A Sitting Target is a Dead Duck

Let’s face it: static art is so fifteenth century. The Mona Lisa may be considered by some to be the very height of artistic achievement. And yet it is doubtful that even they could spend multiple hours staring at La Giaconda on their computer screen. Static art still has its place (as background, for example), but what keeps people’s attention and makes an artistic fantasy come alive is movement.

Ever since animation came to adventure games in the early 1980s there has been no going back. Players may forgive a bad plot (although they’ll whine about it on the internet), but lack of animation is a complete turn-off to the vast majority of the gaming public. Accordingly I have allotted more time to animating Curses & Castles than any other aspect of the development process.

I’ll share many examples of my techniques over the coming months, but for now I will limit myself to discussing one of my first and most important animations for this project: my main character’s walk-cycle. A walk-cycle is an animated loop that plays over and over again as a character moves across the screen. In a game as large as Curses & Castles Princess Porphyra will do a considerable amount of walking, and therefore that animation will easily be the one that players see most. Therefore I wanted to make it as fluid and eye-pleasing as possible.

The problem was that I am not a professional animator, nor have I studied human anatomy, nor am I a particularly observant artist. As far as my wife knows, I never even look at other women, so my points of reference for this “amazing animation” were virtually nil. Sure I’d animated the occasional walking character in my capacity as a freeware developer, but those were usually ad-hoc affairs with a jolly kind of swagger resulting from happy accident and my willingness to abandon the process as soon as it looked “good enough”; this wasn’t really an option for a project like Curses & Castles where I’d set the artistic bar so much higher.

I did what I always do in this kind of situation where my knowledge and skill-set are completely inadequate to the task before me: I turned to the internet. I studied the walking frames of plump actresses from 1920s movies and read tutorials published by members of the AGS community. I even played with a walk-cycle generator and downloaded some animation software that used “bones” to simplify movement, but nothing seemed to help.

In the end the solution came from watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty with my daughter. After the film was over I moved to shut it off and she begged to watch the credits (we don’t allow her to watch much TV so she considers any such extended screen time a treat). I shrugged and probably went back to reading the magazine I was hiding from her. Then, out of nowhere, this short documentary starts playing, showing how the movie was put together. There was a lot of impressive art work on that movie, but the key thing for me was this dorky guy in tights struggling up a slap-dash film set and flailing about with a broom handle. Then it cut to the brave prince, doing the exact same actions struggling up a rocky slope and fighting the dragon with a sword. Then it cut to the lead animator of the project: “Sure we could have done it from scratch,” he said, “but that’s the hard way.” Of course! A live model to base my character’s movement on!

When my daughter was in bed I got out our old digital camera that takes low-res avi movies and convinced my wife to do a bit of marching for me at various angles. Then I found some free software that extracted frames from avi format movies, and imported that into my drawing program. A little bit of tracing and, VOILA! I had it:

The main movement lines of my wife’s gait, soon to be co-opted by Princess Porphyra.

No, my wife does not suffer from an eating disorder: these are just her main movement lines (I won’t even say bones, since this is a huge simplification). Next I carefully redrew Princess Porphyra over each stick-figure, putting her roughly into the same pose (some concessions had to be made for her cartoony proportions). A little editing of cape and clothes to flow more smoothly and I had my walk-cycle:

Of course the final product has alpha channels that will blend those blocky outlines better in the game, but the motions are the same as you will see in-game.  Sorry for not synching the animations -yes, the princess is walking a bit too fast.

I’ve re-employed this same technique several times for complex movement of human characters in my game so far, although for simple actions such as reaching or speaking I fall back on my creative animation skills. The result (when finished) will be a game full of movement and action: an exciting adventure that players [hopefully] won’t be able to get enough of!

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614 Responses to “A Sitting Target is a Dead Duck”

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