Wholesome games are in vogue. In recent years, there has been a notable uptick in the number of developers—largely indie—striving to tap into a burgeoning consumer demand for titles that prioritize adorable mechanics and twee concepts above all else.
What, though, makes a video game "wholesome." Dip into one of the semi-annual Wholesome Directs, which aim to highlight a kaleidoscopic bushel of winsome projects, and the answer it seems would be any title that can be defined as uplifting, cozy, or compassionate.
Communicating those concepts to players might be done in a variety of ways, ranging from designing a cute protagonist, including slice-of-life mechanics that tap into our desire for rose-tinted "simpler times," or baking in cute animations that tug on our heartstrings.
In the case of Lil Gator Game, an upcoming adorable adventure that had already featured in a Wholesome Direct, developer Scott Slucher used the latter technique to imbue the lead character (yep, it's a cute lil gator) with a sense of giddy charm. Outlining his approach to animation during a Q&A with Game Developer earlier this year, Slucher explained how he used a range of techniques—including the addition of WOBBLE BONES—to make the titular character as adorable as humanly possible.
Game Developer: What design and animation considerations went into making lil gator as adorable as possible?
Slucher: I knew I wanted to focus on exaggerated animations, so I made a design with really big head and arms compared to the rest of the body, so that even small arm or head movements would feel big and cartoony. I deliberately chose not to have any kind of hands, to make holding objects a lot easier to fudge - it doesn't look like it's being held wrong if there's no fingers!
How long did it take you to finalize the design of lil gator, and what tools helped you lock in the cute critter we've seen in the trailers?
In the initial prototype, they had much more standard proportions, and it took a few months of messing around to settle on the current design. All the 3D modeling and animation is done in Blender.
One of the most striking (and wholesome) aspects of lil gator is those flailing limbs. How did you animate those delightful appendages to strike the right balance between control and chaos?
In making the animation itself, it helps to keep in mind the weight of gator's head, with such an exaggerated movement, it's gonna wobble around a lot. Little things like that help sell the physicality of the movement, even if it's really silly-looking.
It's not just one animation, though! It uses Blend Trees between a set of animations depending on how fast the character is moving and the angle of the surface they're on. The blended animations are a little more subtle, so it's not always doing the big movements.
Also, during gameplay there's a bit of procedural (scripted) animation layered on top, to make it feel more organic. The head doesn't look straight ahead, it lags a bit behind where the rest of the body is facing, and the whole body leans in when making sharp turns. In Unity, procedural animation can be done in LateUpdate or OnAnimatorIK, depending on the situation.
What was one of the most challenging aspects of implementing lil gator's various abilities? So far, we've seen the titular hero swing swords, scale cliffs, glide across chasms, and slide down slopes on a shield. Could you explain how you landed on those mechanics and what techniques you used to make them feel as dynamic and engaging as possible?
The game is about exploring, so the most important part is moving around. We want the appeal of classic and modern adventure games with as few restrictions on movement and as many toys to play with as possible. You get to ragdoll, your stamina refills instantly when you land. There are obstacles to getting where you want to go, but we don't want a lack of options to be one of them. We're actually still adding more abilities, like tightrope walking!
Walking and climbing use the same Blend Tree, so that transitioning between them can be as smooth as possible.
Like many famous heroes, lil gator also wears a hat that billows with carefree abandon. Can you detail the technicalities of incorporating that couture piece of headwear?
I spent way too much time implementing my own custom Wobble Bone system! Anything that wobbles around is made up of Wobble Bones, which move completely based on physics. Each bone has customizable settings, calculates its own physics, and has a Wobble Brain controlling it. The Wobble Brain keeps track of all the Wobble Bones in its hierarchy, and makes sure they execute in the right order, from highest level parent to lowest level child.