Connecting players with characters, giving out details of who they are, and making them stand out in the player’s mind is a challenging task, but how about doing that with a few simple motions?
Idle animations, those little bursts of motion that trigger when a player leaves a game alone for a bit, are easy to overlook but key to conveying subtle (or not-so-subtle) aspects of your game's characters and atmosphere -- if they're done well.
With that in mind, Gamasutra recently checked in with a broad array of developers from around the industry to learn what idle animations they most enjoyed, as well as what it was that they liked about them.
While very few devs agreed on what games had the most memorable or enjoyable idles (except Earthworm Jim, which everyone apparently loves), all pointed to just how much they made these characters feel alive for them, fleshing out the worlds they belong to with only a few frames of animation.
Rewarding idle hands
Nathalie Lawhead (Everything is going to be OK): Earthworm Jim had some of the most fun idle animations that I can remember. It was fun because that detail added more personality.
I think, maybe, the '90s were the golden age of idle animations. There are so many titles that come to mind, but now I'm not sure if I'm remembering right... which I guess is a side effect of idle animations... you won't remember correctly if ever asked. I loved them though! I used to wait just to watch what a character did.
The SNES version of Aladdin had a fun one because he juggled apples even when you didn't have any more apples in your apple inventory and you would be like "Haha, liar, I see those apples." I kind of liked the effect that had on me as a player, because I felt a bit betrayed by the game. Yeah, that one extra apple would have helped and it was clearly there. The game lied [laughs]. It added character, though, because it fit with the personality.
Ken Wong (Florence): Earthworm Jim's suit skipping rope with his body is a really memorable idle! It was so inventive in a game full of inventive and zany animations.
Edmund McMillen (The End is Nigh): The first one that comes to mind is Earthworm Jim. I liked that it felt alive.
Simon Anderson (Owlboy): One of the first that comes to mind is Ryu from Street Fighter 3. Not because it's technically impressive or even the most impressive today, but it was one of those moments where you could simply tell the artist's skill had improved. The air flowing through the legs of his pants as he moves was an impressive addition to a classic stance without it being distracting, and a nice reminder back then that with enough practice, I could do the same.
A close second from that game is Dudley, as it was surprisingly clever to do little alternating steps in his pose to imply readiness, yet mixing up the timing of just three poses makes it seem a lot more elaborate than it really is.
Of course, I can't forget mentioning Mario in Super Mario 64. For being one of the first true 3D platformers, the game had so many small details that made the massive polygons come alive. The fact that if you would leave the controller alone, Mario would just kind of lounge out of boredom was such a nice little detail. I still remember going to eat dinner having forgotten to pause the game and finding Mario asleep. Considering the monumental challenge of making a game as playable and complete in a relatively uncharted genre, the attention to detail was amazing.
"Idle animations are one of the many ways a game tries to convince us that it contains a living, breathing world."
Another thing to consider is that Mario can fall sit down and fall asleep literally anywhere if not interrupted. For as many complex movements as that game had, bringing Mario in and out of that state and reacting appropriately if interrupted is pretty robust for such a small thing. There's no shortage of games today that struggle giving an appropriate response during the transition from an uncontrollable state, let alone one that can happen in virtually any point of the game.
As an extra mention, I do have a soft spot for the common slime enemy from Breath Of Fire IV. It's one of the most elaborately animated sprites in the game, and in a genre where slime enemies are as common as air, it felt like they wanted to have the best slime of them all, putting extra time and excessive frames to prove their spot, which is sort of charming in a way.
Tomm Hulett (Director at Wayforward): Let's go with Sparkster's long idle in the original Rocket Knight Adventures! It's a pretty weird one. 1) It gives us character detail we'd find nowhere else in the game; he takes off his hat to reveal hair. 2) He speaks the only text dialogue in the entire game. 3) He breaks the fourth wall to say it to the player (as was the fashion at the time). It's also cute and endearing.
Baby Duka (D A S H): Simon the Sorcerer (the first one) where he takes his Walkman out of his hat and just chills to the music. The Walkman is typical for the time. The way a sorcerer listens to his favorite tape in the middle of danger and adventure, it makes Simon/you a cool cat and not a weak nerd.
Also, as a developer I think it made quite an impact on me. Not only was there dragons, a parallel universe, trolls, and saxophones, but Simon was also like me - he sometimes took out his Walkman to chill even though things got rough. Little effort from the designer and quite an effect.
Bonsai Treehouse (You Are Worthless): A bird poking a bear on the head (Banjo Kazooie). Idle animations are all about pure character expression, but thinking of ways for just one single character to express and emote by themselves can be tough when they have little to work off of. Fortunately, this is not the case for Banjo and Kazooie, for whom every fundamental aspect of gameplay and presentation was designed to compliment and reinforce the sense of shared adventure they experience together. With this theme remaining a constant throughout, the image of a bird annoying a bear manages to naturally and effortlessly inject banter, personality, and life into the bear and bird duo without the player even needing to give them something to do
Jennifer Scheurle (Earthlight): The first Ragnarok Online ones! They’re pretty old school, though :D. I’m not an animator so I’m not an expert and my opinion is not all that representative... but I love old school 2D pixel art animations like this, how overdrawn they are, over-emphasised to communicate role and character. They are overly dynamic, similar to what you see in the idle animations in e.g Street Fighter.
Splendidland (Apple Quest Monsters): Idle animations are one of the many ways a game tries to convince us that it contains a living, breathing world. Your avatar responds to your inputs and moves around, going from point A to point over there, but they also respond to your lack of input; not playing the game is an interaction. "Oh, look at that!" you said, pointing your finger at the screen excitedly.
Take Mario 64. "Mario's fallen asleep all by himself, I didn't even have to press the snooze button!" "Hehe, Looks like that little guy's got it all under control." says your Dad in a peaceful, reassured tone, putting his hand on your shoulder. "C'mon, let's leave him to it." You both leave the room together and never look back.
Cassie McQuater (Black Room): The first idle animation I think of is Simba from the Lion King for SNES/Sega. As a child, I would just sit there and watch it -- I was totally convinced that at some point Simba would catch the butterfly, but of course he never does. I also remember being enthralled by the fact that I could put down the controller and the video game would still go on; it felt like magic. I remember feeling the same way for many of the idle animations in the Donkey Kong games, I can't recall which ones though!
Angela He (You Left Me): My favorite idle animation is probably Fidget's idle animation from Dust: An Elysian Tail. To me, the best animations are ones that feel the most natural. Fidget's idle animation does that excellently. From Fidget's movement up and down due to gravity, to the smoothness of her tail and wing movements, to the easing functions applied to those all, when I look at her idle animation, she feels real - not just a part of a game.
Shawn Alexander Allen (Treachery in Beatdown City): Growing up in the era of minimal extra animation (NES, Apple IIc), I have an appreciation for the still stances of yesterday. I actually think a lot of games are a bit too jumpy these days, but I do appreciate a good idle when I see it.
Coming out of that stillness back in the day, the first games to really blow me away with idle animations were fighting games from Street Fighter 2 on. Going from the stoic nature of Karateka, which was a rotoscoped fighting game for all of its attacks, with completely still fighting poses, to Street Fighter 2’s was a revelation. Every character in that game exudes their own unique flair and personality through such a limited amount of frames.
This is actually Karin in Street Fighter Alpha 3 but it was too good not to include
World Heroes 2 was also a personal favorite of that time because of how over the top some of the sprites were. I was so transfixed by the sprite art that I defaulted to thinking it was the best game out there (hey, I was 8!)
Strangely enough, even with it’s now trademark stilted animation, Mortal Kombat’s idles were some of my favs. I loved Sub Zero & Scorpion’s idles the most - these were the characters my friends and I emulated on the playground. There was something about Sub Zero’s subtle rocking back and forth animation that made it feel more “real”. It was probably also because of the mocap, as well. I wish MK’s idles were as good now as they were then.
Earthworm Jim was a crazy revelation that you could do such long winded idle animations in games. Jim’s frantic running in place made the game always feel in motion, even if that motion was wildly imprecise. With Jim going from standard idle to doing various actions, it felt like an in joke for players to see.
I feel like Mario 64 got a lot of its flavor from this - Mario’s breathing idle becomes a little show for players, with Mario becoming a full on sleeping stereotype talking about pasta in his sleep. Problematic fav, for sure.
Finally, I love Evil Ryu’s idle in CVS2. He stands there, moving a couple of frames at a time, to highlight his dark and moody nature. More frames do not always equal better animation!
Melissa Davidson (Anthem): Can I just vote for every idle animation for every character and enemy in pretty much every Metal Slug game?
Metal Slug 3 is probably my favorite one, and I'm going to focus on player characters from that one here, as the quality of player sprites is very high. There are 4 player characters, and each of them have 5 completely separate idle state sets - default, fat, underwater, mummy, and zombie. Each of those animations are unique, and at the end of each stage there's a different win idle that they do as well.
"I remember being impressed by how a simple animation could inject so much character - of course this little guy would find some way to pass the time while waiting for me."
There's a lot of stuff in this game that exists just for the art of it. When you stop shooting, the first thing that they do is a reload animation for their handgun. But you don't have a limited clip size, or have to think about reloading at all in moment-to-moment gameplay. It's there purely to sell the character.
And they do it underwater, and that has a unique animation as well. The female characters have revolvers and the male characters have semi-automatic guns, so they have different animation sets to deal with that as well.
A lot of the animations on the characters are only 3-6 frames - it's a great example of how far you can push pixel animations over very few frames. The game feels extremely responsive and gameplay is tight, but it looks great, too. Totally worth a look if you want to see an example of limited sprite animation pushed to its limits.
Brendon Chung (Quadrilateral Cowboy): I'm a big fan of the idle animation in id Software's Commander Keen games. If you leave Keen alone for a while, he will sit down, pull out a book, and start reading. I remember being impressed by how a simple animation could inject so much character - of course this little guy would find some way to pass the time while waiting for me.
Victoria Dominowski (Secret Little Haven): Ristar is undoubtedly my favorite game on the Sega Genesis for a lot of reasons, one of the main ones being that it is unabashedly cute and charming in the characteristically grungy, attitude-drenched early 90s Sega menagerie, and it shows this throughout every facet of its presentation.
Unlike Sonic’s single idle animation reflective of the latter Genesis zeitgeist, Ristar features unique, adorable idle animations for each new area. Each of these reinforces Ristar’s direction as a cute mascot character who is perfectly comfortable with that fact – the animations are almost an act of resistance against the suffocatingly-masculine mascots of the era, and I adore them for that.
My favorite animation in particular is Ristar building a tiny snowman in the snow planet level, just for the endearing creativity of it. It really shows the creators’ commitment to giving the character this kind of personality.
In a sense, Ristar really is Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Kirby: Both series feature small, spherical protagonists whose main attacks involve pulling enemies towards them and who move between planets/levels via star travel, both series’ home console debuts characterize the best of the end of their consoles’ retail lives, both series had their character given inexplicable “angry eyes” by an American branch that were completely lost on how to handle a genuinely cute character, and most of all, both have heart-clenchingly adorable character animations.
Laura Shigihara (Rakuen): I LOVE how Shade Man from Mega Man 7 will kind of taunt/beckon you if you don’t make the first move (which is special since you almost always want to move first when fighting MM bosses). I think it shows a lot of personality. I love how they included something mischievous like that where the player is rewarded for experimenting. I always appreciate when the creators go the extra mile with small details; those kinds of things add a lot of depth and charm to the game’s world.
Tyriq Plummer (Catacomb Kids): Shantae's idle from Shantae: Risky's Revenge on the 3ds is one I dig a lot! I've got a weak spot for both hyper, overly-bouncy idles as well as super subtle, understated ones so it's tough to narrow it down to just one.
Meagan Bryne (Wanisinowin | Lost): Hands down, it's the title character from Okami. She's got a few, but mostly she lays down to nap if you're idle too long, which is so cute and dog-like! It really drives home that she's a wolf - a holy incarnate of a goddess - but also a wolf.
I'd say that it spoke to a high level of world building (reflected in the entire game) that they had so thought through Amaterasu's dog/wolf incarnation that her idle animations matched the silly dog-ness of the cut scenes. They could have just had her sleeping or sitting there, but it's the whole thing with the little flop when she goes from sitting to lying down.
I actually think the whole loop from beginning of the idle to when you play again is a brilliant piece of character/world building. I mean she is a goddess. They didn't have to have her act like a dog, but in that world, form affects action as much as anything else. Also, it added to the whole "Is it a goddess or just a magic dog?" question that runs through the first chunk of the game. As a player, even I wasn't sure, especially when the whole time jump thing happened.
James Earl Cox III (eCheese Zone): It has to be the penguin from Space Station Silicon Valley. Admittedly, I'm really fond of all the idle animations in that game. Runner up is the fighter plane dog. It has to be one of the simplest animals in the game, shape wise, and yet they feel alive! I can't imagine how dead the penguins would look if they didn't do their small idle bounce.
Giada Zavarise (Selling Sunlight): When I was little I mostly played platform games because I could grasp their mechanics even if they had no Italian translation. Some Disney magazines also came with game CDs attached, so I ended up with a good stack of Disney platformers, and they all had INCREDIBLE animations. My favourite was Maui Mallard in Cold Shadows, a game about Donald Duck being a detective but also a ninja. And when you are 10, ninjas are The Coolest Thing Ever. Disney platformers may not have been great games, but they surely spent a lot of resources in making sure they looked as good as possible.
I'm not an artist, so I can't really say anything about the animations quality per se, but... As an indie working on tight budgets, I know every animation takes money. And idle animations are... useless. They serve no practical purpose: they're there just to make the game a bit prettier and flesh out a character's personality. They are charming, but not necessary. So, seeing such well-made and varied idle animations in games to me means that the developers probably put a lot of love in their games.
Camila Gormaz (Long Gone Days): I used to be a huge fan of fighting games when I was little, and Darkstalkers 3 is, to this day, the one that stood out the most to me, animation-wise. In Darkstalkers 3, every idle animation would tell us a little about the character we were using, instead of just being your typical breathing, foot-tapping animations. One of my favorites was Lei Lei's idle, where you can see her rotating her head creepily and shaking while standing on her toes. There was also B.B. Hood, who had a crouching idle animation that would trigger if you crouched long enough, in which butterflies would land on her head, and a flower would pop up from the ground.
Bill Stiernberg (Cosmic Star Heroine): So, if I were to define idle animation broadly, I would include the looping stance that fighting game characters take when the player isn't doing anything. Hope that's not cheating! The genre also demands that most characters feel vibrant, or reflect each characters' personality in their movements, and thus their idle animations.
There's a ton of great stuff from many fighting games, but I always think of Elena from Street Fighter 3. For a strictly 2D game with large, detailed, and highly animated sprites, Elena's animation conveys a sense of volume to her body in an impressive way. The way her arms and legs move both forward and back as well as in and out around her gives her character sprite an extremely believable 3D quality.
Secondly, her idle animation is incredibly complex. From the way her torso and hips twist and rotate, and the way her arms move forward and around, and the way she sways drastically forward and backward, is just super impressive. Her idle animation is interesting to begin with, as it's a sort of flexible dance that hovers around one point. Given the detail in the way her limbs are drawn consistently and given detailed moving shadows to show her flexing muscles, the whole thing suggests that she is a fast, strong, limber fighter- which is how she plays.
To cap it off, she's got this fixed, focused look on her face, like a leopard ready to pounce; and while her hair is short, it still sways ever so slightly in tune with her fighting 'dance' that just gives it one more awesome detail. Another of my favorite parts of the idle animation is how the simple use of a few colors nails the sense of depth. The purple shadows cast on the parts of her body in the background over the darker/more saturated colors just look so natural and make it easy for the eye to parse the animation.
I know that Street Fighter 3 is a legendary game for its amazing art and animation, so it may seem cliche to refer to it, but the developers did such an amazing job it stands as a pixel art masterpiece to this day.
Paul Franzen (The Pizza Delivery Boy Who Saved The World): I'll think of a good one!! ...is ToeJam & Earl falling asleep already taken? I like how it's not just a goofy joke; it's part of the gameplay! If you sit there doing nothing for too long, your character just falls asleep, and they won't wake up until you mash a bunch of buttons to yell at them. In the meantime, you can get killed by a dentist. I love ToeJam & Earl.
Lukas Stobie (Rising Dusk): Any of the SNES Donkey Kong Country games (although the modern ones have great idle animations too.). I like how the Kong's idle animations are curious and playful. They don't just stand still, they're constantly looking around, finding ways to amuse themselves and they never grow bored or frustrated at the player for it.
Danilo Dias (Blazing Chrome): My favorite Idle animation is from Super Metroid. It's so subtle - not exaggerated as most idle animations are, feels very realistic, and works with the mood of the game.
Ethan Redd (Blazing Legion: Ignition): My favorite idle animation has to be Sonic The Hedgehog's classic "I'm waiting" loop; it's a subtle, yet clear - an economical stroke of genius in both interactive and character design. Sonic, as both a game and character, is all about momentum; as revealed in two of the original designer's recent (excellent!) GDC talk, Sonic was a distillation of SEGA's philosophy and brand at large; their "challenger" underdog spirit and general sense of innovation and forward progress.
Most games at the time treated no-input periods of idleness as simply par-for-the-course; with a side-eye and ever-impatient toe-tapping loop, Sonic, as game and character, engaged the player and actively discouraged idle time. In fact, in Sonic CD prolonged inaction results in the character ending the game himself, with a sassy one-liner to boot. Your plumber MCM could never! It's such a small detail, and yet it reinforces almost every design decision about the game and our hero within it.