Critical Examination: Facial Expression in Video Games

Perhaps I haven’t talked enough about how much I like Life is Strange.  Now that I’ve gotten past my rage point about the ending to the series, I can’t honestly hate it.  It’s like my favorite book – The Amber Spyglass.  That book has one of the most miserably-depressing endings that I’ve ever read.  Sad endings don’t bother me.  At least, not on their own.  Where the Red Fern Grows is the saddest book I’ve ever read.  But I don’t hate the ending.  Okay, that bit right at the end is cheesy as fuck.  I mean, the tie in to the title is the ferns growing on the dogs’ graves?  Weak!  But everything leading up to that felt right.  It was sad.  So sad, that when my teacher was reading this to the class during lunch in 5th Grade, she couldn’t finish.  No joke, that was the first time I ever got to do public speaking.  It was when I went up and finished that story.  It was so hard not to cry in front of the class.  Felt very cool, too.  I was the one she picked.  That was special.

Sad endings, however, have to still make sense within the context of their universe.  Which was my problem with The Amber Spyglass.  That ending comes out of nowhere, is unfathomably depressing, and there’s no reason for it!  In fact, it is so bad that I actually listed it in a post of the top 10 plotholes in things I like.  That bad.  The ending to Life is Strange is much the same.  It is pointlessly depressing, for no reason.  Not to mention all the unanswered questions.  For a game that went so far out of its way to build up the quest for the truth, there were too many things that felt unanswered.  Which leaves me suspecting that there is a sequel coming out.  That bothers me, because I honestly can’t see it improving.

But enough of all that.  The reason that I am bringing up this game, for hopefully the last time, is because I want to talk about a really big flaw in this game, that unfortunately there is no way to fix.  If they wanted to,  they could redo the ending.  But they won’t.  However, the flaw that I am going to talk about now can’t be fixed, due to the limitations of the game’s engine.  That flaw is the facial expressions.

When I was a little kid, facial expression in gaming didn’t mean much, to me.  After all, gaming was too young for stuff like that.  Character thoughts and feelings had to be expressed with exposition.  I didn’t blame the games for that.  It was the tools they had to work with.  Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a great game, but the fact is that it is simply the story of the hero’s journey.  It makes some point about how hard it is to grow up and how leaving childhood behind is never easy (something that observing Tumblr has taught me oh so well, as it is filled with people kicking and screaming to stay in their childhoods), but the fact is that this wasn’t an especially complicated narrative.  Wonder if I’ll get any Nintendo fanboys (or girls) who will come and try and make a dissertation to me that I’m wrong.  Anyway, the fact is that due to the limitations of what they had, old games couldn’t tell stories about characters that involved too much emotion, because everything had to be conveyed through text or dialogue.  And early games were known for how atrocious their dialogue was.  I mean, have you heard some of the stuff from games like the first Silent Hill?

Yeah, that’s pretty bad.  But that’s just how things were, early on.  Gaming was a young medium, so it could only get so deep.  Let’s have another brief digression to talk about something else – facial expression in other visual mediums.  For those who know, one of the hallmarks of the series Cowboy Bebop was the fact that characters could say one thing, but through both dialogue and facial expression, say two or more things and once.  Anime has had some truly amazing pieces of facial expression.  Since it is a medium that is overly-expressive, emotions tend to be shown big.  Really, really big.  It’s like a neat amount of melodrama, that can be combined with subtlety as well.  Like in the original Fullmetal Alchemist series.  Unlike its successor, the original series was a very subtle story about two brothers and their journey to reclaim their bodies.  Over the course of the series, the two learn the true meaning of sacrifice, and were it not for the STUPID ending that is a complete deus ex machina (for real, memories as equivalent exchange for someone’s life?  Give me a break…), it would have been one of the greatest tragic tales ever told.  With Alphonse having given everything, and Edward realizing that while he could never get back when he lost, all he could do is move forward.  Cathartic?  In a way.  The series was about sacrifice and loss.  Alphonse would make that final sacrifice, to give everything about to the brother he loved so much.

Film, however, uses facial expression in a much bigger way.  Watch the film The Bad Sleep Well, and you will see what I mean.  Akira Kurosawa was a master of using subtle acting to tell great stories.  It helps that he was working with Toshiro Mifune, one of the greatest actors to ever live.  There is a great scene in the film where it is just three people in a room.  You have Mifune’s character, who is undercover.  A man that he is framing, to keep himself out of the line of fire.  And the person in charge, who could destroy him if he is caught.  Just through the use of expression, you can see the story get told.  It is a scene where you have a man go from being nearly in trouble, to being alone again, planning his next move.  There is almost no dialogue.  It’s all done through expression.  That’s amazing!  Film is the medium to capture this the best.

The first time that I genuinely saw what facial expression could be like in video games was in a little game called Final Fantasy X.  In that game, we have the story of a man who is thrown out of his world and forced to fight to defend another.  It’s a very emotional story, focusing on the young man’s inner hatred of his father, his feeling of helplessness at being trapped where he is, and the fact that he wants to go home, but can’t.  It’s a very hardcore game.  It also has some incredible use of just voice acting and facial expression to sell moments.  Like the following scene…

This scene runs the emotional gamut!  You have Yuna facing down the fact that she has lost her faith and feels lost and alone.  You have Tidus offering her a way out, appealing to the fact that he wants to go home, and giving her a way to leave all of her pain behind.  You have Yuna hating the fact that she can’t take him up on it.  Then, you have both of them sharing a romantic moment together, letting their love shine through.  Out of context, that is not the easiest thing to really see, but it’s there all the same.  Not only is that scene emotionally intense, but you can feel their emotions through the use of facial expression.  It was the first time that I saw that video games can tell emotional stories without a ton of exposition.  Or at least exposition alone.

In recent years more than any other, video games are capitalizing on it.  Without the incredible facial animation, would the scene at the end of The Last of Us be anywhere near as good?  Would you be able to sell the emotional gamut that that scene has?  Where Ellie is confronting Joel about his obvious lie, then choosing to accept the lie?  Without that amazing facial animation, how else could it be done?  Modern gaming has done incredible things with facial animation, partly through the use of motion capture cameras.  This technology was first pioneered in games like Heavy Rain, but didn’t really become the amazing force that it was until a game called L.A. Noire.  That game used facial expression to help you solve crimes.  If the game hadn’t felt the need to embrace the Grand Theft Auto side of Rockstar’s repertoire, then maybe it could have gone further with it.  But you take the good with the bad.

Video games have come a LONG way from where they started.  Games that would otherwise be rather unremarkable are made remarkable because of the fact that they focus on narrative-driven stories.  Games like Bioshock Infinite.  I think that’s a great game, but the reality is that without the truly wonderful characters and really insane plot, that game’s mechanics aren’t especially remarkable.  This is the thing that makes modern gaming truly special.  Which leads me back, finally, to Life is Strange.

The biggest thing hold this game back, in my opinion, was the facial animation.  The world of that game has some amazing depth and detail.  And the voice acting was at the top of its class.  While the dialogue could be utterly-ridiculous at times, it is the sheer emotional dedication from every character that sells it.  You feel for these people.  But I think you would feel for them more if the facial animation was better.  Let me give you an example.

This is my absolute favorite scene in the entire series.  Hands-down, this is where the peak of the emotion in this game comes in.  I had been wanting there to be a scene where Max tells Chloe the truth about what happened in the alternate timeline, along with how she feels about what she has done to Chloe in so many timelines, and nowhere was it more on display than right here.

But there is one major problem – you can HEAR the pain in Max’s voice.  You can hear her getting torn up and on the verge of breaking down.  But you can’t see it.  This scene could have been SO much better with better facial animation.  For one, why isn’t Max crying?  It sounds like she is.  Everything in that delivery says that Max is crying when she tells Chloe the truth about William and what she did to her in the alternate timeline.  Hearing the hurt is great, but this isn’t an audio medium.  It’s a visual one.  I wanted to see Max’s pain.  I wanted to see Chloe’s uncertainty and sudden diffusion of her anger as she is watching a girl that she may or may not be falling for sobbing in front of her.  Not only would it have made that scene a real tear-jerker, but it would have made so many other scenes that much better.  At times, the facial animation works.  But there are too many places where it works against the game, like these people are marionettes on strings.

Great facial animation means something, in gaming.  Now more than ever, games can have great narratives that make you feel for the characters in them.  It’s why I went from hate to love when getting to know the characters in Until Dawn.  It’s why Joel and Ellie are two of my favorite characters in anything!  Great voice acting is a great thing, but it can only go so far.  We need gaming to deliver something more.  Without characters to deliver on that, it is impossible to really take in how much great narratives can do in this medium.

But let me know what you all think.  Am I totally off-base on this issue?  Are you able to get all the emotional depth you need out of just voice acting?  Or does all of this seem pretentiously stupid?  I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that way.  I do overanalyze everything, from what I hate to what I love.  Let me know in the Comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“No!  Not this way!  Chloe, I can’t keep fixing everything if all I’m going to do is just break it, over and over again!”  -Max Caulfield, Life is Strange

Peace out,



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