can only work with information that's on the screen, so any reflections of things out of the shot have to be manually added in by the developers.)
Most of the general model details are there, but one in particular is Octavius' crows feet. They're entirely absent from the mid-gameplay model, which is understandable: it's such a small, minute thing that players would never be able to appreciate during the heat of a battle. It adds a ton of character to the doctor's face, however, and it's well rendered in cutscenes. Funnily enough, it's also one area where Li has the most similarity with Silver Sabre, Aunt May and Mary Jane - his face has the most youthful appearance, with little in the way of brow lines or bags under the eyes. Having constant nightmares and a double personality doesn't impact your sleep, apparently.
The shot I want to save for last, however, and something that neatly highlights just how much work Insomniac put in, is this one:
It's a shot taken at the very end of the game, when Parker and MJ return to their favourite diner to catch up months after the final battle. Sitting in their usual seats, the scene switches from closeups of MJ to Parker and back again.
For the most part, both characters appear in full frame. But there's a few seconds where MJ's facial textures are still visible in the shot while Parker is on screen, which highlights a neat amount of detail:
If you hadn't seen the scene prior, and just cut out that texture by itself, you could almost be confused for thinking the texture was a finger or a thumb. But that's also precisely why the detail is great to see in the first place.
As a narrative device, this texture doesn't have any purpose. It doesn't need to be in shot, at all, and does nothing more than obstruct the frame. And yet, because of the positioning of the characters and the framing of the character - MJ's model is shifting slightly, which is why the texture disappears from short a few seconds after this shot was taken - the rear left side of MJ's face still has a nice bit of detail in it.
It's a weird thing to geek out about, I know. But when you sit and look at it, especially thinking on how blocky character models were five years ago - let alone ten or twenty - it's staggering just how far 3D artists can push the envelope. And it's also worth to stop for a second and appreciate an element that was overshadowed somewhat, but was no less superb than the rest of gameplay.