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The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Character Animation

We're made up of thousands of parts with thousands of functions all working in tandem to keep us alive. Yet if only one part of our imperfect machine fails, life fails. It makes one realize how fragile, how flawed we are.

Ingun Black-Briar, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim

Animation is paramount in bringing video game characters to life and has been for the many years that video games have graced the world.

There is so much that animators need to look for during the process, including everything from fluidity in motion realness to the underlying mechanics of movement.

That said, each project has its uniqueness - its quirks - that utilize animation in different ways to showcase that originality.

In this blog post, we’re going to cover as much as we can regarding the design, implementation, and animation of video game characters. 

We’ll also provide some fantastic examples of top-notch video game character animations over the years for you to marvel at and derive inspiration from. So let’s get started!

The Importance Of Video Game Character Animation

video game character animation is only one part of the video game but arguably one of the most important

Gif by BBC via Giphy

The History And Evolution Of Video Game Animation

While talking about the complexities of the animation within Pong might not be what you call time well spent, we can say that video game animation has come an incredibly long way since then.

Video games like Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition has pushed our capabilities since the days of visible pixels in games like the 1993 Doom, with dynamic hair simulated in real-time.

In the early days of animation, both with movies and video games, animations were done by hand with technologies available, such as rotoscoping.

After 2010 and with the release of bigger and stronger console generations, the hardware they used allowed animators to do much more with their tools.

Since then, we’ve used motion capture and facial capturing technology supplied by companies such as Adobe.

Facial recognition is now at an all-time high, with titles like Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor claiming to have programmed every orc you come across with their own unique and different animations and facial expressions.

Video Game Influence In The Mainstream

the video games industry has breached a mainstream audience

Gif by South Park via Giphy

Video games have, over the years, wormed their way into the mainstream in a lot of different ways, from South Park’s parody of World of Warcraft in the 2006 episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”, to the 2019 League of Legends World Championship garnering just shy of 4 million viewers.

Video games, much like all digital art media, have evolved from full-on derivatives of concurrent media to their stand-alone forms of content. Video games now, more often than not, are constructed by those with understanding and practical experience working with movies, films, and more.

Video games are now being utilized worldwide for more than simple entertainment, with educational institutions embracing video games in many ways, such as using them to teach.

But at the end of the day, video games are considered art. So now, let’s dive into what you need to do to make your video game characters stand out.

The Basics Of Video Game Character Animation

We’re all familiar with the 12 principles of animation. They are the backbone of animation and fundamental to creating good quality animated work.

While the 12 principles of animation are indeed principle to animation, they don’t always work in video game animation as static concepts. As such, they need to be viewed dynamically and revisited in the context of video game animation.

We cover the five fundamentals of video game animation in another post, but three key elements of character animation are Fluidity, Readability, and Context.

Fluidity 
fluid game character animation can help establish a scene

GIF by Bandai Namco via Giphy

One of the biggest differences between animated movies and video games is how the scenes are sequenced. In video games, the sequences you witness and actions performed by the characters are made up of many short animations tied together.

Since this is the case, you will find the animations overlapping in a series. An example could be as follows:

Idle animation -> Forward motion animation -> Atopping animation -> Idle animation

The in-betweens, of course, need to be as fluid as the main animations and connect seamlessly. So when we talk about Fluidity in animation, we talk about how smooth and coherent different actions are tied together.

Readability 
game character animation needs to stand out from the rest of the game animation

Gif by Blizzard Entertainment via Giphy

Another big difference between films and video games is the viewpoint. More specifically, video games in a 3D world can and should be viewed from all angles, meaning that your animations should make sense from any angle, much the same as the ‘staging’ principle - one of the 12 principles of animation.

Fixed position games that force people into a single perspective, such as Super Mario Bros or Diablo III, the camera moves with the character’s movements, and as such, the character animations need to look the same and need to look good from all angles.

You, as an animator, need to be constantly looking at your character’s movements from all angles while animating.

Context 
video game character animation needs proper context to work

Gif by Xbox via Giphy

When we say context, we mean situational context. A character’s animations need to make sense of the situation in which they find themselves, as the animation can find itself occurring at any point during the game. 

Since video games are player-driven, you almost certainly cannot know when and where a specific character’s animation will take place, and as such, you need to figure out how to utilize nuance to make your character stand out from the rest of the game.

If you’re only able to control a single character, your controllable character should have different animations than the other characters the player will encounter during their playthrough.

Cutscenes and unique moments in the gameplay should also have nuanced and unique animations, but you need to ensure that they don’t detract from the gameplay.

What Do You Need To Make Your Video Game Character Animation Stand Out?

Visual Appeal And Uniqueness

Not every video game character that you create needs to be unique from each other, but the main ones do. 

Your main characters, especially your playable characters, need something about them that your audience attaches to, something they can become interested in that will keep them playing.

Examples are simplistic designs such as Ori from Ori and the Will of the Wisps or intensely unique, manic designs such as Tiny Tina from the Borderlands Franchise.

Character Personality Should Link To Their Animation Style
video game character animation needs to keep personality in mind

Gif by 2K United Kingdom via Giphy

The above example of Tiny Tina from the Borderlands Franchise is a perfect example of a video game character’s animation matching their personality.

She’s completely insane and never stops moving, with unblinking eyes. Seeing a scurrying around character model in the distance immediately tells you who you’re looking at.

Your characters should also have personalities and animations to match. Often when there’s a story backing the lore behind your character, it can be a little easier, but coming up with that part all by yourself can be tough. Regardless, it needs to be done.

9 Examples Of Amazing Video Game Character Animation

  1. Prince Of Persia (1989)
prince of persia used rotoscoping for video game character animation back on the nes

Gif i386DX via Gfycat

1989’s Prince of Persia was considered by many to be the first cinematic platformer, inspiring many of its kind to follow suit; its success also kickstarted the critically acclaimed Prince of Persia franchise, one still loved today.

The 2D animations were incredible for their time and used rotoscoping techniques to fantastic effect. The lead designer, Jordan Mechner, utilized his brother’s movements to figure out the animations.

This meant that the character showed anticipation and reaction to the movements the player made, matching that of the realistic activities provided by a human subject.

The character gained immediate personality without the need for overly impressive graphical design.

  1. Metal Slug (1996)
metal slug used sprite game character animation

Gif via Giphy

For a side-scrolling pixelated game developed in the late-90s, Metal Slug does wonders with its technology. Even with the small number of pixels on a relatively small screen, there are so many brilliant explosions, lasers, and shrapnel flying around almost constantly, a fantastic example of fluid and smooth animations.

Even the death animations are brilliant!

  1. Shadow Of The Colossus (2005)
scale is a big key in game character animation for shadow of the colossus in 2005

Gif by lunartears via Steam

Shadow of the Colossus is, for all intents and purposes, a colossal title. It boasts what some people say are some of the best horse animations (others say they’re terrible, we’ll let you decide) as well as beautifully fluid character and boss animations throughout the whole estimated 25-hour gameplay experience.

Shadow of the Colussus has you as the protagonist battling immense colossi, searching for weak points on their bodies to down them, all the while having them attempting to throw you off.

The game utilized key-frame animations, simulated physics, and inverse kinematics, something one sees in the world of robotics.

The basic movement animations were hand-drawn, but the character interactions were simulated in real time by the physics engine. The Playstation 2 had some limitations, naturally, and yet despite this, Team Ico managed to pull off some stunning animations.

  1. Bayonetta (2009)
bayonetta is a 3d nintendo game with a unique focus on game character animation

Gif by zreuben via Tenor

We’re now going to talk about two fantastic titles that utilize motion capture technology differently.

Firstly Bayonetta, which is an action-adventure game directed by the man behind the Devil May Cry series, Hideki Kamiya. The game also spawned an anime film produced by Gonzo in 2013.

The game itself features the main character, aptly named Bayonetta, who has incredibly exaggerated attacks “interspersed with dancing.” To accurately depict the character’s dancing movements, the studio used motion capture or mocap to capture real-life dancers and their movements.

The enemies also act dynamically depending on where and how they’re attacked, which is a fantastic way of showing uniqueness in video games.

  1. L.A Noire (2011)
LA noire used facial capture game character animation as an important part of the gameplay

Gif via Gfycat

L.A. Noire is one of the most incredible pieces of video game animation to date, even more than a decade after its initial release on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles.

The game is a heavily cinematic-focused detective-style game that utilizes facial recognition software to enhance the gameplay by making the mocap an integral part of how you play the game. The game began development in 2004 and was released in 2011.

In short: during interrogation processes, the player needs to pay attention to the suspects’ facial and body movements to make decisions, in conjunction with the voice lines and how the voice acting was portrayed. Now that’s intense for 2011.

The mocap technology MotionScan records the actors with 32 cameras in 360 degrees, capturing every angle of the actor’s expressions. This resulted in an incredibly realistic portrayal of the characters the actors were playing.

If that’s not enough to get you to play it, the soundtrack is also phenomenal. Just saying.

  1. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
grand theft auto v's video game character animation was ahead of its time

Gif by Rockstar Games via Giphy

It should be no surprise that one of the biggest and most re-released titles in video game history is on a list of brilliant animations because it’s seriously just that good.

Everything, from your character’s flip-flops, properly interacting separately from your feet when you take off walking to how your character accurately and procedurally ragdolls when getting hit by a car or falling down a flight of stairs, is master-crafted to showcase incredible realism.

The team developing the game consisted of over 1,000 people, and it took them several years to get everything right. The mocap cinematics, including the facial recognition software that gives the characters incredible personality, is well-directed and well-put-together, and they’re still releasing new content to this day.

  1. The Last Of Us (2013)
the last of us did video game character animation that belonged on the next generation on older hardware

Gif by Naughty Dog via Giphy

The Last of Us is a modern masterpiece in the eyes of many. Regardless of one’s opinions on the story, the game’s production was on another level.

The game character animation showcases many tiny details, such as your character procedurally reacting to the walls they walk past, interacting with cracks and gaps in walls, and more, and even casual walking just feels natural; it’s like watching a movie.

What makes The Last of Us a touch more brilliant is the player's connection with the characters. Simply put, the characters are just ordinary people - they’re not “heroes” in the traditional sense but just innocent bystanders in an insane world. As such, the nuances in their animations put a different perspective into the game that demands empathy.

  1. Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017)
horizon zero dawn did game character animation wiht new technology to make the world come alive

Gif by PlayStation via Giphy

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a fascinating take on the post-apocalyptic world idea, in that the protagonist, Aloy, finds herself in a world overrun by machines, while she (in the 31st century) has a bow and arrow, a slingshot, a spear, amongst others.

The exciting mix of different centuries’ technology should bring several conceptual difficulties to make everything seem fluid in the game character animation, yet it doesn’t. Guerilla Games, the studio behind the game, pulled out the stops going so far as to cancel production on an entirely different game to make sure Horizon made it through.

The incredibly unique music also plays an integral part of the game, and in-game tribal musicians are also portrayed by capturing the motions of the composers for diegetic music vignettes.

  1. Ori And The Will Of The Wisps (2020)
ori and the will of the wisps did 3d game character animation in a 2d based metroidvania platform

Gif by Xbox via Giphy

And finally, stepping back to the world of 2D animation, with one of the most beautiful titles to have been released in the 21st century.

A sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a 2D platformer showcasing incredibly beautiful and dynamic procedural 3D environments. With 3D game character animation. What?

Both the character, Ori, as well as the background are animated at 60 fps. In the first game, Ori was animated at 30 fps, with the background sitting at 60, which made the movements feel clunky and immersion-breaking.

Ori’s movements are incredibly fluid, his body and the environment move so well with his movements, and his ears and tail physics act independently of his body, and they utilize squash and stretch techniques to ensure his body movements and overall game character animation are mesmerizing. 

They also utilize keyframe animation, a technique that most studios don’t touch anymore because of the “ease” of motion capture. The usage of keyframe animation allows them to more accurately and artistically portray the different principles of animation in game character animation, as opposed to cleaning up someone else’s real-life actions in a post.

Resources For Video Game Character Animation Inspiration

While inspiration can come from anywhere, sometimes we all need a little honing in on the right place. Here are some suggestions for where to find some inspiration regarding character designs and video game character animation as a whole.

  1. Online Resources
Dribbble

Dribbble is a fantastic resource for discovering what the world has to offer in terms of design. You can find many designers and agencies showcasing their work to find inspiration.

Youtube

Of course, Youtube is arguably the biggest content-sharing platform in the world, so you’re more than likely to find heaps of animated work from which to derive inspiration.

Examples include the YouTube channel Video Game Animation Study’s video playlist: “The Five Fundamentals of Game Animation

Blogs

And of course, animation blogs like Business of Animation can act like treasure troves of information and inspiration for character design and game character animation.

  1. Physical Resources

There are many physical resources in the forms of textbooks, memoirs like Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’s book, “The Illusion of Life Disney Animation,” and much more.

We also highly recommend you check out Jonathan Cooper’s 2017 book: “Game Anim: A Complete Guide To Video Game Animation”, based on nearly two decades of experience in the industry.

Make Your Video Game Character Animations The Best They Can Be

create your best video game chracter animations today

Gif by Barstool Sports via Giphy

The world of video game character animation has vastly improved over the years in almost an incomprehensible manner. The world of virtual reality is making leaps and strides along with accurate motion capture that is making the line between video games and movies smaller and smaller.

While it can be tough to figure it all out, the upside to this is simply the overwhelming amount of content to educate and inspire, from textbooks and guidelines to Youtube channels and blogs.

Now go out there and animate!

For more info about the video game animation industry and being a freelance video game animator, as well as answers to any other questions you might have about game character animation, be sure to follow our blogs, check out our free masterclass, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!

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