As a deaf person who wears hearing aids, my primary form of communication since I was three years old has been through vocal speech. While hearing aids help me distinguish what is being said, I don’t really rely on my hearing all that much. Instead, I depend on my ability to read lips. When it comes to video games however, it’s impossible to even try to read the characters’ lips in the game. I’ve had to rely on subtitles/close-captioning to fill in the blanks. The reason I pointed this out, is because subtle facial reactions and cues are huge when trying to get a read on someone’s emotion. It’s an extension of the game for me personally and the face is such an important and complex communication channel.
Facial animation was first introduced in 1982 and focused solely on the mouth and eyebrows. In 1991, it was proposed that animation systems consider the link between intonation and the emotion to drive their system. Pretty much all video games are lacking in the ability to effectively communicate the emotions of the characters. In my opinion, it is essential that people realize that literally every single aspect of your face is used to communicate with people. Video games have never really focused on the following during dialogues between characters: cheek muscles, eyebrows, forehead creases, nostrils, position of chin, the clenching of your jawline, pupil dilation/constriction, eyelashes, tongue, and how much teeth is being shown. Video games that depict humans also never seem to produce the desired emotion of what is happening in the game. If you look at Grand Theft Auto V, the facial animations are decent, but they don’t really capture the essence of what’s happening in the game. It exudes laziness. The Last of Us is unique in that Naughty Dog, Inc. put a serious effort to exhibit the emotions completely.
In a game like The Last of Us, the emotional whirlwind that the characters and gamers themselves are exposed to is what really sells separates the game from its peers. When I try to read lips of the characters in other video games, it’s unnatural. It immediately reminds me that I’m playing a video game. I understand that it’s a computer animation and rendering of what we see in the real world, but for me, it’s a huge dealbreaker when it comes to how immersed I can get within the game. Simply put, The Last of Us contains the best facial animation I have seen in a video game thus far. It’s not perfect, but it’s close. They were able to capture the intonation of how the characters meant to say the word, which is how words are said in its pitch as well as its delivery speed.
The main characters in The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie, were able to show shock, fear, irony, sarcasm, despair, anger, sadness, disgust, and surprise, among other emotions. Joel and Ellie weren’t just computer rendered characters. They were their own people with their own moods and their own distinct personalities. They weren’t solely outward projections. They were also able to project inwards, which is difficult for video games to accomplish. And that’s what I believe is necessary to help people bond with characters. If you look at the video above, The Last of Us 2, which is due later this year or next, is looking more and more impressive. I mean, I think the video speaks for itself from my perspective. It’s uncanny how natural it looks and I’m excited to play it. When Ellie says, “I’m going to kill every last one of them,” at the end of the video, one can’t help but get goosebumps. The bar has been set by Naughty Dog, LLC and everyone else is playing catch up.
Pelachaud, Catherine, Mark Steedman, and Norman I. Badler. “Linguistic Issues in Facial Animation.” Computer Animation. University of Pennsylvania. 1991. Pages 15-30. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1076&context=hms
Schaap, Robert, and Rafael Bidarra. “Towards Emotional Characters in Computer Games.” Entertainment Computing. The Netherlands: Delft University of Technology, 2008. Pages 167-172. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rafael_Bidarra/publication/220851417_Towards_Emotional_Characters_in_Computer_Games/links/004635311e999b6343000000/Towards-Emotional-Characters-in-Computer-Games.pdf
Source: The Last of Us #3