There’s a very good chance that the last video game you played featured a lot of animation. Of course, it’s not a guarantee. If the last game you played was somehow a text adventure, you likely saw little to no animation. However, it’s safe to say that a majority of video games rely on some degree of animation to communicate visual information to the player. Whether a character is attacking or simply idling, animation can directly contribute to the “feel” of a game.
Animation Across Different Genres
It’s somewhat obvious, but worth noting that the importance of animation and the impact it has on gameplay will differ depending on a game’s genre. For example, a visual novel can contain animation, but is absolutely not a necessity, as I’m sure most will agree that the text of a visual novel is of the greatest importance. In fact, in my review of Witch on the Holy Night, I praised the presentation for what it was able to accomplish with little to no animation. Including animation is a great way to show off the production quality of a visual novel, but it will not make up for lackluster storytelling.
It’s a bit of a spectrum. Animation can greatly enhance games in genres such as turn-based RPGs or strategy games, but it is possible to make these types of games with minimal animation. In these cases, what’s important is how the animation is utilized. There are times when animation can be detrimental to a game experience. As animation can take a lot of work, it’s important to carefully think about how to implement animations.
Video game animation starts to become incredibly important when games incorporate real-time elements. Animation data is a vital component of nearly every fighting game ever made. If the animations in a fighting game are poor, it will likely feel awkward to play. This will be something I will explore more in-depth a bit later. Anyways, while the importance of animations will differ between genres, they are often important enough that you want to get them right.
Conveying Information to the Player
Animation is a great and often vital tool in communicating information to the player. If you were playing Elden Ring but everyone was T-posing all the time, it’s safe to say that you would have a miserable experience. Without the animation, you don’t have the visual information required to play the game. This is why action-focused titles with poor animation can feel clunky and frustrating to play. If an enemy doesn’t properly telegraph the information you need, I wish you good luck with reacting.
Animation can convey information for players outside of combat scenarios. It can tell the player quite a bit about the characters that inhabit a game world. This can be important to get right in RPGs or games where the narrative is a high priority. Body language, facial expressions, and gestures can do a lot to inform players of a character’s personality or mood. If these animations are awkward or don’t match up with the character, it can kill the sense of immersion, unless done intentionally.
There are several ways animation can feed information to the player. In strategy games, animations can be used to inform the player as to what units are doing. It helps manage your units faster than if there was little to no visual feedback for unit activity. Besides this, there are likely tons of very innovative ways of using animation that I will miss in this article. My main goal is to give an idea of how important animation can be for many games.
Real-Time Combat Animation
Many animations in action games and fighting games can be split into three phases. First, there is a startup phase. This is where an attack or other action begins, and an opponent may have a chance to react to the animation being played. After the startup portion of the animation is complete, the animation has now reached its active phase. As you can probably guess, this is where the effect of the animation occurs, whether it is dealing damage or doing something else. Finally, there is the recovery phase of an animation, which can sometimes leave a character vulnerable to enemy attacks.
These phases are generally not distributed evenly in an animation, nor should they be. Depending on how powerful a move is, it’s wise to consider how much time you should give to each phase. This is why attacks with a quick startup and/or recovery are generally weaker and attacks with a slow startup and/or recovery are generally stronger. However, no matter the speed of an animation, each phase should be distinguishable. If the player doesn’t know when the startup ends or the recovery begins, it can lead to a frustrating experience. This is why it’s incredibly important to prioritize animations when making an action game.
Animation can have other important uses in combat systems as well. For example, in most modern shooters, the player will eventually be required to reload their weapon. The reloading animation will leave the player vulnerable until it is complete or canceled (if possible). If you have played the recent Resident Evil 4 remake or the original, you probably know this all too well. There’s a reason why you have the option to upgrade the reload speed of your weapons as you progress through the game.
Turn-Based Combat Animation
Animation often doesn’t matter as much in turn-based combat systems. In fact, sometimes these combat systems can benefit from limited animation. If animations take too long to complete or can’t be skipped, it can hurt the pace of combat encounters. They might look cool the first few times you see them but might become irritating after you have seen them over one hundred times. This is not to say that turn-based combat systems should skip animation altogether (although some have and are fine without it), but it’s worth considering how the animation of these battles is approached.
Animations for normal attacks or common actions are best left brief. There isn’t really a good reason to continuously take control away from the player for simple actions. However, it might be worth doing more extravagant animations for actions that are rare or require significant player resources. It’s still a good idea to make sure actions feel distinct from each other.
A bit of animation can make some browsing menus feel a bit more lively as well. Simple idle animations for characters can work well, but some games such as Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes it a step further and has characters move around while the player picks their next action. Persona 5 also does a great job of adding some animation and stylization to its UI to make things pop a little bit more. Elements such as these can make a turn-based combat system feel a bit more “modern” and can help attract new players to the genre of turn-based JRPGs.
Bringing a Video Game Character to Life
If you want your game to have distinct characters that players will remember for years to come, animation can go a long way to helping you achieve that. Sure, writing a character well can be pretty important, but great animation on top of an equally great design can sell a character immediately. It doesn’t have to be a particularly complex process either. Even a simple animation such as the classic example of Sonic’s sprite staring at you while he taps his feet, waiting for your input, gives the player a solid impression of his personality.
One of my favorite examples of expressive character animation in a video game is from the fighting game series Melty Blood. Kohaku is a maid working at the Tohno Residence, an important location in the visual novel Tsukihime and the Melty Blood games. Due to lore reasons, her character in Melty Blood is quite a bit different from how she is portrayed in Tsukihime. Without delving too much into spoilers, she becomes a very serious character in Tsukihime but is sort of an absolute goofball in Melty Blood. Her whole character works by cartoon logic and that reflects very clearly in her animations.
She uses a broom as her primary weapon and swings it around with a cheerful vigor as if to almost mock her opponents. Despite the pixelated visuals of the original Melty Blood sprites, she still manages to show distinct, exaggerated facial expressions. When you see her animations for the first time, you can instantly tell she is a bit of a clown. Not necessarily every character should be animated in this way, but it’s a great example of using animation to bridge the gap between a character’s personality and their play style.
Realistic vs. Stylized Video Game Animation
A video game with realistic graphics can be gorgeous, but if the animation is lacking, it can break immersion. This is likely why you see several big-budget games put an emphasis on smooth transitions between animations. However, this can come at the cost of the player character’s responsiveness. Long animations that can’t be canceled will make a game feel less responsive and slower to play. This is how animation can directly affect how a game “feels” to play.
However, don’t misunderstand me, slower animations can be a great choice depending on how you want your game to play. If you can’t cancel out of a long animation, it will make the player commit to it. This can lead to combat systems that feel more methodical, where every move the player makes counts. However, if you want to make your game more over-the-top, it may be wise to cut down on realism.
Stylized animation can allow for exaggeration and speed that realistic animation cannot. It’s an easy way to make game characters more readable in their actions and feel more responsive. Squash and stretch can be more heavily utilized to make motion feel more fluid. Animation cancels will look a bit more natural as attempts to appear more realistic are thrown out the window. Stylized animations can work with somewhat realistic visuals, but can look odd without careful consideration.
Some Other Examples of Realistic and Stylized Animation
While I was writing this article, the first trailer for Unrecord dropped. This trailer has generated a lot of attention thanks to its photorealistic visuals. These visuals are impressive, but some tricks are being utilized to make the realism seem more convincing. The bodycam filter definitely helps, but the animation is doing a lot of work here too. Unlike other shooters, the player’s gun is not held statically, which looks a lot more believable. I’m still a bit skeptical about how these very realistic animations will work with the gameplay, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
An example on the more stylized side of things is games made by Arc System Works. If you are somehow not familiar with their work, just take a look at Guilty Gear Strive. It’s arguably one of the most visually appealing 2D fighters out there, and a lot of careful animation work was needed to achieve its look. 3D animation allows for easy interpolation between keyframes, but Arc System Works ignores this to achieve the anime look of their games. These games wouldn’t be able to achieve their 2D look without skipping smooth interpolation.
Something to note is that no matter how much an action or fighting game stylizes its animations, they should still generally be representative of hitboxes or other methods of collision detection. It’s not the end of the world if a few animations slip through the cracks. However, if a game is full of poor hitbox implementation, it will quickly lead to frustration. Having to do the guesswork of where an attack will land doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? That’s because it isn’t very fun. Although it should go without saying that this isn’t necessarily the fault of the animation itself.
Animating a Video Game is a Large Amount of Work
Let me be clear, I am in no way an animator. I have dabbled with animation a bit here and there (and I may do so again in the future), but it would take me quite a while to get to a professional level. However, I absolutely do appreciate the heavy amount of work that goes into animation, and I am fascinated by its relationship with video games. Once a game decides to utilize animation, it often adds a huge workload.
Getting animations right can be tough, and I’ve been able to enjoy games with lackluster animation. However, when a game has stellar animation, it can lead to a game “feel” like no other. Nailing this requires careful consideration of how the animations will affect the gameplay of a game. This is especially the case when it comes to action games. That being said, other types of games still benefit heavily from clever animation.
If anything, I hope this article gets you thinking more about animation and how it affects the games you play. This is admittedly a giant topic that’s hard to cover all in one go. There’s a lot of information on this topic out there, and I suggest that you seek it out. Some of you reading this likely know some of the stuff that I’m talking about, and that’s great! At the end of the day, I just want to spread my appreciation for the intricacies of video game animation.