Guest Writer: Evoking Emotion

Dexter17 is back once again with another superb guest article. This week he looks at evoking emotion, and how motion capture is leading the way in making characters feel more real.

The perception that the medium of film can evoke more emotion than the average videogame is a now a notion that is viewed in relative disdain by the majority of the industry greats. No longer are videogames confined to the technical restraints of previous years, and advances such as live motion capture mean that videogames can now form a complex story and reinforce it with both believable and engaging characters. Not only can emotions be conveyed more effectively, the graphical prowess of this generation ensures that the qualities typically repressed to film are not lost in the transition between the varying mediums of the videogame and the big screen.

A title that highlights this very noticeable development is Heavy Rain, which arguably embodies more parallels to its blockbuster counterparts than its shelf sharers. To evoke the desired emotion the videogame needs to ensure that the player is completely immersed in the fictional world, and Heavy Rain manages this by enticing the player into a universe with instantly relatable characters and story arcs that are firmly grounded in reality.

[drop]Forcing the viewer to emotionally engage with a film may not be easy, but effectively rendering the same conditional state with pixels is becoming an increasingly difficult task, with players generally expecting a lot more for their money. However, with the assistance of the aforementioned motion capture, Heavy Rain is a delightful but equally depressing world that the player cannot help but become completely immersed in. During this immersion, it is likely that the player will temporarily suspend their predefined beliefs in favour of taking a ride with Ethan and feel, to some degree, the scale of his situation and the decisions that he is forced to make. Heavy Rain is a credit to the skills of David Cage, and also an exemplary example for other videogames in the industry that wish to create a similar atmosphere.

Before progressing to the titles that could learn a lot from Heavy Rain, live motion capture needs to be fully understood so that the developer’s task can be fully and educationally appreciated. In the most basic of terms, motion capture is the process of recording movement and translating it onto a digital model. This is typically done by the computer tracking a variety of joint markers that are attached to the performer, and recording the movement of the limb that falls between these markers. This operation provides a moving “base” figure, with which developers can add specific detail (such as hair) to later. It’s certainly a far cry from the pre-rendered CG effects that hark back to the Playstation 2 era, and it’s a development that we would do well not to take for granted.

Of course, motion capture isn’t exclusive to Heavy Rain, but whilst the effects of it are visible in other blockbuster titles, not all of them achieve the atmosphere which motion capture supplements, not creates. A key specimen of this is the recent and critically acclaimed Killzone 3, which offers sublime shooting but a poor storyline and a wealth of characters to match.

[drop2]To fully absorb the player, it is essential that you pitch characters that are instantly relatable and display a clear development throughout the story that they are involved in. Unfortunately, Killzone 3 fails on both accounts with Sevchenko and Rico conveying nothing more than an elementary group of pixels. Whereas in Heavy Rain you get time to discover each and every character in detail, Killzone 3 plunges you straight into the gunplay, offering no diversion to uncover what forces Sevchenko and Rico to act in the way they do. This crafts an immeasurable gulf between the player and the game, something that would effectively mean death for any other franchise. It’s fortunate that Guerrilla have harnessed the graphical power of the PS3 and perfected the shooting, because otherwise there would no longer be a reason to partake in the single player portion of game.

Killzone 3 serves to show that motion capture cannot be depended on to create an emotional engagement with the player. Although it was fantastically utilised by Guerrilla to create some technically amazing cut-scenes, the context and the personalities of the characters within them failed to create the atmosphere that is found in Heavy Rain, or even Black Ops. Something as simple as Reznov’s flashback to the Arctic Circle provides the player with an insight into the mind and motives of the character, and as such, adds a significant amount of emotional weight to the cut-scenes.

There is no doubt that debates like this will continue to roll for years to come. However, with titles such as Heavy Rain colonizing the market, the gap between videogames and the medium of film is swiftly becoming bridged. All it takes is Guerrilla (among others) to make a few tweaks, and then videogames can proudly populate the same shelf as movies without feeling somewhat undermined by the emotional qualities that they so expertly convey.



  1. I entirely agree, except with the mention of black ops. I found it as emotional as Killzone, i.e. not very. I mean, they put glass in someones mouth, punch him in the face, then he joins their team, different characters I know, but elements like this stopped me thinking of the story as serious at all.

  2. It’s worth saying though, that while enhanced motion capture has improved the emotional side of gaming. Plenty of games have brilliantly evoked emotion in spite of poorer graphics, just look at FF7 when Aeris died or in Shadow of the Colossus when Aggro died, or when… (tries to think of example not involving character dying) …ok so most of them involve death. I’d say that the reason that games like heavy rain, Uncharted, etc. evoke so much emotion is because of better writers, which developers can now afford to pay for. You can spend hours with an incredibly realistic, but emotionally 2 dimensional, character, and have no connection with them, just like a poorly written film character

  3. I think motion capture should make it easier to create believable characters but the writing still has to be top-notch. When I think back to the games I’ve played which I feel I had some emotional investment in they were all great stories; Metal Gear, Ico, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect.
    I’m hoping that the LA Noire will be the next game I find myself emotionally attached to (fingers crossed)

    • To be honest, I feel like the better that graphics and tech get, the easier it’ll be for poor writers to create emotional situations.
      I realise it has become a gaming cliché but FFVII was a brilliantly executed moment when Aeris (Aerith) died and while the graphics were good at the time, they’re pretty poor now.
      It’s a tough thing to do but I think games might be further away than I’d like to believe.

  4. Ever played Final Fantasy? If the story is good enough you can feel any emotion. ;)

  5. Modern Warfare series was done very well emotionally IMO, also Dead Space was very good as was MGS4

    • COD4 was, don’t agree with MW2 though.

    • Really? Didn’t realise they had a story.
      And that is coming from someone who bought CoD 4 before it’s over-hype, and played MW2 til platinum.

  6. Emotional connection would be very difficult to achieve without a good story, well written characters and of course the music (or lack of, if the mood requires it)

  7. Very good article, Dex. For me, emotional engagement is a cocktail of things that builds a believable scenario or person. Motion capture plays a small part but great voice acting is everything. As always, it’s as strong as the weakest link.

    For example, I was playing GTA this morning and had just finished a key mission. Niko and Roman were on the street afterwards talking about what had happened. Now, I bet my left lung this scene was written into the game after play-testing as they most certainly didn’t use any mo-cap at all. The voice acting was fine (read: believable) but the puppetry was awful! It ruined the scene, somewhat, and highlighted how we’ve still a way to go.

    Such a shame that a great actor can be filmed and said programme or film then shines when they’re on screen. However, in this digital world of pixels and polygons, we can have a great actor still brought down to earth with a thump if the motion capture or facial animation is laughable or unbelievable in some way.

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