Beyond: Two Souls is an interactive action-adventure game by French developer Quantic Dream. It’s not really a great game, but like Quantic Dream’s previous two titles, it is at least notable for its emphasis on realistic characters brought to life through extensive use of motion-capture. The headlining actor lending her voice, motion and likeness to Beyond: Two Souls is Juno and Inception star Ellen Page, who donned a black catsuit covered in ping pong balls and allowed Quantic Dream to record her movements with 64 Vicon cameras. This data was then crunched by a computer and used to bring a 3-D model inspired by her likeness to life.
This is where things get interesting. Several weeks ago, nude images of Jodie Holmes, Ellen Page’s character in Beyond: Two Souls, leaked online, and were published by several gaming blogs. By itself, it was something of a non-event, but the game’s publisher, Sony Entertainment, quickly moved to get these posts taken down. “The images are from an illegally hacked console and are very damaging for Ellen Page,” the rep reportedly told one site. “It’s not actually her body. I would really appreciate if you can take the story down to end the cycle of discussion around this.”
If the goal of the takedown requests was to “end the cycle of discussion,” it had the opposite effect entirely. Fueled by the implicit contradiction in Sony’s statement on the matter, discussion about the images heated up online. If the nude images were “not actually her body,” how could they be “very damaging” to Ellen Page? And what do we mean when we say that a 3-D model is nude, when as a society we can’t even agree what nudity means?
The first thing to understand is that Sony is right at least about one thing: the nude images that have leaked online are of Jodie Holmes, not Ellen Page. It’s an important distinction. Although Jodie Holmes bears a resemblance to Ellen Page, and though both her voice and movements were used to bring the character to life, Holmes is essentially a cartoon: a 3-D character created by a digital artist based upon Ellen Page’s likeness.
The fact that the images in question are “nude” images of a model created by a Quantic Dream artist might be at least part of the source of Sony’s embarrassment. Beyond: Two Souls features a shower sequence, but it does not contain visible nudity: instead, Page’s character Jodie Holmes bathes while her body is tastefully obscured by steam and a carefully placed curtain, just like you might see in a PG-13 movie.
Unfortunately, a game is not a movie. Scenes in a game are rendered, not filmed, which means that if a hacker knows what he’s doing, he can “move the camera” and see a scene from an angle that was not intended. Which is exactly what happened.
But if Quantic Dream never meant for players to see Jodie Holmes naked, why did a Quantic Dream artist spend time painstakingly modeling her breasts, nipples, vagina, and pubic hair? A 3-D model is usually as sexless as a wax doll underneath its clothing, because designing games is expensive, and creating assets for things players aren’t going to see is a waste of time. That a Quantic Dream artist would unnecessarily create a sexually realistic body for a 3-D model, then task Ellen Page to bring it to life without her knowledge, seems creepy at best, and a violation at worst.
This is also potentially a legal matter for Sony. Mark Methenitis, a lawyer speaking about the Beyond: Two Souls controversy to Ars Technica, says that he would think that Ellen Page’s contract with Quantic Dream and Sony would contain a complete bar on nudity, “in which case including the model in a way that can be accessed at all probably trips it.”
Whether or not the Beyond: Two Souls nudity debacle ends up in a lawsuit, the mere possibility that a 3-D model of what Ellen Page might look like naked is enough to trigger her contract’s “no nudity” clause raises some interesting questions. What meaning does the entire idea of nudity have in a world where photorealistic 3-D models of any person can be created? Is it really about seeing some nipples or genitalia–which may or may not be real–or is it about the way in which these things are viewed, and whether or not we are titillated by them?
In truth, the very idea of nakedness has always been in flux. A woman wearing a thong bikini wouldn’t be thought indecent on the beach today, but in the era of bathing costumes, she would have been considered practically naked. Likewise, there was a time when a man would apologize to a woman if she discovered him wearing short sleeves. Nudity isn’t so much about what you can see as it is about how it is seen. It’s about what is exposed, not what is revealed.
There’s a term widely used to describe the problem of creating lifelike representations of people using computers called the uncanny valley. Essentially, the uncanny valley refers to the pit of revulsion that we all fall into when we are confronted with artificial representations of human beings that aren’t exactly lifelike.
Realistic, motion-captured games like Beyond: Two Souls prove that after decades spent trying to claw our way out of the uncanny valley, we’ve finally reached a more naturalistic plateau when it comes to virtually recreating the human aesthetic. Yet if this controversy has proven anything, it’s that even though we can now photorealistically render the human body in a convincing way down to the smallest detail, we’re still just as confused as ever about the meaning of being naked.