As I watch Geralt of Rivea get a haircut in The Witcher 3, I can’t help but think of the hype that surrounded his hair before the game came out. The graphics card manufacturer Nvidia made a big deal about their new “HairWorks” tech and how it gave long hair a more realistic look and bounce. As I walk out of the barbershop with a clean chin and short hair, I can’t help but think, “Well, so much for that.” AMD tried to create similar hype for their TressFX hair tech in Tomb Raider, and the result was hair that hovered a few inches over her shoulders and blew in her face with every minor twitch.
Hair has always been an essential part of a character, but hair physics have always been a tricky thing in gaming, always more hilarious than impressive, more fake than realistic. Even when this kind of tech works as intended—and to be fair, HairWorks is pretty cool both technologically and aesthetically—even then, it still looks unrealistic: an over-animated, hyper-real extension of the body.
This is necessary, though. If the hair wasn’t exaggerated in some way, we wouldn’t notice it, and we’re meant to notice it. At least, we’re meant to notice the hair Nvidia and AMD helped to create. In truth, hair is one of those technical things that at its very best should be so realistic as to be unnoticeable. Yet all this effort and hype has the opposite effect, bringing a laser focus of realism to a technical effort that purposefully seeks to be unrealistic in order to be noticeable.
On the down side, that means that fancy hair tech will always look weird on realistic looking people like Geralt or Lara Croft. On the plus side, however, those exaggerated physics look great on any already-exaggerated cartoon character. Or better yet, on anything inhuman.
The best use of hair that I’ve seen in a recent game was in Alice: Madness Returns. Alice’s hair grew or shrunk depending on the nature of the world that she was occupying. In the real world, she had short hair, and when she was stuck in a mental asylum, she was shaved bald. But in the dream world, she had beautifully surreal flowing locks. When Alice had long hair, it was absurdly bouncy. Riding an elevator downwards would blow her mane up as if she were falling at terminal velocity. It didn’t look real, but it didn’t have to look real. Alice was part of a cartoon world, so the absurd hair was only fitting. It made her look more at home in the dream world than in the real world, and it made us want to be a part of the dream world more than the real world. The dreams were fantastic. Reality was boring.
It also made her look more heroic. Her long dream world hair became a symbol of her power within that place. It was wild and free, and so was she, unburdened of the oppression of police and teachers and leering men-—untrustworthy authority figures. Her hair became her cape, and when it billowed in the wind, she posed for a hero shot.
The exaggeration made sense because we were meant to notice how it contrasted with the more subdued hair of the real world. The unreality—and specifically the cool unreality—of the hair was the entire point: Dreams are a place of freedom. Reality is a place of oppression.
The gritty worlds of Tomb Raider and The Witcher are most certainly places of oppression, so the wild freely flowing hair of their heroes just doesn’t fit.
Except on monsters.
Bloodborne is most certainly a gritty, oppressive world, and it too features exaggerated hair physics. Riding an elevator down blows my hair and even my heavy trench coat up over my head. It looks dumb, and it doesn’t fit the tone of the world. A brief moment of unintentional comedy in a game that otherwise has no time for humor.
But damn does that hair look great on werewolves.
The first boss in Bloodborne is a huge, grungy, gangly werewolf. Its hair is long and dirty and matted, flying around like a scared swarm of birds. The hair looks weird, but in this case, the weirdness just emphasizes the inhuman quality of your enemy. The otherworldly hair, defying gravity and momentum to move on its own, looks perfectly natural on an otherworldly creature. Like a defense mechanism, it makes the werewolf look bigger and wilder than it really is. Every attack feels faster and stronger when the hair swings around the body like a…
Geralt doesn’t care about his hair and neither do I. But as for those wyverns and water hags and wraiths, with all their wild flowing fur and tongues and ragged scarves—they all look awesome. Good hair is wasted on humans.