Dancing on a different stage: the balletic inspiration behind PS4's Bound
Dancer Maria Udod gives life to a new PS4 game's heroine through performance capture
It wasn't the kind of performance Maria Udod is used to.
The professional dancer — based in Rotterdam, Netherlands but originally from Kyiv, Ukraine — usually performs onstage in front of a live audience.
However, she performed for a different kind of audience, with her every movement recorded, to help create Bound, a new video game for the Sony PlayStation 4.
"It was awesome. And it was weird," Udod told CBC News of the experience.
Instead of a costume, she donned a performance-capture suit studded with spheres, which allowed a complicated array of cameras to track her movements from 360 degrees.
Udod's movements were used to create Bound's main character: a princess tasked by her mother to save her kingdom from a terrifying monster.
Bound is set in a starkly abstract world seemingly constructed from living, breathing papercraft. The princess prances along structures that invoke M.C. Escher-like geometry and paths composed of Lego-esque bricks that ripple as she crosses. The camera contorts its point of view in kind.
It's all set to a soundtrack that mixes electronica with classical piano, like a mashup between Mozart and Daft Punk.
The character moves with precision and athleticism thanks to Udod's training in ballet and contemporary dance. She's light on her feet, extends her arms out for balance as she crosses narrow beams, cartwheels and rolls to gain speed before leaping across bottomless pits.
"Space-wise as a dancer, you always have an audience in front of you, so you always try to present your best side. You know which side you're going to be looked at," Udod said.
"But with motion capture, the cameras are all around you and it's in 3D, so you have to be perfect from every angle, which is sometimes really hard."
Bound offers a big shift from the usual kind of movement seen in similar video games. Super Mario, with his pudgy frame and stumpy limbs, bounces around the Mushroom Kingdom with the kinetic energy of a handball and a reckless disregard for physics.
When the team began work on the game four years ago, the creators originally envisioned the main character as a runner, said programmer Michal Staniszewski, from Bound's Polish development team Plastic.
But when they sketched out her movements, it felt too much like other games of the genre.
Then a team member showed Staniszewski a YouTube video of a contemporary dancer. Something in the movements evoked the aesthetic Plastic was looking for. It was decided: the princess no longer ran — she danced.
"I discovered it's very hard to find a single game where you control a dancer," he said.
He's right. The occasional capoeira combatant may appear in a fighting game and digital avatars lead players through pantomimes in party games like Just Dance. But rarely has a dancer starred in a narrative-driven game like Bound.
"Maria was a perfect match because we wanted a dancer that knows the classic ballet and the contemporary dance, and also [had] a very athletic style body that can make those flips and other movements," Staniszewski said.
"It was quite hard to find a dancer with all those skills."
Udod hopes Bound will "make quite a noise in the dance community" and will introduce dance and theatre to gamers who might not have had any previous interest in the art forms.
Incorporating dance into gaming changes both and pushes them into new territory, she said.
"It becomes a kind of new form of art, maybe."