When it comes time to animate your character there’s likely a sort of standard animation set you think about. Those animations that are normally required for the gameplay to function properly. Let’s look at a platformer, for example. For pretty much any character, be they player or enemy, you’ll need an idle, a horizontal movement, a vertical movement, and some sort of action. For a humanoid player character these most commonly come in the forms of standing, walking/running, jumping/falling, and likely an attack. And there may be a few others you think of, such as crouching and crawling and climbing and pushing. The original Mega Man’s a good example of this simple setup:
“Wyv and Keep”‘s heroine, Keep, has these standard animations too, plus stuff like carrying and carrying while walking:
Now, this is all fine and good, and most people will stop here with just the required animations. You can breathe a decent amount of life into your character simply by personalizing how they stand, walk, and jump. Smashbox’s main character, for example, has only these basic animations:
The Munter, as he’s affectionately named by David (apparently “munt” is some sort of word down in Middle Earth, I dunno), wears this super mecha suit that’s powered by tubes of green ooze (and is totally not a rip-off of Mega Man’s). This meant his movements had to feel heavy, deliberate, and mechanical. You can see this influence most in his hands and feet, which mimic the human motion of the wearer but in a very robotic, almost hydraulic style. The green ooze tubes themselves help to give this effect as well, as they change very little as they move, giving the impression of a stationary mechanized core that’s pushing the character forward. Munter’s head is the only area we get a glimpse at the man inside the suit, so I tried to take advantage and add a little humanity here. I gave him a determined, mostly unwavering expression to show his drive, his purpose, but took some hard-fought liberties with his hair in order to add a bit of fluidity, light-heartedness, and character flair. Trust when I say the Battle for the Pink Horny Hair was long and bloody, but I think if you ask David now, he’ll admit to liking it.
But SmashBox was a very quick project, and this was all the character development I had time for. The animations succeed at characterizing the Munter a bit, but unfortunately we don’t get much insight into just who he is through them. We have no idea, say, what sort of personality he has, and he becomes more of an avatar for the player than a full-fledged character himself.
Now let’s take a look at Keep’s full sprite sheet:
As you can see, I went a tad outside the standard animation set for her (and Wyv too, of course). As soon as we decided to get rid of the grid movement system for the characters, I was given a lot more freedom to animate them, and I became determined to give them animations for near every circumstance they’d encounter and every emotion they’d experience. This is because Wyv and Keep is a very story and character-driven game, and so both of our heroes needed to be strong personages. Making them very animated would give the player the best possible understanding of their heroes, and hopefully help in making them likable, sympathetic personalities. Here are some of Keep’s more important character-building animations:
Shouting, cheering, gloating, disinterested, fidget, impatient, enamored, talking, laughing, level victory
Now, many of these are simple two-frame loops for dialog sequences, but every one of them is extremely important in revealing qualities of Keep’s personality. She’s a very down-to-business sort of gal so many of her animations show her being impatient or irritated with Wyv. She’s also very fond of her hair so is often brushing or touching it in some fashion, and the hair itself moves and bounces in most of her animations. At times she gets dramatic, and when in good spirits she can be extremely sweet, as when she finishes a level and blows a kiss to the player (in the game a heart actually floats out). Wyv shares many of these animations, but we see them rarely in game because he’s more often laughing, scheming, or exclaiming something silly. Likewise these are animations Keep has as well, but we rarely see.
I’ll get into how to make some of these animations at another point down the line, but my main point today is that you should think about your character’s personality. Rather than thinking of animations as simple tasks to be done and forgotten, you should really treat them as opportunities to be treasured and perfected. What would your character do if you left them standing around? Would they simply tap their foot and wait, or would they retrieve a tasty candy from their pack? When your character talks, do they tend to be silly and in high-spirits, or are they short and to-the-point? Even if your game doesn’t have dialog or cutscenes and animations seem sparse, you can create opportunities for yourself. Maybe your character can have several different hit animations in which you show they overreact comically to pain, or grimace realistically to different degrees. You could give them a special animation when they find something, in which they jump up and down and cheer or simply examine it carefully. When they reach a boss encounter, they could stare up at it and drop their jaw, or they could taunt it and smirk.
None of these animations are necessary to the core gameplay, but they will do wonders for making your character a real personality, and in that, truly giving them life.