Body language and facial expression may be the key to making games feel more vibrant, suggests Arkane and Streamline Studios veteran Christian Moleman in a new in-depth feature article.
Interaction provides information, one of the most important play motivators that exists. And even something as simple as look is worth a thousand words -- so how might these communication principles be employed in games?
For one, have NPCs show instead of speak:
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.
Of course, expressing things through body language represents a good deal of progress, but in dynamic environments where the player only sees what he or she chooses to pay attention to, staging becomes essential:
Thomas and Johnston note in The Illusion of Life (1981) that if you make a subtle change during a broad move, the change is lost. It doesn't matter if it's the camera or the character that's moving.
Both first and third-person games rarely keep a static view. Unless the player chooses to pay attention, any feedback must be broad enough to stand out.
How then to avoid over-acting without losing information?
A solution would be to adapt the acting to camera, timing actions dynamically to occur when the player is looking, playing broad gestures when far away and saving subtle ones for when the camera is still.
A raised eyebrow or knowing smile may be more suited to quiet moments, while frantic gesturing will read from all but a mile away.
Another option is to lead the eye through composition and set up scenes in such a way that players will inevitably see what you want them to, but the more open-ended the interaction the more adaptive the staging must be.
You can now read the full Gamasutra feature
addressing innovative ways of considering animation to create immersion in game worlds (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).