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Why Graphics Matter: The Importance of Nonverbal Communication

I've been hanging around GIO for a few years now, and I've always wanted to try my hand at blogging, but I have to admit I was a little afraid to do so.  Still, I want to improve my writing, so I have decided to push myself and write this first blog.  Any constructive criticism you have is welcome.

 

I've been gaming ever since I was little, but I didn't really start playing JRPGs until the Playstation 2 era.  So as a fan, I've occasionally tried to go back and fill in the gaps by playing some of the classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI.  However, I've come across a problem that makes me hesitate to do so.  You see, I have a difficult time feeling anything for the characters in older games.  For a while I couldn't figure out why.  It's not that I dislike these games.  On the contrary, I really want to love them.  I had fun with the battles and the stories were good, but it was just the thought that I should have been enjoying the game more than I really was.  Now, I think I have found an answer.    

 

The simple answer is graphics, and to a lesser extent, voice acting.  Now before you write me off as some sort of graphics snob, I'll say that there's more to it, obviously.  Although I said "simple," perhaps it's more complicated than that. The reason decent graphics and voice acting matter is because without them you can't experience most forms of nonverbal communication.

 



In everyday life, nonverbal communication is an important and incredibly useful tool in understanding those around us.  Only 35% of communication is verbal; 65% is expressed nonverbally.  Words are used mainly for conveying information, while body language, facial expressions and tone of voice reveal our inner thoughts and emotions.  Words mean very little.  It's not what you say, but how you say it. 

 

Want to know the secret behind the fabled "women's intuition"?  Well, it depends, as many psychologists believe, on women's innate ability to better read the subtleties of nonverbal communication than men.  Ever tried lying to your mother or girlfriend?   Women in general are better at catching liars.  You can say one thing, but groupings of nonverbal cues, called gesture clusters, can easily betray your words.  Your mother knows you have something to hide because of your increased blinking, hands in back pockets, a well-timed gulp and a seemingly innocent and quick nose scratch.  That's why it's easier to lie over the phone than it is to lie in person.  Another way of putting it is saying you have a gut feeling about something.  It means that someone's words and nonverbal cues don't match.  You notice something off, but you don't know why you feel that way.

Nonverbal communication is also the secret behind the fictional Sherlock Holmes' detective intuition?  It's his observation of nonverbal communication and attention to little details (also lots of research into obscure topics such as cigar ashes and footprints, etc., but I digress).  He relies heavily on nonverbal communication because it's vital and more reliable than words in understanding other people. 

 

So why am I talking about this and how does it pertain to video games?  It's because nonverbal communication is important not just in real life, but in games as well, particularly with story-focused games. 

 

Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, two of the greatest role-playing games ever created, loved by fans of the genre, did not excite me in the way that I had hoped they would when I started them.  I have not finished FFVI yet (about 20 hours in) so I will reserve my final judgment until then, but so far, I can't say I'm in love with it.  Another factor that adds to my problem is that I didn't play them when they first came out in the 90's, so nostalgia has no part in my opinion.  Also the wow factor of certain scenes (such as the opera scene) may have worn off over time.

 

 

Still, that's not to say they are bad in any way.  I have played them recently, and I know their stories are still excellent.  However, these stories lost some of the impact just because I had a hard time feeling anything for these characters.  Specifically, the characters in older SNES games just don't seem real to me.

 

Without subtle gestures, facial expressions, body posture, and tone of voice we are left with only straight dialog and big, rudimentary gestures like arm waving and jumping.  Anyone who has ever tried to make a joke on an internet message board knows sarcasm is hard to convey without that certain tone of voice.  But sarcasm is not the only casualty. 

 

Imagine that your face was completely devoid of all emotion, and you could not speak in anything other than a monotone (a reality for some of us).  All you would be left with to convey your emotions was the words you speak and maybe a basic game of charades.  The problem with words is that they are easily misunderstood or are just plain lies.  Even silence can be confusing.  How many different silent emotions get translated into ".........." in older games.   Sometimes the meaning is made obvious by the music or context of the scene, but other times I am left wondering.  Is she sad?  Angry?  Bored?  Shy?  Frozen with terror?  Asleep?  Catatonic?  Is she being aloof or sulking?  When I walk up to a character and all I get is "........" what am I supposed to assume?  In games with higher quality graphics, you would be able to see a character's slight smirk, or their meek, downward facing eyes or their clenched fists. 

 

 It's the subtleties that I'm missing.  I'm going to use Final Fantasy X as an example, since the new HD version should be coming out soon.  Also, it was the first game in the series to use subtle facial expressions and voice acting, and it is a game I know well.  Before I begin though, I'll preface this by saying that while the voice acting in FFX is not perfect, there are some standout moments.



Anyone who played this game will remember the Macalania pond scene?  In this act, Yuna reaches a crossroads where she questions her pilgrimage.  She shows a wide range of facial expressions, from soft, hiccupping cries and tears rolling down her cheeks, to suddenly wide-eyed surprised and the reflexive stiffening of her muscles at being kissed, to eyes filled with the innocent wonder of first love.  We see all that.  Pure, honest, nonverbal communication.  There is no need for words.  In fact, spoken words or text boxes at that point would only be awkward.

 

Voice acting also helps to give the characters stronger personalities.  There are numerous occasions in which Lulu's sharp and sometimes biting tone of voice warns her traveling companions not to annoy her.  In one particular scene, while the party climbs the long stairway to the Kilika Temple, Wakka gives an unlikely theory about his brother traveling through time instead of dying.  What happens next is the unleashing of Lulu's scathing reply to Wakka, immediately shooting down his idea, and then to Tidus, and Yuna, making it clear that the three of them can never replace those who have died.  Her tone of voice here is key to the power of her words.  Annoyance, anger, and the heart-breaking acceptance of loss are all expressed clearly.  It gives her an icy façade, but at the same time, hints to her true emotions without any character having to tell us.  She could have been reciting nursery rhymes and we would have still understood her feelings.  It's that intensity that gets to you.  You forget she is just a character; it makes her seem real.  Tone of voice reveals what we may have otherwise missed reading silent text boxes.

 

Final Fantasy X is just one example of a game that benefits from better graphics and voice acting.  And this is a game from 2001.  When I say superior graphics, I don't necessarily mean current PC, Playstation 4, or Xbox One graphics, although they are definitely included.  Even just Playstation 2 graphic are adequate.  I just want to be able to see subtle facial expressions and gestures.   These additions help to make the characters more realistic.

 

Now don't get me wrong, that's not to say that every game needs good graphics and voice acting.  Some games are great without them.  Do early Mario games suffer without these additions?  Or Minecraft?  Journey?  Obviously not.   What I'm talking about in this blog are games that focus heavily on story, such as RPGs.  So in games with older graphics, we are missing out on much of a character's communication and inner thoughts and emotions.

Bad voice acting ruining likeability

I should clarify that when I say voice acting, I mean good voice acting.  On the other side of the argument, bad voice acting can do damage to a character's likeability and can actually make them feel more artificial then silent equivalents.  A well known example of terrible voice acting ruining the likeability of a fan favorite is Link from that 1989 Legend of Zelda cartoon.  His infamous "Excuse me, Princess" line has likely spurred many discussions at Nintendo on the topic of voice acting in games, and is perhaps the main reason why Link has been kept a silent protagonist.  Good voice acting can be difficult to achieve, but when it is implemented well it can greatly enhance a game. 
On another note, tone of voice can sometimes be replaced with music to relay emotions, which is something that earlier Final Fantasy games did well.  That may be acceptable to many, but for me, it's just not enough.

 

With all this said, I do believe there's hope for my play through of Final Fantasy VI.  If SquareEnix decides to remake VI for the 3DS or Vita like they did for FFIV on the DS and PSP, then I will jump at the chance to try it again.

Finally, my last counter argument could probably be summed up by the words "operator error."  There is the possibility that this is just some kind of defect in me, and no one else has this problem.  It's hard to say without talking with others about it, which is one of the reasons I decided to write this.  I understand that a lot of people may disagree with me on the issue of graphics and voice acting.  That's perfectly fine.  I have no enmity for anyone who has a different opinion.  I just thought I should put my own out there.  I always welcome constructive criticism, and I'd like to hear your comments on the matter. 

 

Do you need good graphics to help you get more immersed in game stories and feel for the characters? 

Do you think that voice acting is necessary? 

Or do you see these components as nice, but ultimately superfluous or sometimes even damaging?

 

Anyway, thanks for reading.

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