This talk was really ambitious, attempting to discuss the entire context of animation and story, rather than the mechanics of animation itself. I didn’t take many notes at this point because my phone ran out of batteries, so this is largely from memory. I hope the speakers forgive me if I mixed or left out anything important!
Designing a Performance
Ed Hooks, Acting for Animators Mike Jungbluth, Senior Animator, Zenimax Online
Ed Hooks is an actor who has appeared on screen in over 100 different roles, and is also a renowned acting teacher, famous for his “Acting for Animators” workshops and book of the same name. Mike Jungbluth is a senior animator at Zenimax Online, and organized the whole animation bootcamp. He has worked on a number of games including Elder Scrolls: Online and Call of Duty: Black Ops, and co-hosts the Reanimators podcast.
What is the point of animation? One of the most important goals of animation is to create performances that elicit empathy from the audience towards the character. It’s certainly necessary to succeed at the illusion of life, but that’s only the first ingredient for an effective performance by this metric. A second ingredient is distance.
To evoke empathy, the player must have a certain amount of distance from the character -- it’s not possible to empathize with yourself! The speakers brought up one of the first scenes in Wall-E, when he watches a movie of two lovers having fun and holding hands. He wants to experience the same feeling himself, and looks for someone to hold his hand, but there is nobody else, so he tries to hold his own hand. It’s sad, because it doesn’t work: he can’t connect with himself in that way. However, we, the audience, empathize with him, because we have the distance needed to establish that kind of connection. Additionally, we see him empathizing with the human characters he sees in the screen, and his own empathy opens the door for our own.
Games have a special challenge because we are often controlling the character that the writers want us to empathize with, and like Wall-E holding his own hand, it just doesn’t work. We don’t have distance. They try to establish this distance through cutscenes, but that is usually clumsy, and not very effective -- we need more real-time and in-game tools to enable empathy.
So how do we create an empathetic NPC? We need them to have goals and personality and all of the other characteristics of an actual character, no matter how simple. In Skyward Sword, there is a shopkeeper that bounces excitedly and claps his hands as you approach, eager to make a sale. If you walk away, he slumps down, defeated, and slowly trudges back to his bench. Two animations, and a state change, and we have a more empathetic NPC than most!
Similarly, the Big Daddies in Bioshock are usually peaceful, but they become enraged if you mess with the little sisters, and that is enough to make them somewhat successful as empathetic NPCs. A common misunderstanding is that we have to understand why an emotion is being felt in order to empathize with it. That is irrelevant! It’s the emotion itself that we respond to, and the transitions between them. If someone is happy and then receives a phone call, and suddenly breaks down in tears -- we can empathize. The words themselves are not important. Characters, emotions, and transitions are the keys to empathy, not plot details.
Instead of focusing on plot points, we should focus on showing character through transitions. If a character is going from A to B, the interesting part is how they move -- not necessarily where they are going or where they are coming from. Do they go in a straight line at a uniform speed? Do they zigzag around, and get lost? Do they stop at each point to take in the sights?
So we’ve discussed NPCs a bit, but what about the player character itself? How do we achieve the distance we need for empathy? One technique is to restrict the choices of the player so that they match the choices of the character. In Metal Gear Solid 4, there are key moments where Snake (and the player) has no choice, such as this scene where he must move through a microwave hallway, while being slowly cooked alive. The plot itself might be ridiculous (why would anyone ever build a microwave hallway, let alone enter one?), but we can empathize with his pain, and with the act of sacrifice for a greater cause.
This confusion about the importance of plot results in games that have far too many words. In games, characters tend to have conversations, where they exchange facts. In good stories, conversation is rare, instead there are negotiations: exchanges of power. The words themselves are not important for good acting. Dialogue itself is very often redundant, unnecessary, and unneeded. Again, Wall-E very effectively established empathetic characters and dramatic scenes without any words at all for the most part. Shadow of the Colossus wordlessly created a strong relationship between the player and his horse just through time and cooperation.
Games tend to rely heavily on the techniques of film, and ignore the tools that are unique to their own medium. One such tool is “adrenaline moments”, putting the player in a situation that is important to their future. This is not possible in games that rely heavily on authored moments, because the experience is not unique, and there is only one possible outcome. However, mechanics and systems can allow for adrenaline moments that are unique to each player, like if you spy a creeper in your carefully-built Minecraft house, or a swarm of zombies in Day Z. We need to start crafting better scenarios that are appopriate for games if we want to achieve meaningful, empathetic performances -- it doesn’t matter how skillfully we craft animations if they are undermined by the context.
There was a lot more, but that’s the best I can do from memory of this talk. Sorry to Ed Hook and Mike Jungbluth if I misrepresented your content! This was the last talk of the animation bootcamp, but I’m really looking forward to the next one. If the stars align, I might even be able to participate myself somehow, maybe discussing practical uses for procedural and physics-based animation techniques.