Way back in the sprite days of RPGs like Final Fantasy and whatnot, conveying visual emotion and nuance was difficult. Apart from the text itself, the devs were limited to three tools: music, exaggerated sprite models (such as the bug-eyed, wide-mouthed adventurer who is trying to convey surprise), and close-up head shots. While some limited measure of success could be attained with these, it left the burden of most of the nuance up to the players to imagine and insert with their own memories.
Oddly enough, we really haven’t come that far in modern MMOs. Whether players realize it or not, one of the reasons we have difficulty connecting and empathizing with the NPCs and events is how limited and stilted the body language is that we witness. Getting a text box, a single line of spoken dialogue, or a scripted scene with the characters emoting as if they were marionettes is a far cry from what we see on TV or in movies. There’s a lot of those small touches that simply aren’t present in games — the coy looks, the sarcastic smirk, the hand gestures, body positioning, etc. — and it’s been keeping any potential emotional connection between the player and the game at bay (or at least presenting a subtle speed bump).
Guild Wars 2 is employing a very old-fashioned RPG technique of talking heads (or talking bodies) on a separate screen. It does well to deliver the story and voice acting, sure, but there’s still that body language that isn’t coming through as well. Plus, the game is taking characters out of their environments to tell these little scripted scenes, and that robs some of the cohesion. It’s not terrible, for sure, but it’s certainly not as effective as it could be.
SWTOR did better in this regard, but not great. The cutscenes are still there, and there’s certainly more in the way of voice acting. Yet what irritated me overtime is how little body language played into these scenes. Most of them were just talking heads with limited facial movements or stock hand motions. I seem to recall BioWare saying that they came up with a program to help “film” these scenes without doing all of the camera positioning and NPC gestures by hand. I think this was a mistake, because the eye is more clever than you think, and you begin to spot repetitious patterns and incongruent details over time.
BioWare goes back and forth on delivering solid body language. In some of their games (and in portions of SWTOR), when attention is devoted to communicating outside of just words, there can be great little moments where the characters seem to come alive. But that’s not as often as I’d like.
I feel that The Secret World does body language far better than these other two, although again, not perfectly. I realized this the other night when I was finishing up a scene with a detective, and she punctuated a final cynical line by tilting her head down, looking up, and giving me a slight shrug like, “You know how it is.” It was so wonderfully understated that it felt downright natural, and I started to recall many more moments in the game where I was seeing this improved body language. The characters I really liked and connected with tended to say a lot with their hands and gestures as much as their words, and I didn’t realize it as such until now.
Telling great stories in a visual/audio medium is more than making characters talk — it’s making them act like real people. Maybe we’ve been flirting with the uncanny valley for so long with MMO characters that act like robots but sound normal that we’ve thought of that as the norm. I hope this is the new norm and that more devs take care to put effort into creating believable body language into their characters.