He’s Trying To Tell Me Something I Swear: Emotions & Animation In Video Games


As the graphical push for video games marches further and further onward, the visual quality of games will be harder and harder to distinguish as we approach a plateau. The difference between this gorgeous looking game and the next will be become almost indiscernible, worse still these games will often age uncomfortably as technology storms ahead making them look dated. I believe the future of gaming isn’t in simple visual appeal of textures and effects but rather quality replications of life through other means. Animation very rarely impresses me in video games to this day as I feel they are considered less effective as a selling point to the “current demographic of money making machines”. I look forward to a day when emotion is effectively portrayed in video games through means other than the words said or the music playing, rather through movement and expression that brings a character to life.

We recently had The Game Awards announce that Dragon Age: Inquisition was the voted game of the year of 2014. Odd I find that even with all of the positives I can agree upon, the games animation work on expressions during conversation are rather stiff. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim was also found to be a game of the year for many, despite it too having some very questionable animations in the emotion department. Frankly all of Bethesda’s games be it the Elder Scrolls series or Fallout 3 they seem to love this idea of having a straight shot of someone’s face staring directly at you while their lips have a go at it. There seems to have been areas of game development given far less in the era of HD and more more MORE polygons which is upsetting in and of itself, however nothing looks worse than a high quality model moving so awkwardly as they try to tell me of their woes.

I understand the nuances of emotional display are subtle beyond observation for many human beings. The human face contains 40+ muscles all used to create unique movements to express hundreds of emotions with only the tiniest few changes between some of them. Animating for games is exceptionally difficult given how there is much of a character that goes beyond control, be it the camera position, what they are interacting with, when they are going to need to do what and how quickly the animations have to jump from one to the other. However expressions need to be enhanced as gaming moves forward else all the efforts into the rest of the game will be overlooked by this one black dot on my pristine white sheet of paper that draws my ire. Sweat glands and pores don’t make a character look alive and I would appreciate it if more and more developers got that in their heads.

I still to this day enjoy the nuances of the character animation in the classic PS1 games, Spyro The Dragon & Crash Bandicoot. Regardless of what positives or negatives I can find, many of which I find are stupid even for when the games were created, what brings me back more than the music or the simple but enjoyable gameplay is how alive and vibrant the cast of characters are. All the characters be they the main cast, the enemies or the villains all express themselves very vibrantly which does wonders in the cartoony style the game is presented in. While I don’t believe you need a cartoony style in any sense to have expressive characters I cannot ignore that the nature of the style makes over the top expressions less questionable than something more realistic.

We don’t need our characters to be overtly expressive characters akin to some sort of zany over the top, viciously self aware game. I simply wish to see that which builds a world put together more lovingly than it currently is while other areas are given a full makeover. I can read thousands of words on the history of a people, the strange languages they use and the magical world that seeps power from some unknown source or what have you. It is destructive to the work of many passionate developers to have a weak link in the final product and animation work is one I find pokes it ugly head more than any other area.

I’ve voiced my desire to see animation and what feels like technology in general to get to the point that deeply physical displays of emotion between two people can be mimicked in video games. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I wanna see a hug between two characters that feels so goddamn real to me. I wanna see depression that isn’t just a moody colour palette and still shots of a mopey face. We do humanity an injustice by suggesting in even the smallest sense that emotions are as simple as that as well as insult the players abilities to see emotion in the subtle ways normal humans do, there is setting a tone and there is screaming at point blank to my face.

A laugh that looks like genuine joy rather than the sound of laughter and some disingenuous arm gestures. Misery with restraint that is actually restrained rather than just showing no emotion. I know that eventually these forgotten areas of gaming will come into their own when texture artists are having to be brought on in masses when games are so massive in size and detail, among other issues that look to become far more glaring with time. A world is believable regardless of it being a game or otherwise when we believe the world is alive as its inhabitants are, when the characters don’t move as we think they should we get yanked out of an such belief. Let us all hope that there will be the few games, even if they are far between and relatively unnoticed, that truly grasp the significance of making these high polygon models with extravagant detail to fingerprints move and express with a believable smile. I’m giddy already.

What games do you think make the characters move and emote in a truly enjoyable or believable manner? Are you surprised that a game with glaring oddities in its animations managed to garner game of the year? What sort of stories do you look forward to in the future should the emotive quality of animation improve significantly? Thanks for the read and I’ll catch you all later.


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  1. #1 by Kaine Andrews on May 25, 2015 - 3:10 am

    As far as getting realistic graphics combined with expressive facial expressions done right, I really think there’s only one studio that’s hit the nail on the head: Quantic Dream. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be a lot of fans of their games… For its day, the characters in Indigo Prophecy were almost ridiculously detailed – though I think I still want to claw my eyeballs out over the sex scene – and using Heavy Rain to trick people into thinking they’re looking at a movie and not a game is still a source of amusement for me.


    • #2 by Prof.mcstevie on May 25, 2015 - 10:11 pm

      I think Quantic Dream underutilise the animation work they have, as movies they aren’t fantastic and as games they aren’t particularly great either, the actual technical work though is outstanding.


  2. #3 by TekfortheMasses on December 19, 2014 - 5:45 am

    I think Telltale is really good at emotion and made one of the few games that has made me shed a tear ( the walking dead ) but of cource they rely on the cartoonish style as well.


  3. #4 by Aether on December 19, 2014 - 1:05 am

    That’s one of the things that more simplified art styles may be able to help with. It’s a lot easier to read emotion off of a cartoonish character, who would need fewer facial points of animation to get things across without looking weird, than a realistic one.


    • #5 by Prof.mcstevie on December 19, 2014 - 2:22 am

      Indeed, however more realistic ones are the main area where I find the issue BECAUSE they don’t seem to move enough.


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