Friday, November 14, 2014

The Speed of Akira

"You wanna ride it, Tetsuo?"
The great frame rate debate has been going on for well over a year now, so I figured I might as well take a moment to address it.  Do video games really look and play better in 60fps?  I think so, but some claim that they don't notice much of a difference between 30 and twice that amount.  Plus, certain compromises to detail have to be made in order to free up the necessary computing resources to achieve such a high (yet steady) number of frames per second.  My response to both the former and latter criticisms of 60fps is to point to another kind of media that has suffered from similar issues, namely cartoon animation.  The answer to it all is, in a word, Akira.

"Computer controlled
anti-lock brakes..."
Just in case that means nothing to you, Akira is a landmark feature length animated film and an epic manga, spanning six volumes and over 2000 pages of illustrated panels.  Much like NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, the movie is a distilled version of what transpires in the comic.  Certain characters, plot arcs and events are redacted, changed or removed entirely to adhere to a manageable screen time of about two hours.  Even so Akira, the film, was a massive undertaking.  It cost an unprecedented (for the time) 1.1 billion yen and required 160,000 individually hand drawn cells of animation.  Story-wise it's about a secret government funded psionics program, teenage biker gangs and a dystopian future in the Tokyo bay area circa the year 2020.  I could say more (and will later), but suffices to say anyone with an interest in cyberpunk or post apocalyptic settings should give the manga a try.  Why not save time and just watch the less time consuming movie?  Well, to tell the truth the film is really meant for fans of the comic book series.  Not only for the much needed background information, but also to truly appreciate all the subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks made to the original story in order to adapt it to the big screen.  On a side note, I'm not a purist when it comes to watching anime, but if subtitles aren't an option then go with the 2001 English remastering/redub since it's vastly superior to the original 1988 localization attempt.

"200 horses at 12,000 rpm..." 
Anyway, what does this got to do with frame rates in video games?  Glad you asked!  I was on one heck of a tangent there...but bear with me a bit longer.  In animated films there's a common resource saving process called limited animation.  Basically, it involves a number of tricks to not have to draw a new image for each of the 24 frames of animation shown each second.  Why 24?  That's something the film industry discovered a long time ago.  Any more than that is considered wasteful, but any less than 24 and the human eye becomes increasingly intolerant toward what it is seeing.  The most obvious trick is using fewer frames when there's little or no movement on-screen.  A lot of low budget anime will go down to 12 or even 6 frames a second during dialogue scenes wherein the characters remain relatively static except for their mouths which oftentimes enunciate with the accuracy of a sock puppet.  Akira doesn't do any of this, and boy does it show.  Action is incredibly fluid and every spoken line is carefully lip-synced with pre-recorded dialogue (a process, I should note, that is rarely done in Japan).  Of course this also makes accurate dubbing very difficult to pull off successfully.

" motor coils were just
getting warmed up..."
So, what with all that painstaking drawing, they must have skimped on visual details, right?  Well, yes and no.  Part of what makes Akira special is its judicious selection of themes.  Sure, it's an seminal entry in the cyberpunk genre...except there really isn't much "cyber" stuff when you get down to it.  Computer screen readouts probably occupy less than one entire minute of the film's screen time.  As for the "punk" part...actually, there's not a whole lot of that either.  For the most part everyone (both male and female) wear fairly unremarkable clothing with skin that is free of tattoos or other adornments.  It's a time saver which allows the animators to concentrate their efforts on the things like the nighttime cityscape, intricate machinery, and the kinetics of destruction.  This choice of focus helps emphasize the political overtones of the tale with regards to civil unrest, chaotic uprisings and grey-on-grey morality.

"That's Mr. Kaneda to you punk!"
There have been numerous attempts to adapt Akira to a video game format.  Most notable of the failures is the canceled Sega Genesis title that was going to be a chase view motorcycle racing game, FPS, side scroller, isometric shooter, and one-on-one fighting game all rolled into one.  Personally, I think any game about Akira should take the Godfather: Part II approach and expand on events that occur before and after the original.  It might be interesting to play an open world game as Kaneda, forming the "Capsule" biker gang or putting together that highly customized iconic red motorcycle of his.

Regardless, when it comes to what you see on-screen whether it be Akira the film, or a video game you can have your cake and eat it too.  You just got to ask yourself what matters most when it comes to the frosting.  The right combination of ingredients is key to making something in a visual medium that will stand the test of time.

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