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[In this in-depth article, Arkane and Streamline Studios animator Moleman discusses why he believes that body language and facial expression are the keys to making our games feel more vibrant.]
We've reached a point now where characters in games are as expressive as we make them; we're less bound by technology than priority... but, animation is expensive to implement well.
So why should we pour precious developer time into making our characters more visually alive?
After control, the most important thing to the player is information. Anything we can tell about the world or the NPCs that inhabit it may be essential to our interaction with them.
Movement speaks volumes.
People have studied body language for as long as there have been people to study. Actors have made careers out of saying much with very little. A look is worth a thousand words.
So how might we use this in our games?
If you can communicate something within the game world without breaking immersion there is no reason to put an icon or floating text on it... Even dialogue may be superfluous if all you need is a gesture or expression.
Just over there.
If an NPC hates or likes the player, don't give them statistics. Show it in their attitude: open or closed, submissive or arrogant, interested or impatient?
The work of Desmond Morris on body language (Peoplewatching), and Keith Johnstone's examination of status (Improvisation and the Theatre), are particularly valuable in understanding how we might better express gameplay information through our characters rather than abstract numbers and menus.
For example, Morris describes how friends adapt to each other's body language in what is called "Postural Echo". To (unconsciously) copy another's movement is to feel connected.
When people are stressed they often display "Auto-Contact", holding themselves or touching their face. When they'd rather be somewhere else their body is turned away, shifting uneasily, or ready to get up.
This could be a sign of lying or defeat on the part of an NPC, either of which would be useful to know. An attentive player might call the character out on it, or realize they're gaining the upper hand and push forward.
Johnstone suggests all interaction is an exchange of status. Reflecting relative stature in movement, whether it be physical strength, social standing or some other measure of dominance, can help us decipher the relationships between these characters and decide how we might interact with them.
Consider how a confident person moves versus a shy or nervous person. Think Yoda versus Jar Jar, Bogart versus Woody Allen.
Status in movement could tell you the leader in a group with no other distinguishing features, it can show how your character has grown by how others react to you... or it can tell you whether attacking that monster in the distance is really a good idea.
Who needs levels?
We observe and interpret body language every day of our lives without even thinking about it. It would be a shame not to use such an effective means of communication in our games.