The Eyes Have It

Image by Flickr user Javier Domínguez Ferreiro
Image by Flickr user Javier Domínguez Ferreiro

A few weeks back I listened to a discussion on a “brand name” gaming site about the extreme (and wonderful) progression of graphics in games since the beginning of the last generation.  A good portion of the discussion centered around character animation and just how realistic-looking people, animals, and other moving elements in games have become over the past decade or so. During the conversation, one person made a passing remark conceding that though facial animations had so greatly improved as technology improved, to him most game characters still seemed “blank,” and it was all because of their eyes.

I dwelled on this point for a moment and I thought, “Really? Eyes?? Trivial. Facial animations in games have become so much better than ever, and a real person’s eyes can only say so much.” And I moved on as the conversation moved on.

Only, I didn’t.

In fact, this weird little nugget of opinion took root in my head and grew into a singular question: how much do a game character’s eyes really matter? It seemed so pointless a thought to conjure, yet I absolutely couldn’t shake it from my mind as I took to gaming over the recent holidays. And as I played, as I studied more closely the characters I was spending so much time with, I found out that yes, eyes did matter. A lot.

Since listening to that discussion, I’ve had the chance to sink my teeth in to three games with touted graphics: Sleeping DogsGrand Theft Auto V, and Beyond Two Souls. At the heart of these games are people, well…characters. Characters with whom, ideally, we are supposed to connect. And how do we connect with people in real life? Through a variety of means, most of which involve body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. And as I thought about the “blank eyes” issue, I realized that I probably took for granted the importance of eye contact. Something I vitally realized as I played through these games. All these games have wonderful graphics and detailed character animations, but did those character’s eyes serve as windows to their souls?

***Possible spoilers ahead!***

First up, Sleeping Dogs. This compelling game tells the story of Wei Shen, a cop in Hong Kong who’s involved in an undercover operation to infiltrate a powerful gang called the Sun On Yee. During the game, you have the chance to play as Shen the cop and Shen the gang member. You watch as Shen’s loyalties become cloudy and the line between good and evil become blurred. It’s a fun, interesting, and not all too unfamiliar character study; plus, it’s a really fun game if you’re into third-person action adventure affairs and don’t mind driving the British way (on the “wrong” wide of the road). Of the three games, Sleeping Dogs is the one that lacks the most in terms of meaningful eye animations. Shen encounters plenty of people during his journey – people in need, people to eliminate, people to wine and dine. And in all cases, his words and actions never really translate into proper facial expressions. Though he looks at everyone he addresses, he never really “looks” at them. In all interactions, all the characters (not just Shen), acted with a variety of emotions, yet their eyes remained immoveable, unemotional. The intensity was there, but the real feelings weren’t. Shen’s eyes remained continually “blank” no matter what he conveyed.

Moving onto Grand Theft Auto V, this game works right on so many levels. The gameplay, the stories, the graphics are all so fantastic. Yet, the expression of emotions and eye contact are hit or miss. The developers got it really right with the fun-lovin’ psychopath Trevor. He’s got the most expressive eyes and face of any of the game’s characters. When he goes off the deep end, it’s evident in everything from his body language to his eye movements. Of the three protagonists, the others being the has-been but lovable gangster Michael and the up and comer Franklin, Trevor is the one most likely to look someone right in the eye…or at least appear as such. He’s really well animated — his face readily contorts and his eyes have depth and expression. More so than Michael and his family members, more so than Franklin and his friends, Trevor connected to everyone with, at times, disconcerting eye contact. This helped me bond with him as well. Though Michael won out as my all-around favorite character, Trevor definitely felt more “real” thanks to those crazy, crazy eyes.

Finally, Beyond Two Souls. More an experience than a “game,” Beyond Two Souls relays the life of Jodie Holmes and an entity named Aiden that’s been tethered to her since birth. Jodie’s tale is told through flashbacks and it reveals some rather daunting twists. Game mechanics and other issues aside, Beyond Two Souls is visually stunning with some of the best graphics that I’ve ever seen in a game. Jodie (and everyone else in the game) is rendered in exquisite detail – close ups reveal strands of hair, pores, freckles, and a most emotive set of eyes. While her facial animations are pretty spectacular – her face crinkles and courses with emotion – her eyes are crafted with care and feeling.  Not everyone in the game had eyes so telling (there were plenty of blank and odd stares), but when Jodie looks at someone, it really appears as though she makes eye contact and is not just being pointed in someone’s general direction. When she cries, her eyes cry; when she’s happy, her eyes are happy; when she’s angry, her eyes are angry. She’s very emotional, and very “real” with a beautiful set of eyes of prove it.

So yeah, the eyes really do have it when it comes to helping one feel invested in a character. And it’s even more telling if, like me, you move from playing Beyond Two Souls to playing the comparatively ancient but still awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. We all know that graphics are so much better now than ever before, but it’s good to see that developers sensibilities are also evolving with the times. Sure, sometimes we’re just going to want to move a little character around the screen fighting bad guys and collecting stuff — those games aren’t going anywhere. But it’s good to know that when we want to make more meaningful connections within games, there are plenty of available games well-rendered in both design and emotion.


  1. duckofindeed says:

    That’s true. Some characters just look dead, mainly because of the eyes, and it’s a little unsettling. And it doesn’t have to do with just graphics or how realistic a character looks. Sometimes, the realistic characters look the most dead because they couldn’t get the eyes to look alive, even if the person looked closer to the real thing.

    For example, in “Zelda: Twilight Princess”, the graphics are more realistic than “Skyward Sword”, but I always preferred the latter because, frankly, Link’s eyes are dead in “TP”. He looks pretty good, but those eyes are just so blank. At least in “SS”, even if the graphics are more cartoon-ish, at least Link looks alive. His eyes seem to actually see, and so he feels more like a living person than the one in the earlier game.

    And I recently began playing “Final Fantasy VIII” on the PS1, and while I was playing, even though it’s an old game, I took notice of Squall’s eyes during one of the cut scenes with the better graphics. There was a scene with him running from this unstoppable killer robot (I hated that thing so much), and I looked into his eyes at this time, when he was in danger, and at this moment, I kind of just bonded with him as a character, because I saw life in those eyes. I think it’s causing me to care about him and enjoy the game more just because of that. The eyes really are an important thing in a game, and they are probably the part of a character that game developers should focus on most.


    1. cary says:

      It’s been so long since I played Twilight Princess, I’m going to have to pay attention to Link’s face when I pick it back up. Sometimes though, you’re right that cartoony characters can be more expressive than realistic-looking ones. I think of Wind Waker. I know that there are issues with his big, black eyes in that game, but he had such wonderfully animated facial expressions that his eyes really came to life (even if there was no way a real person could survive with such a big head and tiny feet.)

      Your FFVIII moment sound like one I had in The Last Story. The graphics in that game weren’t stellar, but there were some real emotional moments during the cut scenes. One that stood out was between the two main love interests, Zael and Calista. During it, though, Calista was quite sad and that sadness translated so well into her face and eyes. It was so very heartfelt. From then on, I stopped paying attention to the less-than-great graphics and started paying attention to the characters and the story.


  2. cary says:

    Reblogged this on Recollections of Play and commented:

    We all know how important eye contact is in real life, but how important is it in video games? Specifically, in video games that place human characters and interactions front and center? As I came to realize while writing up this post for United We Game, it matters quite a bit. This isn’t to say that meaningful dialogue and gestures don’t go a long way in helping us connect to these characters. But the eyes are windows to the soul, and when a character’s eyes “speak,” it can make all the difference between just playing a game and really engaging with it.


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