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Good practice - Animation As Gameplay

A quick glance at some examples of how animation can be used to convey important information to the player.

Christiaan Moleman, Blogger

April 5, 2009

10 Min Read

This is a compilation of a series of posts from my other blog discussing the interactive use of animation in a number of notable games…

There have been a few games recently (and not so recently) that stood out for their inventive use of character animation... giving the player feedback through movement, adding not just aesthetic value but expanding gameplay. These are some good examples:

First up, Assassin’s Creed and its city guards…

 view of Jerusalem

Assassin's Creed


If you turn off the HUD, you may notice that you can tell the guards’ alertness by their posture alone. If all is well, they stand and patrol normally… You can quite literally almost get away with murder. If something suspicious has set them on edge, they clutch their swords nervously. You should NOT at this point do something stupid to draw their attention.

When you hear cries of “WHO did this?” and see them patrol with swords unsheathed, the slightest provocation will cause them to notice you.


It’s a simple thing, but extremely effective… conveying the same information as the HUD indicator, only without breaking immersion. Recognizing their behaviour allows you to adapt yours.

Now I may be alone in this, but I would argue it’s actually kind of a cop-out to include a HUD at all here. If you have something that communicates by itself, adding competing channels to say the same only serves to clutter up the message…


Another interesting aspect of Assassin’s Creed is its oft discussed  “social stealth”.

To blend in and move anonymously through these urban crowds, you must act as if you were just another citizen…

Drawing a weapon, running around and climbing on things will almost certainly blow your cover and send the guards chasing after you. As long as you haven’t been spotted, you keep your cool and resist the urge to run.

 Altair making a run for it



Movement is separated into “low-” and “high-profile”. While the latter gives you the most freedom, the former is crucial to staying out of sight.

High-profile movement is fast, agile and violent, while low is soft and discreet. You switch instantly between modes - a more gradual transition with ‘degrees of rudeness’ could have been interesting, but it seems the developers decided against this as it “started to explode” in terms of complexity. Perhaps just as well for the sake of clarity (if not to avoid an obscene amount of extra animation)…

You can even pretend to be a monk by walking among the faithful with your head down and hands clasped together in prayer…

Using NPC and player movement in this way creates interesting gameplay possibilities through clearer feedback and deeper character interaction… something I hope the developers will continue to build on in future…


Another notable title: 1999’s Outcast




It may be cause for concern that a ten year old game still merits inclusion, but it is a testament to just how far ahead of its time Appeal’s open-world adventure really was.

There were many things that made this game, but I will focus on two:

Gratitude and directions.

When you arrive in Adelpha you are something of an unknown quantity. Much is expected of you, but the general populace will not believe in you until you act to help them.

Dispatching a convoy of hated soldiers will gain you much appreciation. It will also change the behaviour of the NPCs around you. Previously observed in silence, now you are greeted with salutes and encouraging gestures.

It doesn’t directly change gameplay, but it creates positive feedback that makes the world feel alive, like your actions matter…

NPCs in Outcast don’t stay in one place. You often need to go look for people. This would be annoying if it weren’t for the game’s fantastic directions-system. You can stop anyone and ask for the whereabouts of a particular NPC. The AI is such that it remembers where it last saw a character and will tell you roughly where to go.

Yes Ulukai, I saw him going north some time ago.

So you head north and ask someone else.

You want that Talan, there,” he says as he turns and points to your right.

 Just over there

Just over there


He doesn’t say “that character is just east of me“… he turns and points. To this day I haven’t seen any other game do this.*

Simple gestures or expressions can be so much more powerful than dialogue…

* as a core mechanic, outside of cutscenes


Next: Ico & Shadow of the Colossus




Not the most recent, but still remarkable both, for their daring use of animation in making you feel connected to the world and the beings in it.

Touch is a common theme throughout the games of Fumito Ueda and his team. From holding hands with princess Yorda to climbing the towering bodies of the Colossi. It’s, unsurprisingly, also the focus of Team Ico’s upcoming PS3 title.

Games do not traditionally deal very well with touch as it’s a difficult problem to tackle even in pre-rendered 3D, let alone real-time…

Still, given the importance of touch in our human lives it should be worth the trouble.

Ico, then.

If there is one image that sums up this game, it is he and Yorda holding hands.

The tactile marriage of animation and interaction in this visually arresting mechanic creates a very real bond between our two protagonists, and you, the player.

Similarly, a well-judged combination of hand-animation and procedural movement (physics and IK) creates a real sense of contact to the climactic battles between Wander and his prey in Shadow of the Colossus. It’s no coincidence Ueda’s background is in animation.

If the creatures in this game are the levels, then animation too is level design. The movement of these lumbering giants defines your interaction with them, running and climbing up limbs, holding on for dear life as they try to shake you off, gravity and momentum both friend and enemy.

It seems a missed opportunity that so few games have attempted such depth and complexity… Boss-battles in other games feel pedestrian by comparison.

It’s worth noting also such elaborate interactions need not be violent. Imagine character interaction this intricate in a social (RPG?) context…

Certainly, if we are ever to tackle more complex themes than killing everything that moves, physical contact will be a major part of the puzzle.


Next: a bit of Half Life and Team Fortress 2


Half Life 2 - Episode Two


One thing Valve does very well is make it feel like you’re present in the world by having characters react to you. Subtle things make all the difference…

In Half Life 2, people look you in the eyes. They don’t stare… they look and look away, their eyes darting from place to place. If you shine your flashlight in Alyx’ face she squints and covers her eyes.

There’s a clever mechanic that began life with Alyx in Episode One and was further refined in The Orange Box and Left 4 Dead: Based on context, characters will say short lines of dialogue in reaction to what is going on around them, sometimes very specific things…

It would not be a stretch to imagine using the same AI that picks appropriate dialogue to pick gestures and other actions to make NPCs respond to the world not just in words, but in movement…


Team Fortress 2


A different beast, Team Fortress 2 is interesting in its use of silhouette to distinguish characters, each member of its ensemble instantly recognizable at great distance through shape and style of movement. Just as well, as you’ll want to adjust tactics accordingly, or suffer an untimely demise…

The characters’ appearance matches their gameplay function.

Personality is all too rarely explored in game animation. Clearly it can serve both as icing on the entertainment cake and as core gameplay information.

Worth a mention too are the dynamic facial expressions in TF2. They seem to reflect player health and success with excited and fearful expressions, though, perhaps more significantly, they make screenshots completely hilarious.


And finally: Cecropia’s The Act

 The Act

The Act

The Act was created as a prototype coin-op that sadly did not meet with commercial success and was not developed any further. Still, it may be worth looking at what they were trying to do and why it was interesting.

The game uses analog control to either push forward or back off in your interactions with other characters. The trick is to know when to do which…

Quite linear of course, but unlike the dreaded Quick Time Events it’s organic and invisible and there’s a certain nuance to your actions. It’s an interesting approach to interacting with NPCs without resorting to dialogue trees, or violence…

Cecropia has since moved on to making short advergames, but you can get an idea of how The Act might have worked from a cute demo on their frontpage. It shows pretty clearly how emotion and personality can make even the simplest of interactions entertaining…


(continued here)

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Christiaan Moleman


Christiaan Moleman has worked on a number of unannounced titles at Arkane Studios and assisted on titles at Darkworks and Widescreen Games. Prior to that he worked on in-house development at Streamline Studios.

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