Video games have been telling stories since their advent in the 20th century, but it was not until graphics began to evolve into three-dimensional space that the capacity for nuanced body language was created. Storytelling could open up into the subtle world of non-verbal storytelling and the recent God of War and DOOM reboots truly push the envelope. Most forms of visual media have had the capacity for this kind of communication for centuries, exemplified by Bernini’s sculptures; including the Rape of Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and Bernini’s David. The subtle movement and expression of emotion through the non-verbal communication of the body, even without physical movement, was present from these early days, and even earlier. The violence, lust, and exertion shown through his works. As video games arose in the mid-late 20th century, the initial limitations of pixel art meant story had to be conveyed primarily through sound and text.
Even with these powerful tools of communication, some games could not effectively draw emotional reactions from many gamers. Mario’s iconic “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” is a distinct piece of early video game storytelling; however, it did little to evoke emotions other than frustration due to the repression of fulfillment that, finally finding Peach would bring. Early Final Fantasy games (a series lauded for its stories and lore) were poorly translated and often came across as messy and overwritten to most players. The Legend of Zelda was a very powerful game in terms of its lore and character development, but it heralded the beginning of the silent protagonist movement, which would see a few successes and far more failures.
In contrast to the failing silent protagonist, DOOM (2016) had the Doomslayer, an entity whose sole purpose was to rip and tear the hordes of hell until they were no more. While this may initially sound similar to “doing the right thing because it is right” the story developments reveal a man who is not concerned with the well being of the human race. A man who is not out to protect anyone, for his only wish is to punish Hell. Through additional text in the game, one can learn some of the Doomslayers origins, but the true evidence of his contempt lies within his body language. As Dr. Samuel Hayden, the lead scientist on the Mars Base that was invaded by Hell attempts to inform the Doomslayer of the severity of the invasion and the consequences of its continued existence, the Doomslayer responds simply by smashing the monitor through which Hayden speaks. He doesn’t care about the ramifications or the magnitude of the invasion. The numbers and potential outcomes do not concern him. In a later scene involving highly volatile reactors running on the Argent energy streaming out of Hell, Hayden attempts to guide the Doomslayer delicately through the process of turning off the reactors. The Doomslayer doesn’t listen. With a few stomps, he crushes and dismantles the reactors that had seemingly solved Earth’s energy crisis. The energy crisis pushed forward the research on Hell, finding a solution but only creating more problems (see the previous invasion).
The Doomslayer is the solution to that invasion, and he doesn’t worry about the energy crisis. He only wishes to rip and tear. In the quiet moments between combat and finding secrets in levels, the Doomslayer shows small hints of humor. If a small cartoonish figurine of the Doomslayer is found on the right level, he will adjust the tiny hand and give the toy a fist bump, complete with explodey fingers. In certain death animations involving lava, the Doomslayer will give the classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day thumbs up as he sinks slowly into the molten mess. By the end of the game, the Doomslayer is painted as a man with a vendetta against Hell, pushed forth through all obstacles regardless of how his actions would affect the population of Earth. He’s angry, driven by rage, but he still takes the small moments to show a sense of humor, and in this his complexity is obvious. All of this is shown to us without the Doomslayer uttering a single word. The Doomslayer is not the only iconic video game character that shows his hidden depth through body language.
In 2018’s God of War, we see an aged Kratos living as a mortal in the frosty lands of Norway, among the ancient Norse gods and entities. He has taken a wife after his adventures destroying the Greek mythology and fathered a son, Atreus. He is haunted by the ghosts of his former actions and is attempting to raise Atreus with tough love. Kratos yells at his son throughout the game, scolding him for his mistakes, but rarely praising his victories. However, this is not to say Kratos does not love Atreus. After the death of Kratos’ wife, Faye, he takes his son on a journey to spread her ashes on the highest peak in the Nine Realms.
Throughout this journey, the player sees Kratos attempt to connect with his son physically. At multiple moments he reaches out, ready to give his son a pat on the back. He wants to connect emotionally but doesn’t understand how to after the previous disaster with his family. He attempts to connect emotionally, yet he cannot find the strength. He has killed countless Greek gods, including his father Zeus, and has literally and figuratively moved mountains. But the simple connection between a father and son is beyond his grasp for the majority of the game. Kratos eventually manages to fulfill his duty as a father, complete Faye’s final wishes, and begin the process of physically connecting with his son.
In the final shots of the primary story, Kratos sees a prophecy (which are very rarely wrong in the GoW universe) wherein Atreus will be the one who kills him. Knowing this full well and understanding the implications of ignoring this prophecy, he gives a heavy sigh and begins to tell the story of the Spartan, Atreus. A strong Spartan who always pushed forward to victory, with a smile on his face and happiness in his heart. This was the man for whom Atreus was named, and the legacy which he wished Atreus would live up to. Kratos’ words were not the driving force behind the empathy we the players felt towards him. It was the way he delivered those lines, the way he moved and breathed life into the character. The simple actions and attempts to find a trace of the humanity he once knew.
The high quality of animation and attention to detail, the simple body language that colors a character’s true motivations, brings out a new level of storytelling possible in video games. Compared to paintings, photographs, literature and other forms of media (excluding Film and Television) the potential for body language is astounding, and the future of video games as an art form and as a medium for telling stories will only increase exponentially. The pure emotion that a video game can evoke in 10, 20 or 50 years will be magnificent to observe and enjoy, and will ultimately put all other forms of media to shame.