When you are an animator for games, the one thing that you will always be confronted with is, “Why aren’t you working in movies?” Be it from people you meet or the people you work with, there seems to be an unspoken rule that if you work in games as an animator, secretly you would rather be working in film. And for most animators, that is probably true to some degree. Hell, I won’t lie and say that it hasn’t occupied my mind at one point. Game animation just isn’t as luxurious as film animation. From the rigs, to the models, to the amount of time you have to polish, the amount of creative control you have driving the project’s feel, film has us beat. They get to craft performances that the audience can relate to in a way we will always be struggling to achieve. And while I think we can certainly focus and grow the craft more in the traditional sense, making relatable characters is only going to get us halfway there. Where we really need to start focusing on game animation is beyond where the audience just relates with a performance but how they interact with it. It is a slightly different mindset than doing traditional film style animation, and not as well defined or understood, but that is how you know you are tapping into what this medium is truly capable of.
Two places of player interaction that we can influence as animators that we typically gloss over are transitional animations and input controls. Those two moments are when the player and the digital character speak to one another on a core level and can really be felt by the player if paid attention to.
Let’s get this out of the way upfront. When handed a list of transitional animations to work on, animators get a little bummed out. Idle to walk turn 45 degrees left makes the eyes of every animator glaze over and their internet browsers instantly open hulu as they spit out another purely functional yet bland animation so that they can get to something more exciting to work on. But those transitions are the moment when a character has made a decision, or is in the process of making a decision on where they want to go next and what they want to do. And thought process is something that wets the lips of every animator out there. Thinking and decision making is what drives a character’s performance, which is something every animator wants more of in games. So what can we do to make those more exciting for us to work on and the player to feel their importance beyond just serving to rotate the character?
“It is not necessary for an animator to take a character to one point, complete that action completely, and then turn to the following action as if he had never given it a thought until after completing the first action. When a character knows what he is going to do he doesn’t have to stop before each individual action and think to do it. He has it planned in advance in his mind.” – Walt Disney
We start by how we should start with every animation. What is the character’s purpose, personality and goals? If they are headstrong and brash, they wouldn’t worry about looking first to where they are turning, they would just turn assuredly knowing that wherever they end up pointing, that is where they will go. Or if they are mousy or scared, they would look first, then turn more slowly, not necessarily ready to commit to the action. Think about a character’s acting patterns and how those transitions allow you to flow from one action to another. Maybe when a character is walking it signals a different emotion than when they are running. The transition is what will sell that emotional change. Think about which body part leads their actions, be it the head, the chest, arm or leg making each character visually feel as if their driving core comes from a different place than the last. Transitions are also when a character is anticipating what they are about to do next, and anticipation is something game design thrives on even if as animators we often have to sacrifice an action’s anticipation in an effort to speed things up. But transitions are pure anticipation of what is about to happen next, so relish in it! You can also use transitions as a take, to help add comedic or dramatic beats to what is happening. If instead of having the enemy simply turn at you to shoot, he first looks, does a double take, then quickly whips around gun blazing, it will feel noticeably different than when a superior officer notices you and quickly and precisely turns and pops off a couple controlled shots as he settles into position. Both serve the gameplay and character’s narrative, which is what draws both the player and us as animators into a performance.
I know we don’t get a lot of frames to actually turn a character, and as always, it has to be responsive. But for NPC’s especially, we as a whole should spend more time on transitional animations. Making those believable and emotive will go a long way towards making more fully realized characters for the player to interact with.
The buttons and commands the player inputs are the moments when they get to directly speak to the game. That is the moment they are communicating with characters in the game, both those they are controlling and those they are interacting with. Often times, it is the designers or programmers thinking actively about what those input commands will be, but when you start to think with an animator’s knack of performance and personality, there is a world of possibilities that we can use to help push the emotional feel of that conversation.
How the player interacts with the controller, and how those movements are input can be deeply carried over into the personality and performance of the character on the screen. The press of a button or choice of a specific command is the anticipation for what is about to happen. The feel of the trigger buttons differs from how the press of a face button feels. Using the thumb stick as a button press has always made me feel a unique blend of clumsiness and awe. Using those tactile responses, along with how long the player should hold them, or tap them, can affect the player’s mood and as such should affect the characters on the screen if we really want to craft a deeper conversation between player and game. Even something as simple as whether an action happens on button press or button release can dramatically change how the player feels, and can signal deep character traits in the character in the game.
Since we were already talking about how to build stronger transitional animations, let’s start with using player input as another layer towards making those stronger. Imagine coupling a transitional animation to match the speed at which a player is pressing in the direction they wish to turn. If they are slowly pushing in a direction, the transition is a more tentative look to move than if they quickly jammed the thumb stick. Often times blending is used for these, and for some games that may be enough, but for suspenseful, character driven narratives, this would go a long way towards feeling a part of the scene and deeply connecting the player with the character they are playing.
Street Fighter is a great example of control inputs matching the characters personalities on many of their most recognizable figures. Ryu is meant to be a controlled personality, with his emotions kept in check leading a life of modest means. His moves and fight style reflect this with clean and simple sweeping motions that work best when the player is conscious of his opponent to calmly react and control the space. He also has a relatively small list of special moves, but each are incredibly capable. Now think of Akuma, a more powerful, evil and demented version of Ryu. He shares the same core moves of Ryu, but has the addition of a few more meant to help press the fight forward and stay on top of his opponent. And those few extra moves that actually require the player to press forward motions on the stick, violently thrusting him towards the enemy, resonates to speak to his dominating spirit. Then there is Blanka, who is meant to be wild and has a move that actively requires the player to abandon everything except hammering violently on one button. That electric feeling comes through the kinetic press of the buttons, and matches perfectly with his appearance and character. Balrog is meant to be a violent, brutish boxer. When you think of boxing you think of lots of blocking and then powerful punches that capitalize on any opening that is given. And the commands of the player match that perfectly, requiring them to turtle up for a second, holding back to block, only to quickly push forward to do an all or nothing heavy punch. Zangief if a showy, brash wrestler and his input commands of large circular commands matches that. All of these characters are instantly recognizable in personality, appearance and play style and it is no coincidence that players are so attached to their favorite. What the player is doing to the controller matches on multiple levels to what the character is doing on the screen.
The next time you are animating or designing a character, take the time to imagine their thought process and personality on more than just the fun, exciting actions. Think about those transitional animations and then what button or command the player will be using to propel the characters action. Doing so will allow a level of communication and understanding to blossom between the player and the game that will help push the level of emotional investment that both gamers and developers yearn for. It will also help to define our skills beyond just mimicking what our film brethren do oh so well in an exciting way we can call our own.