The reason all Unreal Engine games had bald or bandana-wearing protagonists

What do Marcus Fenix, John Dalton, or much of the Borderlands cast have in common? If you have thought “they all appear in games that use the Unreal Engine”, you are right, but there is something more. Apart from that detail, either they have very sparse heads or they always wear a scarf. The reason for this horde of characters with tickets, rather than trend, is due to the programming challenges that programmers face.

Baldness is something that every human being fears during his existence. After having some lush and abundant clumps of hair on the roof -some-, many of us see with resignation how our hair decides to leave the nest never to return. And nothing happens! There we have great stars like Bruce Willis, Idris Elba, Vin Diessel or Jason Statham causing a furor. With such popularity of those with sparse heads, you’d think that video games also introduced their share of alopecic characters to appeal to that aesthetic: badass, tough and interesting. And they were not few: Hitman, Kratos, Heavy and many others with that characteristic shone in their titles, but there were some that even recreated with a graphic engine that seemed to be able to handle everything -the Unreal Engine-, also chose to be bald, or did not want to show too much hair by covering it with handkerchiefs or bandanas. Something that at first, I repeat, could be attributed to that trend that “bald” was better, but the reason was much more mundane and logical. from the point of view of development.

The elaboration of textures and physics that are capable of replicate behavior and appearance of any type of hair is something that has been driving all three-dimensional graphics artists for as long as animation of this type has existed. In fact, there are not a few examples of productions, such as Disney/Pixar’s Monsters Inc., that have spent authentic millionaires of money to make the hair or fur on screen look as real as possible. In the case of video games, the reproduction of any type of hairiness has always been an arduous programming task and that not all graphics engines they can, or at least couldn’t, render halfway well when the transition was made from pixels to polygons and 3D textures.

Of course it was a joy to start seeing skin textures, eyes or other organic parts represented better than what had been seen up to that moment, but there was something that kept failing: the hair. An example of the most used and versioned engines is the one developed by Epic Games, the Unreal Engine. Was a qualitative leap in terms of mapping, textures, physics and AI, but it could not represent a “pantenne hair” on our monitors.

The studios that chose him to create their games in their first versions did not show particularly populated characters. Without going any further, the very protagonist of Unreal 2, the ex-marine John Dalton, is a man who cannot boast of hair. Of course, being an FPS and the protagonist having a military background, it is not difficult to justify the absence of hair on his head. We have another example in the Ubisoft Paris game, XIII. The French studio chose to give its creation an aesthetic with cell shading graphics to be faithful to the comics source material, although it also served to mask the lack of the engine with the textures of the hair, as seen in the protagonist, Jason Fly. This technique made it easy to hide that the characters’ hair looked more like an excessively slicked-back wig or with a lot of glitter, like in the Borderlands saga.

The reason all Unreal Engine games had bald or bandana-wearing protagonists

the reproduction of any type of villi has always been an arduous programming taskAlready in the next version of the graphics engine -the third-, we find other examples of games that boast more advanced versions of the UE, such as Gears of War. Again, the protagonist is a career soldier and could be justify the absence of hair or the developers’ attempt to hide it being truly a nuisance in combat. It is enough to see how dirty and covered in blood the gears end up after taking down a battalion of locust to realize how uncomfortable it must be to have a lot of hair in that situation, greasy and sticky with blood or mud. But the reality is that the technology still did not reach what was expected of it and hence the components of the Delta squad -or almost the entire cast of the game- do not show much hair.

For example, the hairstyle of Dom Santiago, friend and comrade of Marcus Fénix, continued to be rigid even with the new version of the UE, although somewhat more successful than previously seen. However, given that Gears of War is one of the best examples of third-person action games, having Marcus showing off some unconvincing hair would have subtracted immersion to the title. Especially if we take into account that during the game what we see most of the character is his back and his crown. Hence, in order not to repeat the “galloping baldness” that affected the protagonists of many games at that time, a handkerchief was put on him.

The end of alopecia in video games?

The reason all Unreal Engine games had bald or bandana-wearing protagonists

There are as many examples as there are games developed with the Epic Games graphics engine, and some even tried to look “great” like Kairom Argonar in Lost Odyssey, but still not convincing, and many times it even looked bad. Only until relatively recently, latest versions of the Unreal Engine have been able to show believable hair. Specifically, in the “Niagara” version released in 2020, and yet there are still developers and fans who are reporting problems when applying “hair growth” to their avatars. However, it is an important advance and provides a greater immersion for the player.

Not only for aesthetic reasons, hair can also be a toolSurely you are wondering, why so much importance with hair in video games? It may sound exaggerated, but it shouldn’t. underestimate the importance that such an insignificant detail of the protagonists like this can be seen and appreciated well. Not only for aesthetic reasons, but because hair can serve as a tool in games and in very creative ways; it reacts to the wind, it can bristle, it can make it hard to see when it gets wet and it hits your face… okay, they are somewhat far-fetched examples and perhaps not the most useful from a gameplay point of view, but imagine what the designers of video games could do with it if a graphic engine like the one we are dealing with here could reproduce it as faithfully as light with ray tracing. And besides, there are characters that if it weren’t for their hair, they wouldn’t be what they are; there are Bayonetta or Shantae to mention just two who have in their hair a important part of your arsenal . We will see if in the future future improvements to this graphic engine or others come to mind for many characters.

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