Character animation is an effective emotional shortcut, allowing a developer to evoke sympathy, display character, or define a relationship without resorting to time-consuming dialogue and voice acting. The best (or at least my favorite) example of this is 2008’s Prince of Persia: Cut scenes and bits of optional dialogue barely touch upon the romance between the Prince and Elika. Most of these conversations just serve as plot exposition. The real character development comes from their animations, their subtle interactions: They way they reposition themselves while climbing and fighting implies an excellent working relationship—they know each other’s movements so well they can jump, swing, and climb without getting in each other’s way—yet when they lock arms and spin to switch places on a beam, this playful action suggests there’s more to their working relationship than just work.
Such animation adds subtext to the game, but it only works because the plot acknowledges what’s going on. Their romance is an integral part of the story, and the animation acts as a major support for that romance by evoking emotions that the dialogue doesn’t. The animation in Rage, on the other hand, does the exact opposite: It evokes emotions that conflict with the rest of the game. This emotional conflict raises the potential for some fascinating ethical issues, but sadly Rage has no interest in exploring them. (Hopefully future shooters will.)
Enemies react to being shot in very dramatic ways. Shoot them in the shoulder and it jerks back, knocking them off balance so they stumble forwards a few steps, then they regain their footing and charge at you with renewed (I’ll say it) rage. Shoot them in the leg and they trip over themselves. Shoot them in the head and their arms go limp, even dropping their gun right then and there, but their legs keep moving, carrying them forwards a few steps before they crumple into a heap in front of you. Shoot them in the stomach enough times and they go down but don’t die: They fall over, then sit up, dazed, slowly trying to lift their gun to shoot you back.
This level of detail is fantastic, and quite disturbing. I feel bad killing these people even though I don’t know anything about them, and even though they’re clearly inhuman mutants, and even though they’re trying to kill me. The animation evokes a powerful sense of suffering all on its own. I find myself walking up to hurt Raiders on the floor and just standing over them, waiting for them to come out of their wounded daze and shoot at me so that I can justifiably kill them in self-defense. But I still feel bad shooting a man while he’s down.
It’s an intriguing dilemma for a shooter: Can I still enjoy the shooting if I feel bad about who I kill?
It’s a shame that Rage is about as mindless as a shooter can get. Its narrative has so much trouble with simple plot structure that it’s far too incompetent to explore this emotional conflict in any depth. There’s very little context for all the violence, the game expects us to circle-strafe and obliterate the enemy simply because they’re the enemy. But for this kind of attitude to work, the animation must dehumanize the people we kill. (Ragdoll physics does this exceptionally well: I can’t feel bad for someone if I’m laughing at the funny position of his corpse.) Rage, in its quest for detailed and artistic animation, achieves the opposite: It humanizes its monsters. Rage is an example of how the modern desire for realism clashes with old-school FPS design.
Rage ignores this problem until it ceases to be a problem: After so many hours of mindless shooting, the disturbing animations weren’t disturbing to me. They become route, but the game became more fun. At the very least, Rage proves the emotional power of character animation, even in a mindless shooter. Its accidental proof that the FPS genre can rise above its current run-and-gun state and present players with complex moral questions, and that the genre 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’ll wonder why.