Character animation is a good way to evoke sympathy, display character, or define relationships. The best (or at least my favorite) example of this is 2008’s Prince of Persia. While cut scenes and optional bits of dialogue help convey the growing relationship between the Prince and Elika, most of these conversations are just for the sake of exposition. The real character development comes from their animations—specifically, how they interact with each other: How they move around each other while climbing and fighting suggests a couple that have an excellent working relationship, they know each other’s movements and can jump around without getting in each other’s way, the way they lock arms and spin around to switch places on a beam is more playful, suggesting more of their working relationship, etc.
The animation adds a lot of subtext to the game, but the main story acknowledges what’s going on. The animation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What if they story didn’t acknowledge their relationship or what if you’re supposed to think that the Prince and Elika actively hate each other?
Rage is a strange game in that it suffers from a problem of this sort: The character animation is too detailed and evokes emotions that conflict with the rest of the game. Though this conflict does present an interesting dilemma that some future (and hopefully better) shooters will address.
In short, enemies react too much to being shot. If you shoot them in the shoulder they jerk back, stumble for a few steps, regain their footing, then charge at you with renewed hate. Shoot them in the leg and they trip over themselves. Shoot them in the head and their arms go limp but their legs keep moving, carrying them forward a few steps before they crumple into a heap right in front of you. Shoot them in the stomach and they go down but don’t die. They fall over, then sit up, clutching their wound, trying to lift their gun to shoot you back.
The detail is fantastic and quite disturbing. I feel bad for killing these people, even though they’re trying to kill me and even though I don’t know anything about them. The animation alone evokes a powerful sense of suffering. It’s an intriguing dilemma for a shooter—can I still enjoy the shooting if I feel bad about who I kill?—so it’s a damn shame that Rage’s narrative is far too incompetent to explore this idea in any depth.
Rage is about as mindless as a shooter can get, so in the end, the disturbing animations weren’t disturbing. They became rote, but the game becomes more fun—more mindless fun, that is. At the very least, Rage proves that even mindless shooters have the potential to strike some powerful moral and emotional chords. It’s accidental proof that the shooter genre can rise above its current run-and-gun state and present players with some complex moral questions, and it can do this without fundamentally changing how shooters are played. You still shoot lots people in Rage, but for a few hours in the beginning, you’re made to wonder why.
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