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Emotion in motion: Expressive character animation in 3 evocative games

Developers working on Death's Door, Solar Ash, and Sable share insights on expressive, beautiful character animation.

August 27, 2021

10 Min Read

Author: Jack Yarwood

When it comes to conveying character in video games, few things are more important than movement. From a simple walk cycle to an idle animation, how characters move can tell us everything about their personality and temperament.

While some studios use motion capture and live performances to inject personality into their characters, most will typically take advantage of keyframe animation. This is a flexible method of animation that relies on manipulating the bones on a character rig to create a string of poses. The animators' job is to carefully select these poses and make sure they fit with the personality of the character the artists have created, while also being fun and easy to control. It's a tricky balancing act and one that often involves plenty of iteration, experimentation, and hard work. Recently we spoke to animators on Death's Door, Sable, and Solar Ash to find out more about how they approach the characters for their games. They told us more about the decisions they had to make during development, the games and films that inspired them, and the best practices they've learned along the way.

Using concept art as a guide

Mark Foster is a programmer, designer, and animator at Acid Nerve, the small studio responsible for the action-adventure game, Death's Door -- a game about a sword-carrying crow who must reap the souls of the undead through a series of boss fights. Foster created all of the animations you see in the game, but admits to having had little experience working in 3D prior to starting the project.

"I kind of learned how to do [the animation] out of necessity," he tells me. "When we first started a few years ago, we tried working with an animator who would send us these amazing polished animations, but for our kind of workflow I needed to have more control over how they were put together because I wanted these extra little bits between them. [Doing] the animation and the code at the same time just gave me a lot more flexibility with stuff. So, I ended up learning how to do it as I was going along." 

Foster tried for a slapstick style of animation throughout. However, he realized early on that he had to pick his battles due to his responsibilities elsewhere. As a result, the lead shows a lot less emotion than the other characters in the game, with Foster choosing to focus instead on the unique bosses and colorful NPCs you meet along the way. Most of the crow's movements are therefore functional or combat-based, save for his idle animation, and some expressions in cutscenes here and there.

"If you leave him idle, he will kind of do that bird thing where he'll twitch around," says Foster. "I looked at a few videos of how crows move around and it's a really strange, alien movement, because they twitch and move into a position and then hold that position for a while. There's a few of those kinds of elements we brought into it…But because he's so small on the screen compared to the other characters you want to put more of the animation effort onto the things you can actually see."

Foster would typically spend a lot more time on the side characters, animating them in Blender and using the concept art as a rough guide to influence the movements. This resulted in some of the more charismatic animations from the game, such as Pothead taking off his lid to bow and spilling the contents within, Jefferson the squid clumsily puppeteering a dead body to become a seafood chef, and the Urn Witch getting stuck inside a pot and throwing a tantrum.

"[That Urn Witch one, in particular] came from the concept that the art designer Frits Olsen drew," says Foster. "He drew bloomers on the character, and I remember thinking that was a detail that wasn't really needed (laughs). So we wanted to capitalize on that. If she has bloomers on, then it might be really funny if you could see them at some point, so we had to get her upside down…It was a bit of a nightmare to animate because we had to move her object from A to B in one single frame of animation."

Foster chose Blender as his software of choice for the animation in Death's Door. This free tool covers much of the 3D pipeline: from modelling to rigging to animating. How it would work was Foster would typically block out an animation in rough using the software, before exporting it to Unity to check out the results. He would then continue tweaking the animation further in Blender, potentially adding a physics layer onto certain materials such as cloth using a Unity Store asset called Dynamic Bone.

Don't be afraid to push a pose

Not every game will need animations as exaggerated as Death's Door, but if you aren't striving for 1:1 realism you should never be afraid to push an animation or a pose too far. If you look at some of the most memorable characters across gaming, you'll often find that the animators have stretched reality to emphasize particular actions and establish a tone. Micah Holland, the animator on the upcoming open-world adventure game Sable from Shedworks, agrees.

"Sometimes you need to push [poses] to the extreme," says Holland. "You may think 'No one moves like that', but your character does and that's what matters. I mean, Mario is a great example of that. Nothing about his movement is realistic in the slightest and yet everything he does is believable and clearly displays the character and the world he's part of."

Holland personally adhered to this philosophy while working on Sable, which uses a distinctive style of animating on 2s to capture the impression of flicking through a comic book. At its most basic level, this essentially means drawing one frame of animation for every two.

"One of the biggest things right off the bat from both Dan and Greg was 'How do we get this to look hand drawn?'" Holland recalls. "Everything from humans to animals and mechanical parts are animated on 2s frame by frame [in Blender] to get the look we wanted. Also, being a big open world game, Breath of the Wild and even some 2D animation studios like Studio Ghibli and Studio Trigger [influenced our work]. For the cloth it depends on the asset, some soft body stuff is simulated with a unity plug-in called Magica Cloth and some elements I hand animate. We did lots of variations of how to go about it, some worked better then others, but Magica was the best fit. "

In Sable, players control a young girl on a ritual across a Moebius-inspired landscape. So, as a result, Holland wanted to show the character's readiness for adventure within his animations. When Sable jogs, she swings her arms to the side to gain momentum. When she sprints, she hunches forward and swings much faster. Holland also included some optional animations too, to demonstrate her age, such as the ability to jump and skip across the desert if the player times their inputs just right.

"A big part is getting the player to have a say in it," says Holland. "Jumping and skipping from foot to foot is something Sable can only do if timed right. That's a little fun thing Sable can do and that shows her character as this young girl ready for adventure. It's about always having in mind that it's a marriage between a character's personality, gameplay functionality and player choice."

Nailing down your character's personality

Hammering the personality of a character down and deciding how they should move can be a tricky process. But there are plenty of methods you can use to find out more about your character. This can include taking pictures or video reference of yourself in character, sketching a drawing a pose, or animating in rough and testing it out with others on the team. This last technique is something that the folks at Heart Machine often take advantage of, including on their most recent title Solar Ash.

"What we will do oftentimes is before we know if we like something we will stub it and test it," says Emily Katske, the lead animator on Solar Ash. "We'll take an already existing animation that is close enough or animation will very quickly block something out [in Maya] just for functionality. Then we'll pass it onto our incredibly talented engineers to implement. They'll implement, they'll play with the tuning, and then test it. Do we even like this? Then if it gets the thumbs-up, we'll move forward. It always goes back to the baseline of 'Who is this character?'"

In Heart Machines' latest Solar Ash, players step into the role of Rei, who must explore a surreal world inhabited by colossal enemies. Throughout, she uses her abilities to boost grapple, and skate to cross long distances and get around, with Heart Machine borrowing some of her movements from extreme sports like roller derby, speed skating, and surfing.

"What was really important to us with Rei's locomotion is that progression," says Katske. "Because with fluid locomotion there's a lot of intermediary steps that you go through. We have a standard walk, we have a little more of a jog, we have a sprint, skating and boosting. There's so much — I think we saw grinding on rails and grappling [in one of the recent trailers too]. All of those have to show this progression.

"One of my favorite things about working in games is you have to consider the character at every moment. Every step should have that character in consideration. No two people will stand exactly alike. No two people will move exactly like. It's partially what your body is like, how you carry weight, but it's also like what you're feeling, what you're going through."

When it comes to Solar Ash, Katske stresses the importance of the entire team in bringing the character to life. She tells me, for instance, that she's constantly in touch with the narrative department, pitching ideas to them and gauging whether the work she is doing is consistent with what others have established. This is especially important in a game like Solar Ash, where the main character's movements tie into key story and gameplay mechanics.

"There are certain things where we also have special layers and materials," says Katske. "So, for our character Rei, she has that really wonderful cloak and that smoky smokestack of hair. The hair and the cloak are a really interesting mix of sometimes animation, sometimes layer physics, and really interesting material work. We have some really talented character artists and technical artists who have really brought that wonderful fluid motion to life with the hair."

Though your approach to animation will typically vary depending on the type of project you're working on, it's clear to see that there are some common threads in what each of these animators have told me. Animators should constantly consider their character's personalities or motivations while working, to ensure their work doesn't just function but compliments the narrative and helps build a connection between player and character.

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