A brief history of cloth physics

Alan Wake got it right. Others? Not so much...

Alan Wake is finally a reality. We've reviewed it and everything. But while it may not be quite as great as we'd hoped, the graphical effects are certainly woth crowing about. Aside from the wonderful lighting effects, the cloth physics in particular deserve some praise. Especially as cloth is probably the third-hardest thing to render after skin and water.

People have tried it for years - with varying degrees of success. So here's a quick timeline of cloth physics to get all flowy about.


Where did it all start?

Before 3D and real, calculated cloth physics, people had to draw their own cloth physics. Street Fighter II did this quite well, with Ryu's belt picking up in the wind during his celebration. And then there was the famous intro to Super Street Fighter II which featured clothes that were clearly separate from Ryu's body. Check it out:

But they were still clearly flat. What we needed was polygons.


Riiiiidge Racer!

Ridge Racer has cars in it. They're made of metal, not cloth. But do you remember the title screen? Behind that famous logo was a chequered flag, which seemingly fluttered in the wind. It looks pre-scripted - no real physics going on here, right? Wrong. Did you know that you can change the wind strength and viewing angle? Just look at it go. That's a tasty-looking flag, with variable cloth physics.


Up with miniskirts... down with physics?

PSone's Soul Calibur predecessor Soul Blade is memorable for its cloth physics, mainly because they were 'always on', even if you paused the game. Any hot-headed teenage gamers trying to see up Sophitia's skirt were met with cloth physic censorship. Denied.

Above: Yup, that's it - stab him in his furry pants while he's distracted 

Ironically, developers already knew exactly how cloth physics were supposed to look, there just wasn't the technology to do it. For some strange reason, it's another girl's flowing attire that was used for the best application - Ridge Racer Type 4's Reiko Nagase. Observe this pre-rendered intro from 1999 to see the cloth physics pipedream of PSone-era devs.

One day, we'd get that kind of cloth movement in the games themselves. But wait... what's this?


OMG my clothes are possessed!

A basic version of the technology did actually make it into realtime 3D that year, but there were still two major problems with cloth physics. Firstly, you still needed a supercomputer to run them properly and it was at the expense of everything else. Secondly, nobody knew the meaning of the word 'subtlety'. The result, as Nocturne here shows, is an effect so exaggerated, it's all you can look at. This is the cloth physics equivalent of CAPS LOCK.


Add more starch!

The Dreamcast version of Virtua Fighter 3 was an odd one for cloth physics. Some costumes were lavishly flowing, while others stuck out from characters' bodies like cardboard flaps. At least Aoi's clothes worked properly - look at these:


Batman's caped capers

Thank goodness we live in the age of decent 3D at last. Batman's cape is everything a cape should be. It's long. It stays in the air where his body was a mere second earlier. It hangs from his shouldesr properly instead of glitching around his neck. It's like someone took a real cape and programmed it into the game. Check it out:


Are we there yet?

We're getting there. Alan Wake, Batman, Bayonetta, FIFA... today's cloth physics are amazing. Look at SSFIV's post-fight victory screen for Ibuki. It may well be a preset action, but the way the cloth over her face stretches realistically away from her mouth and doesn't flicker around between her fingers is just sublime.


Anyone coming to games right now would think this is easy. We've actually had some 20 years of wondering 'what demon has done this to my robes?'

06 May, 2010


The longest-serving GR+ staffer, I was here when all this was just fields. I'm currently Reviews Editor but still find time to speedrun Sonic levels and make daft Photoshop articles.