Animation is a Storyteller in its Own Right
Today, when we think about telling a story in a game, we often think of voices. Characters talking with each other and in doing pushing the story toward its inevitable end. Then, we might consider text, some stories have no voices, simply words that tell us the current state of the story. They to move along a story. Some games incorporate both, but no matter the way, they all have the common goal of telling a story. Stories these days aren't as important to publishers when compared to multiplayer. The reasoning behind this is that multiplayer holds the gamer longer than the singleplayer does. So the chances of primarily profit seeking publishers taking risks with the singleplayer is low when they'd prefer to focus on the multiplayer. Also, they often don't like to take risks because they're normally dealing with investments worth many millions of dollars.
How often, however, do we think of animation as the storyteller? The thought didn't even occur to me until a few weeks ago. I didn't think of it because I was so comfortable with the traditional method of video game story telling. But consider actors for a moment, when they want to sell a character to the audience, they don't simply stand in place and recite lines. They move about. They cry, they laugh, they get angry. These things require movement, and in gaming terms, animation. But actors over-act, they dramatize the character they're playing so as to beat that characters disposition into the audience's mind. It's much more complicated to rely on the audience, or even gamers, to search for small details in a character. It's much more reliable to make these details obvious to the audience. Now, an obvious detail isn't much of an interesting detail, if a detail at all. Details should take a little effort to find, so there is a balance to how easily these animations should present details.
It's interesting to think of animation as a storyteller, and it could work with minimalist stories in games. But to use it in stories that require major events to be told to the gamer, it would be too difficult. There would be too many hints in the animations that the audience, the gamers, would never pick up. I'm sure that some things, such as character archetypes, could be told solely using animations, and I think this is where animation could excel relative to storytelling. So for an indie developer writing a minimalist story. it would be wise to use animation as the sole storyteller, possibly accompanied by text. Although, the less text and the more animation the better. It's more cohesive to stick to one method of storytelling than to use many different types. Consider a voice-acted RPG. What if it suddenly switched to a text-adventure? It's too inconsistent to remain believable.
A story told entirely through animation would presumably suffer from a lack of depth. How do you tell the player what country they're in, what their character's age is, what the main character's parent's names are? I'm sure there are ways, but they might be too ineffective to get the message across. It creates a barrier that is hard to break through comfortably. But, animation could be used to tell the emotions of a character. Should they be sad, they would cry and drop to their knees. Angry? Punch the ground. Content? Pick a flower and smell it. It's the details that the animations could get across to the player. The small details often add up to make the experience even more desirable. The more animations that contain details, the more the story is built for the player. Think of it as laying the foundation for a building. The building itself is this major story that involves saving the world. Now, the foundation is the characters of the story. If the characters aren't believable, aren't relatable, or aren't likeable, then the building will fall. Who cares if the world is destroyed when we don't care for the characters. Telling a story partly through animation, however, is just one way to do so (in theory), there are other ways, such as good voice acting. Generally, though, starting with good writing is best.
I'd like to see game developers use animation to its full potential. Not that they don't, per say, I'm sure some do, but it's not often that they use it to tell an important bit of the story. It would work especially well in a game like Limbo (which I'm sure used some small aspect of animation to tell us about the main character). The atmosphere built up this level of emotion, while the story was near non-existent. Imagine the possibilities that detail-oriented animations could make, the character touching the tall-grass as he walks through it, perhaps plucking some out for fun. The connection to the main character could be improved drastically. Developers have got to keep in mind that animation can be used to show us the details, but so that the details themselves aren't shoved in our faces. It's a much more rewarding experience if we can derive the details on our own. That's how attachments are made to our beloved games. We, on our own, learn what's going on.