How Animations Help Build Character

A sense of character is one of the things that I look for when playing a game. I play games mainly for the story and a large part of that is the character. If we can’t get emotionally attached to the protagonist, it can create a disconnect between them and us. I have stopped playing games because I can’t see or connect to the main character’s motivation.

Games are an interesting medium to view characters due to player input. Can a character be labeled a badass secret agent if he has trouble navigating tables? In this feature I wanted to zone in on an aspect that can highlight character traits, that being the animation.

Small animations can help fill a character backstory or tell us something about their personality, usually without an ounce of dialogue. To modify an old saying, “A picture paints a thousands words. And an animation at 60FPS conveys a book.”

The inspiration behind this post was the animation of Doom Guy from 2016’s Doom. His animations are intentional. The way he nonchalantly pushes computer screens with vital intelligence on them aside or smashes scientifically important power sources in direct violation of orders shows so much of his personality, all without ever seeing his reactions (here is a video by critic Jim Sterling highlighting these points).

An example of an accidental animation could be how Ned Luke, the actor who plays Michael De Santa in Grand Theft Auto V, moves during gameplay. Luke is deaf in his right ear and in cutscenes he will move to his right if someone is talking to him. This can be seen as a happy accident as it fills in Michael’s backstory. Being partially deaf could be an indication of him being close to guns for a portion of his life (for example, the entire opening of GTAV). Michael was also meant to be slower than the other playable characters Trevor and Franklin, so Luke put on weight for his motion-capture.

So here are five animations that give us a peek at a character’s personality. These aren’t in any ranking, but just five from my some of my favorite games.

  1. Cortez’s Gun Spin in Timesplitters: Future Perfect

When a character picked up a gun in the first two Timesplitters games it would simply pop up on screen. That changed in the third entry, where each weapon had an equipping animation.

The animation I want to highlight is in the third game, at the very start of the second level. Main character Sgt. Cortez is sent back in time to 1924 and teams up with WW1 veteran Captain Ash to retake a Scottish island from some vaguely foreign types. After landing on the shores of the island, Ash gives Cortez a Luger and the duo head off.

When control is given back to the player, Cortez equips the gun and spins it like a Wild West gunslinger.

We’ve seen in the previous mission that Cortez is kind of a super soldier; crashing his spaceship in the middle of a battle zone, holding off Splitter charges singlehandedly, and sniping enemies from impossible distances. But throughout the story he shows a goofier side; fan-boying over his future self, dancing with the R110 war robot, and constantly saying his catchphrase, “Time to Split!” which everyone but him thinks is incredibly uncool.

The gun spin is a distillation of these two traits. It shows his “cool factor” off by being able to pull off the move, but also shows his incredible dorky side that he would do it, instead of just lock and load the gun like very other pistol in the game.

(Start at 2:11)

  1. Haytham Moving Through The Audience in Assassin’s Creed 3

We start AC3 playing as Templar Agent Haytham Kenway on a mission in the Theatre Royal in London. He has to assassinate a British Assassin and steal the First Civilization Medallion that said target keeps around his neck.

It is a great opening to the game and gets us invested in the character. Haytham sits down in the auditorium with Templar Master Reginald Birch as they talk about the performance that night. During his dialogue with Birch, as well as with the Assassin Miko, Haytham displays a veneer of civility, a quintessential Britishness.

After receiving his mission to kill Miko, Haytham starts to make his way past the audience in the auditorium row. As he goes, Haytham whispers out apologies, “A thousand pardons…my apologies…”

One audience member decides to stand up to allow Haytham to pass by. WHAM! Haytham roughly pushes the man back down into his seat and continues moving through the audience. It is such a small animation, but the ferocity and power behind the gesture shows there is much more behind the warm front that Haytham puts on when speaking.

(Start at 2:00)

  1. The Scarecrow’s Running Animation in Lego Batman: The Videogame

The great thing about the Lego games in their infancy is they had to communicate plot points entirely through gestures. While I’m not bashing the later games in the series, it was hilarious to see them riff on Indiana Jones and Star Wars in the vein of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy (especially in Episodes IV-VI, with scenes like this 3:54-4:25).

When creating the first Lego Batman game, the folks over at Travellers Tales created their own plots. These stories made allusions to the films, television shows, and comics, but were mainly their own thing. While they have the building blocks (aha!) of the characters, they need to transpose them to the Lego world. So let’s look at Scarecrow.

The major factor in Scarecrow’s run is his arms. When Batman runs, his arms pump up and down to indicate his strength and stamina. When Poison Ivy runs, her arms sway, demonstrating a delicate side. When Scarecrow runs, he holds his arms out in front of him, as if he were a frightening monster chasing someone.

His shoulders bunch up as he runs and there is a definite swing to his movements. The former is indicative of his desire to reach forward and catch whoever he may be chasing, the latter shows that he having fun and delighted that he is chasing some poor, frightened citizen.

Scarecrow doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the entire game, yet he manages to portray a multi-faceted personality through his over-acted run.

(Start at 3:34)

  1. Larson Conway in Tomb Raider: Anniversary

Switching up the structure here, as this is an enemy rather than a playable character. Yet the animations portray a very layered individual.

We can tell from the start of TR: Anniversary that heroine Lara Croft and anti-hero Larson Conway know each other. The two are on first name terms and have some flirtatious banter (1:34). This banter is important because it feeds into Larson’s later fight animations.

When the two square up against each other, Larson declares he “…prefers a more hands-on approach.” He leaps at Lara and she fends him off using her fists. As Lara continues to best him, Larson becomes more irate until he finally pulls out his gun. The fight takes place during a quick time event and Larson only draws his gun on the final button press.

During another quick time event involving all of the scheming bad guys, Larson doesn’t shoot at Lara, instead trying to strike her with his gun (18:27).

Designer Toby Gard revealed in the developer commentary that Larson has a soft spot for Lara (56:13). You can see this in the animation. He never tries to kill her, instead going for non-lethal attacks and only pulling out a gun when she does the same to him. When she flees during the aforementioned quick time event, he intentionally pushes away other bad guys and aims his shot wayward (18:42).

They are small tweaks but create a character that isn’t a straight-up bad guy, which gives his death at Lara’s hands later in the game a sense of pathos.

  1. Captain Walker’s Changing Animations in Spec Ops: The Line

I love Spec Ops: The Line partly because it is a great deconstruction of the art form as well as being a fun “tactical” shooter.

I’ve talked about how the visual design of Walker changes through the course of the narrative with his design becoming less and less human with each important moment within the story. But this decline is also featured in the audio clips and the animations.

At the start Walker and his team are professional; knocking people unconscious with either the butt of their rifle or with a swift punch/karate chop. But as Walker’s mind slowly descends into insanity, his animations become more violent.

His rifle strikes become longer and more sadistic. He jumps on fallen enemies and gouges at their eyes with his fingernails. He starts breaking necks with ferocity but also indifference, doing so without a second’s hesitation. And when he has finally snapped, Walker drops all pretence of professionalism and starts executing unarmed soldiers with a gunshot to the head.

The cool thing is that most of these are hidden due to player choice. While the player will have to take on close range enemies it is entirely possible that a player could shoot them and not have to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The developers could have just had one or two repeated animations, but decided to have a variety with the possibility that a player would never see their hard work.

Despite the optional aspect, there is one “mandatory” execution in the twelfth chapter (5:28). This helps show the descent into primitive violence without taking control away from the player. In the sequence, Walker ziplines between buildings and lands on a soldier. While it is possible to shoot him, the “execute” button flashes up. If the player chooses execute then Walker goes crazy, smashing the soldier’s head in with his rifle, much to the shock of his sidekicks Adams and Lugo.

And just like the character design and voice barks, the change in animation is seamless. This slow but steady change makes the game that much richer and expresses Walker’s character excellently.

(Start at 3:13)

Conclusion

There are a series of smaller animations that are also great examples of character backstory. Silent Hill 2 is a great example of a variety of animations. The main character James Sunderland has the habit of looking down when people are talking to him, indicative of a feeling of shame or embarrassment. He also has the habit of touching his head when remembering, as pointed out by the YouTube channel The Gaming Muse; I’ll let them explain the reason behind the animation.

Silent Hill 2’s creature animations are also fascinating. Art Director Masahiro Ito said his, “…basic idea for creating the monsters…was to give them a human aspect…then I proceeded to undermine this human aspect.” (16:24). He based the movements on, “…drunk people or the tentative walk of a young child.” (17:19). This is reflective of the idea of the “Unheimlich”, a Freudian concept of something being both familiar and unknown, and is used constantly in horror games and films to create a sense of unease.

The recent Splinter Cell games also have some small animations that lent to the character. In the fifth entry, Conviction, secret agent Sam Fisher has gone rogue, trying to find his daughter’s killer. His hand-to-hand animations are incredibly violent, using pianos, urinals, and even flag poles to interrogate enemies. Much like Walker in Spec Ops, this shows how far the former spy has fallen, but also shows how far he would go to find out what happened to his family.

Talking about how animations feed into characters is a simple idea and I’m definitely not the first to talk about it. I just find it fascinating that entire characters can be found in the smallest movements. That we can find meaning in a wave of a hand, the twinge of a smile, or the placement of a foot.

 

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Another Top Five Dialogue Scenes In Gaming

After my first post on my top dialogues in gaming I got thinking about other games that I thought had great dialogue sequences. I started to move away from just my favourite scenes instead looking at the different ways that dialogue is used.

I still like all of the scenes that are listed below, but I’ve tried to pick some dialogues that are special in the ways that they use character interaction especially those that work within adaptations or use factors outside of a simple back-and-forth.

So, let’s skip this preamble and jump right in, this is Another Top Five Dialogue Scenes In Gaming.

  1. Lara Croft and Pierre Dupont meet in Tomb Raider Anniversary

Tomb Raider Anniversary is a remake of the first Tomb Raider game. With a fantastic blueprint to work from in terms of level design, the creators, Crystal Dynamics, decided to focus on updating the story and fleshing out the characters who were mere cardboard cutouts in the first game.

While at this point we’ve already had a few verbal sparring matches with the morally-grey mercenary Larson, it’s Lara Croft’s interaction with fellow treasure hunter Pierre Dupont that takes the number five spot.

In the original game Pierre wasn’t much of a character. He would turn up during points of the Greece section of the game and shoot at Lara before running off and vanishing into thin air as soon he was out of line of sight.

Here in TRA we see two people who seem to have prior knowledge of each other. This can be seen by the fact that they are both on first name terms with each other, discussing each other’s personal philosophy that informs how they go about their work. This adds up to create a backstory for these two characters that will probably never see a gaming screen (although Pierre and Larson did come back for Tomb Raider Chronicles which was set before TR1). This gives all the characters a few different shades and facets rather than just “bad guy” and “good girl”.

The way that the cutscene plays also informs us about Pierre as a character. We only see his character model once during the sequence, instead following his voice as it reverberates around the room. This was meant to be a callback to his vanishing act from TR1, (1:50) but I read it as Pierre toying with Lara and messing with her head since she can’t find him.

When we finally see Pierre, he is in the shadows hidden from Lara and pointing both of his guns at her. He has a clear shot, ready to kill her, but backs off and disappears. This adds another layer to his character; he likes a challenge rather than eliminating his competition.

This continues through the game, as we hear his voice throughout the next levels, taunting us and finally ambushing us at the end, where once again, he and Lara’s conflicting worldviews clash.

All this makes him a much more interesting character rather than a simple shoot-first character like he was in the original.

(Cutscene starts at 10:32)

 

  1. The Confrontations with Red Grant in From Russia With Love

This one is quite different as it is an adaptation/remake of a film, but the subtle changes make it a good one to look at.

From Russia With Love came out during a period in the James Bond series between Pierce Brosnan being let go and Daniel Craig being signed on to play 007. EA wanted to keep making James Bond games so got Sean Connery to come back to play the iconic spy and took one of his films, From Russia With Love (an odd choice due to the film not being action heavy like Goldfinger or Thunderball) and adapted it to a game.

While the game takes several liberties with the original story it also remakes scenes shot-for-shot, word-for-word. The scene I’ve chosen is a mixture between the two.

The two characters, Red Grant (the bad guy pretending to be an MI6 agent) and James Bond meet on a smoky Turkish train platform, each providing their part of the secret code to each other to identify themselves. Red Grant is rather jovial, coming across as naive as he plays sidekick to Bond.

But as soon as they get to the dining car, Grant’s jovialness twists on a dime. His smile becomes a frown. His light-hearted phrase, “old man” takes on a sarcastic touch. Bond catches on when Grant orders red wine with their grilled sole (which adds to a funny line later when Grant hits Bond over the head with a bottle and says “There’s your white wine, old man!”). After pulling into the train station, Grant and Bond trade words lifted straight from the film. It is a cool scene, seeing dialogue that was originally in a tense interrogation repurposed as the start of an action sequence.

The connections made through Bond and Grant’s dialogue adds to up to their final confrontation at the very end of the game. After destroying the multi-appendage contraption that Grant is piloting, Bond finds him lying on the floor, defeated. Bond levels his gun and Grant starts to mock him.

“Are you going to shoot me in cold blood, old man? You don’t have the guts. It’s not the ‘English’ way. It’s just like red wine with fish.”

The way Grant delivers the line is perfect. The sneering disapproval of ‘English’, the reoccurrence of “old man” as an insult, and the final hint of their previous encounter with the mention of red wine and fish. Grant and the organisation Octopus set up the murder of Bond in the story because they misread the “British mentality”, which is stated at the beginning of the game (and the film). That’s why is hits much harder when Bond blows Grant away before he even finishes the word ‘fish’.

Bond’s final line of “That was for Kerim” also adds a somber tone to proceedings. Throughout the game, Kerim Bey has been by your side, helping you out along the way. Grant kills Kerim just before you meet in the dining car, and we see no hint of emotion from Bond when he first learns of Kerim’s death during gameplay.

Adding it here adds a nice little pathos to the end of the game and cements the fact that these two characters had a friendship rather than Kerim being just a helpful NPC.

(19:29-21:58 and 29:13)

 

  1. Sam Fisher in Ghost Recon Wildlands

I put another Splinter Cell moment on my first list because the writing in Splinter Cell is top notch and Sam Fisher is one of the best-written characters in the entirety of gaming. Michael Ironside, the original voice of Sam Fisher, worked with the developers to create a more three-dimensional character, giving Sam not just a great voice but something more on a deeper level.

Ironside explains that originally Sam was going to be a G.I. Joe-esque, two-dimensional, flat, gung-ho type character. Ironside wasn’t interested in playing a character like that. He saw Fisher as, “…a weapon that the government has used too many times.” (0:52). The character is not a gruff, macho one-man army (who do have their place in gaming), Fisher is instead imbued with cynicism, dark humour and genuine moments of tenderness (such as when Sam is asked to tap phone lines for his former field handler Frances Coen, he says, “For Frances…of course I can” (2:30)).

But the moment I want to talk about it the character’s most recent appearance, as an NPC in the game Ghost Recon Wildlands. The Ghosts help Fisher with a mission (again voiced by Ironside rather than Eric Johnson, who took over for Splinter Cell Blacklist), before they help extract him and bring him back to their field handler, Karen.

The two characters of them have some nice banter (with Sam calling her Linda, to which she replies that she’s “Karen nowadays”). Karen notices that Sam has gotten old and he responds, “I’ve heard they don’t make them [spies] like me anymore” (14:44) before mentioning one guy that used to be like him. Most fans got a kick out of the scene because Fisher starts to describe Solid Snake. Karen cuts him off with, “I heard he finally retired.” (15:04).

Whether this was a reference to David Hayder being passed over for Keifer Sutherland or a wider swipe at Metal Gear Solid being shut down by Konami, Sam replies with a quiet, “Then it’s only me.” (15:09).

The beauty of this line is that it has so many different layers. The initial reaction is one of smug superiority; after many years of the two competing franchises Sam Fisher has outlived his greatest rival. But then it’s a sad dawning. Sam’s line of “they don’t make them like me anymore” has extra metatextual meaning; they don’t make spy/stealth games like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid anymore.

Looking at it from a character perspective, what has Sam got? He’s outlived every other rival, and what does he have to show for it? He’s pushing sixty, in a job that he will never get any recognition or respect for, all of his friends have either betrayed him or died, he’s lost countless lovers, and he hardly knows his only daughter.

It’s a sad realisation and as Sam thinks through his place in the world, Karen snaps him out of his pondering, saying that he has a new mission and he’s shipping out in one hour. This adds even greater sadness to the scene and character. Just as he looks at his life from a different perspective and starts to have doubts, he gets pulled back in.

(Cutscene starts at 14:44).

 

  1. The Cristina Memories from Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

I am not a fan of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. I feel that it was a step down from Assassin’s Creed II and negates the entire downer ending of that game (although Revelations did bring it back round for the finale).

The only thing that kept me remotely interested in the game were the Cristina Memories. Cristina Vespucci was a minor character in the opening of Assassin’s Creed II and is one of Ezio’s many conquests throughout the game. She’s rather important because they are childhood sweethearts. It is safe to assume they were each other’s first relationship. While we hardly see any of that in AC2, their relationship is explored during the “Cristina Memories”, little vignettes of their relationship in Brotherhood.

These scenes are interesting because we get to see what being an Assassin does to a relationship. All of Ezio’s other ladies; Caterina Sforza, Rosa The Thief, Lucrezia Borgia, countless courtesans, they are all mainly one-offs or “distractions”, sex just for the hell of it. Cristina is so much more, and it can be seen during the dialogue.

Their first meeting is beautifully awkward with Cristina initially being dismissive but then intrigued by her would-be suitor (with his plea for a “second chance” to woo her (1:12)). The second memory has so much in what isn’t said. When Ezio asks Cristina to come with him, she simply says, “I want to…but I can’t…my family,” (9:55) reflecting Cristina’s conflicting priorities between her life and her love for Ezio.

My favourites of the Cristina Memories are the third and fourth. In the third scene Ezio returns to his belle only to find she is betrothed. His previous playful banter with Cristina is diminished as he learns that while he has been gallivanting around Tuscany sticking Templars and collecting feathers, Cristina has been living her life in quiet desperation. She has had to move on with her life while he is still chasing people that took away his former happy existence.

While Ezio has had to mature beyond his years to care for his mother and sister, but when he sees Cristina again he regresses back to being 17 years of age and hoping that pure love she had for him hasn’t waned. It hasn’t, but he sees that his life isn’t compatible with hers, and his final line of, “He’ll make a good husband, I made sure of it,” (13:55) is gently tender yet painful as he must accept that she can’t wait for him forever.

The fourth scene is especially heart wrenching, as Ezio tries to recapture that spark of what should have been, if only the couple had time and history had been different. When the two meet in a dark Venetian alley Cristina is understandably pissed at him. He pretended to be her husband and he says he, “…was afraid that you [she] wouldn’t come if I [he] just asked.” (17:00). Cristina confirms this, and it’s here that we see the pain of loving and losing someone.

Cristina stills loves Ezio, but she had to change. He was forever teasing her, reappearing every few years, tempting her with a life and a love that was true and innocent, but with him racing off faster than he arrived, leaving her alone again. And she couldn’t do it anymore.

She loves him too much, and to paraprhase a line from Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (and another great romance scene), “ she doesn’t want to say goodbye again. She can’t, she won’t.” (1:00). Because it hurts her every time when he leaves. She tells him that she loved him but she has to end their connection. He had his “second chance” and she leaves, telling him to never find her again.

For the finale we see that Cristina still carried a torch for Ezio after all the time spent apart, hoping that one day he might return to her. She whispers, “I wish we could have had a second chance,” before passing away in Ezio’s arms.

What hurts more is that Ezio never truly recovered. Despite having endless flings and floozies throughout the subsequent games, no one ever comes close to Cristina until Sofia Sartor arrives, when Ezio is well into his fifties.

And in a similar way he originally doesn’t want to get Sofia tangled up in his messed up life and endless struggle against the Templars, but she stays anyway. In a letter to his sister Claudia, Ezio says, “When Cristina died, something withered in me,” (15:55) showing that even with time, some wounds never truly heal.

 

  1. Elena and Nathan and “Are you Happy?” in Uncharted 4.

I know I mentioned in my first post that the Grosvenor McCaffrey interview in L.A. Noire is my favourite dialogue in all of gaming, but this one takes a close second.

After Uncharted 3 many people thought the series was over. Most games go for trilogies rather than quadrilogies, but Naughty Dog came back to tell one last hurrah.

The scene in Uncharted 4 shows life in the Drake household now that the two treasure hunters have “settled down”. Elena still has a little bit of adventure, travelling all around the world for travel magazines, while Nathan is relegated to menial cleaning jobs.

The two eat dinner and Nathan starts to zone out while Elena goes on about her current assignment. She can tell that he is dissatisfied with his job, but even when she tries to push him in a direction that would make him happy, he refuses.

Elena goes to wash up but Nathan says he wants to do it. He says he’ll play her for it on her “TV game thing” (a lovely jaunt through Naughty Dog’s Crash Banidcoot). One short game session later Nathan has lost and Elena starts to sweetly trash talk him, “You can give it another shot. C’mon double or nothing, my car could really use a good cleaning…there’s this mode called “easy mode”, I just switch it. It’s way easier on easy mode.” (12:37).

The two start to bicker like the cute married couple they are until Nate snaps and grabs Elena, tickling her into submission on the couch. The two stop and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, until Elena says one of my favourite lines in all of gaming,

“Hey, are you happy?”

Nate’s unsteady reply of, “Yeah…course,” says so much about the two’s relationship, of settling down and moving away from hopes and dreams so they could have a shot at a safer and normal life.

The scene ends beautifully too with Nate asking, “You?” Elena puts on a mock thinking face and says “Um,” before the two laugh and kiss.

I would call the scene verisimilitudinous, but that would be a disservice to the scene, because it isn’t a simulation of the real, it is real. I’ve had this conversation in real life and similar ones like it as I assume many other people have. This isn’t just a sweet scene with some heartfelt emotion and some beautifully understated lines, this is a perfect representation of real life with all of its mundanity and shows of affection. And that’s why it tops my list as one of the best dialogue scenes in all of gaming.

(Start at 5:49).

 

Conclusion

Rounding out the list are some honourable mentions as well as a few single lines not from dialogues that I like. In terms of dialogues pretty much all of 2008’s Prince Of Persia  is excellent with the main characters of the Prince and Elika seamlessly morphing from vaguely antagonistic to potential lovers over time (and all in optional dialogue, which is interesting).

In the Hitman series Agent 47 and Diana Burnwood’s interactions are fascinating dialogues mainly because of their working relationship. Diana is the only person that is “close” to 47, and even then he doesn’t see her face whenever they are together. Like the Prince and Elika their relationship has changed as the games have gone on, developing as the stories have got more intricate and personal.

For single lines (disqualified from the numbered entries because I wanted more than one character in the scene), the Max Payne series always has good lines. While I and my housemates have fun shouting lines from Max Payne 3  at each other (especially the over-the-top ones where Max’s voice cracks), my favourite line from the series is the last line of Max Payne 2;

“I had a dream of my wife. She was dead, but it was all right.”

That line sums up the pain of Max and his redemption over the first two games, quietly bringing the second chapter of his life to a close.

And lastly a funny one (warning, phonetically-spelt swear words ahead). From Rainbow Six Siege, the SAS Operator Thatcher has a hatred of all electrical gadgets, listing them, “GPS Satelittes, Unmanned drones…” and my favourite, “…fookin lazeh soights…” (as it is phonetically pronounced). The delivery of the line sealed my appreciation of it, and much like Max Payne 3, this line became a staple of my university house, with much hilarity ensuing when a barely audible “fookin lazeh soights” would be heard when passing each other on the stairs.

 

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