I've written previously on the importance of finding unconventional inspirations for video games. I thought I'd share some of mine. These are videos I find myself returning to again and again, sometimes years after I first watched them.
Watch how much emotion these artists are able to wring out in just seconds of video, without saying a word. That's something we in games can do, and should aspire to. Indie-minded friends, we can go WAY weirder.
1) You Belong to my Heart
First, something from my childhood. Something Disney managed to release during the Second World War as a goodwill message to Latin America. I think it's fair to say that Disney is a company that banks on nostalgia, but this is so strange it's never mentioned anywhere. I'm talking about The Three Caballeros.
Here's Dora Luz and Donald Duck singing a song called "You Belong to my Heart."
Maybe it was the limited supply of children's VHS's at my local library, but I never got sick of watching this. I think the desire to collect strange flowers in space never left me, which should surprise no one who's played Gravity Ghost.
Apparently some contemporary viewers were scandalized by Donald's apparent lusting after a flesh-and-blood woman, plus some of the following scenes about a dancing cactus were not exactly in line with wartime morality. But little me didn't care about any of that, because space flowers.
2) Return as an Animal
At the Indiecade independent games festival in 2009, games journalist Brandon Boyer (who would soon be named Chairman of the Independent Games Festival), implored us game developers to incorporate unconventional art styles, unused aesthetics, and general weird stuff into our games. He shared this video, which I'm fond of watching at 3 in the morning. I find it very peaceful. I'm not sure why.
Gaijin games are perhaps best known for their Bit Trip Runner and Bit Trip Beat series, but it was a little-known prototype they released in 2011 that has the boldest aesthetic. Front and center is a flailing, skeletal astronaut, still wearing part of his destroyed spacesuit. I have no idea what the story is, but I was immediately drawn in by the premise.
4) Little Boat
This is a student animation by Nelson Boles. And oh my god, the emotion in this video. It'd bring a tear to a glass eye*.
*An expression I learned from Tom, a wonderful Scottish game reviewer who recently played Gravity Ghost.
5) The TV Show
You can watch this 100 times and you'll still find something new to notice. It's that good. As an example: I've probably watched this 100 times and I just noticed the colors in each scene match the colors of the TV test pattern.
It's rare to find something that makes you want to get up and dance, let alone something that makes you want to simultaneously jump through your TV.
I have no idea what this is, but Keita Takahashi linked to it once and now it is forever with me. Some of Gravity Ghost's unpolished, handmade look owes itself directly to this video. I think there is such a thing as overpolished. If you can't draw a straight line, don't. The wiggly line might be more interesting.
7) Molten Light
Trigger warning: The next two videos may be disturbing for some. There's animated blood, protruding bones, violence, nudity, etc. So if that's not your thing feel free to skip to number 9.
I've been a huge fan of Canadian artist Chan VanGaalen since I was in university. Not only does he write his own songs, he animates his own music videos and invents the occasional instrument. All his work is worth checking out, but Molten Light stands apart. To me it's the story of something so terrible it cannot be undone. Some people sing about love. And some people write songs where the chorus goes "She'll find you and she'll kill you..."
8) WOFL 2106
WARNING: This video gets LOUD. It's VERY sudden. I wouldn't wear headphones (seriously).
Some of the viewers on Vimeo experienced ringing in their ears, so please, turn the volume WAY down.
Okay, ready? It's by the master of the intersection of disturbing and cute, David OReilly.
Well that all got a lot more disturbing than I intended. Let's pull it back to something that's at least a little uplifting.
9) When I Grow Up
I cheated, this isn't an animation. But it tells a fascinating story almost entirely with environment, camera work, and mood.
There's a real gift in being able to take the familiar and everyday and twist it into something disquieting and foreign. Much of the darkness in video games comes from violence, but that's not the kind of darkness that most of us experience in our everyday lives. More common are the mundane horrors of living: family dischord, feeling cast out by friends, worrying about one's level of professional achievement, watching a loved one slip into dementia or disease. These are some themes that video games are just now starting to explore.
There's a scene in this video, no more than two seconds long, in which someone (possibly meant to be the main character's father) looks on with disapproval. That's it. It's riveting.
I suppose that's not exactly uplifting, but hey, at least nobody died. Let's try one more.
10) The Parachute Ending
I considered ending with any of the following videos: Little Twelve Toes, I Say Fever, Don't Go Phantom, and Move Your Feet. But those all sit comfortably in the category of 'music video', without standing as works of animation unto themselves.
Great music videos are not the point of this post. To fit the criterion of 'videos I find myself revisiting over and over', I realized it had to be this one: The Parachute Ending by Birdy Nam Nam.
Once again, we're plunked down into a world that barely resembles ours. But watching this video is the feeling of being along for the ride.
The visuals remind me of playing King's Quest VII for the first time as an 8-year-old, wandering out into the desert, and watching my character die of thirst. Over and over. Until I realized that the playable map was a small island, surrounded by certain death. The only out was to solve the puzzles and survive - which included a terrifying interaction with a red-eyed spectre who the desert had already claimed. All this from a children's game. I was hooked.
I hope you enjoyed these videos, they're a huge source of off-the-beaten-path inspiration for me.
Also, if you haven't already, please consider preordering Gravity Ghost on our brand new store page. For a limited time you can preorder for $9.99 ($5 off the launch day price), and you receive 2 copies - one to give away to someone special.
I promise you: this game will be weird.
This week I finished up a few more animal animations, mostly using the method I described in the previous post (I also touched up the mouse a bit, as promised). Some of the animals were rotoscoped directly from video, but sometimes there wasn't a video of the pose/movement I wanted. My solution: a serious abuse of Google image search.
I wanted an 8-frame animation of a reindeer looking around. So I looked up images of 'reindeer' and grabbed individual frames that looked like they could make up one movement. I didn't even try to put them in order until I had a few of them in Photoshop. And you'll notice a couple of them get repeated.
Not to put a damper on things, but at least one of these is from a recipe website.
I traced frame 1, and used that lineart to align the rest of the photo references. That cut down on the jitteriness. Then, keeping the legs roughly the same, I traced the basic body shape in the rest of the images.
Did you know reindeer and caribou are the same thing? How magical.
I then decided which pair of antlers were the best. Fortunately I had two views of the same animal, one from a side view and one from a slightly turned view. I traced the antlers in both views and used those for the rest of the frames.
Then I colored that sucker in to see if anything needed changing. I adjusted some of the tail, head, and snout sizes - being from different animals, they didn't all match up. I also shaded the background to make sure I colored inside the lines and didn't leave any random marks in the background. Otherwise things looked pretty good.
Reindeer are unique in that the females have antlers too. Thanks for signing up for reindeer facts.
One last polish pass and...
Somebody's ready to eat some lichen!
And here are the rest:
What is this game about, again?
That's it for this week, Happy Tuesday all. : )
Just a quick post today - here's how I made an animation of a field mouse, a creature that I've never tried to draw before (and have probably only seen once or twice in real life).
I wanted to make an 8-frame animation for when something grabs the mouse's attention. It doesn't have much gameplay significance, just a bit of background flavor. This animation took me about 3 hours today, using this handy method I just made up.
First, found a video reference:
Next, I printscreened a frame with the nice side angle I was looking for. Then I traced the basic shape of the mouse.
I traced the same image several times, an old animation trick to keep the character 'alive.' If the character ever stops animating, it 'dies' on the screen and essentially becomes part of the background. That's why nearly every video game character in history has an idle animation (probably - I didn't exactly look it up).
Three splined mice? Sorry...
I wanted the mouse to look around after being startled, so I grabbed a frame where the mouse's head was turned towards the camera and traced it, too.
She cut off their tails with a marquee tool...sorry again.
I also captured a frame where the mouse was sitting up a bit, and used that as the 'startle' moment. You'll notice the mouse crouches down in the frame before he sits up. This provides anticipation and helps makes the movement clearer.
And this is a perfect opportunity for squash and stretch: on the down frame I compressed the line art down and stretched it sideways, and on the up frame I stretched it vertically and compressed it sideways. I also colored in the body to make sure it stayed roughly the same volume throughout the movement. Put all together, it looked like this:
Did you ever see such a sight in your - sorry, it's late, I'm just about to go to bed.
A bit more detail...
And then a bit of shading to give it some depth.
Believe it or not, for the purposes of the game, this animation is nearly done. The mice will never be particularly large on the screen, so I can get away with the shaggy outlines. I'll probably do one more clean-up pass to fix the tail and see if I can make the eyes less creepy. But not bad for a rush job! Now to finish the other animals...tomorrow.
The main character of Gravity Ghost is quite dead. Though her look has evolved significantly, I'm afraid her death was certain from the start. But a dead protagonist creates all sorts of character design problems. Here I'm going to talk about how her design evolved, and the unexpected role that animation played in the process.
I wish I could refer to the main character by her name, but to date I haven't come up with one that really worked. The dev team calls her Gigi (GG) for short, so that's what I'll use here.
My first batch of designs for Gigi all looked a bit like this:
If you look closely you'll see there's actually no character there at all. All we've got is an empty cape, a mask, and some inexplicably lush hair. I was quite attached to this idea that the character herself was invisible, like the ghosts that wear sheets in old movies. But a quick survey among friends revealed that my exciting new character was actually pretty confusing:
"Extremely cute and incredibly weird."
"Is she supposed to be a doll?"
"What's up with her eyes?"
On that last point, my good friend Robin Hunicke of thatgamecompany had the best advice. Without visible pupils, she told me, people would have difficulty connecting with the character. I couldn't have a character be both cold and spooky, and also relatable and empathetic. We connect with things that appear human - deviate too far from that and people start seeing something as "other."
When I tried to drop this sprite into an early version of the game, other weaknesses of the design became clear. From a distance the color palette became muddy, and the lack of a clear profile made it was difficult to tell which way Gigi was facing.
Okay, back to the drawing board. I still really liked the idea of a character whose shape was mostly suggested by draped fabric, a somewhat masochistic idea for a wannabe-2D animator like myself. I returned to my tablet and came back with this.
First thing I learned: apparently hollow blackened eyes are more of a turn-off for people than no pupils at all. But at least this design kept the darker colors blocked towards the bottom of the sprite - I figured that would help with readability, especially if she were running.
I shouldn't have been surprised that she started looking more and more like a Japanese doll, as I was sampling origami paper textures. But I wasn't happy with this one - I felt like the design was getting away from me. I wanted to try and create an original sort of aesthetic. Plus it would've been hell to animate all that detail.
Time to simplify. I hit upon the idea that Gigi could be wearing both a dress and a cloak, where the cloak would imply her arm movement and her dress would cover her legs. I started doing some sketches of a character who was very soft and fabric-y. With pupils this time.
Looking better already. The character is more interesting to look at, despite having less detail. We can read into her actions a little more, and get an idea about her personality.
But how would such a character move? I answered that question by draping a large towel around my shoulders and running through the house. Fortunately I live with three independent game developers, who aren't generally fazed by eccentricities in the name of art.
When I returned from my mission I sat down and drew these.
It was useful to conceive of the bottom of her cloak being a single line that connected her arms. You'd see more of her cloak if her arms were fully extended, and less when her arms were by her sides. I really liked the clean shapes (and later, blocks of color) that were created by her dress and her cloak.
Okay on paper, but how did my new animation look in motion?
Hey, not bad for a first try! But her movement seemed far too stiff - I felt that she had lost some of the playfulness of the sketches. And her proportions were off. She seemed less cute, so I pulled an old cartooning trick and just made her head bigger in relation to her body.
Now that she was the right size, the jerkiness bothered me. I wanted to see how she'd look with a few more frames. Using some photoshop wizardry I added tween frames until I thought her movement was smooth enough.
Hurrah! The tween frames let me see where the animation had problems. Besides the little shuffle when her right arm came forwards, there were some irregularities in the size of her cape and the positions of her knees. I decided to try penning some line art to better pin down where the problems were.
Oof, well that didn't work too well. Trying to pen lineart over a bad animation isn't going to give you a good animation as the output. Time to go back to some basics. Animation is something I taught myself over the course of making games. It was a pragmatic decision: animation is expensive and time-consuming, and I had no money and a lot of free time. Anyway, I remembered a lesson from one of the animation books that I
found acquired legally from a book store. Basically, to make an animation read better, you can add some squash and stretch.
Weirdly, realism takes a back seat when you're conveying motion. Here my beloved ghost girl's head squishes down when her foot lands on the ground, and stretches up into an oval when she's headed towards the height of her jump. It may not seem like much, but look how much the top of the image is stretched down when she lands.
Much livelier. Time to start sketching in the details for real. I added some consistency to her shape, too: no more pointy corners for her hands and feet.
And now for the real nitty gritty stuff. I created these bands of color to indicate the floor, the left and right extremes of her movement, the vertical path of her head, and the low and high points of her head.
Then I started adding some nice vector lines to make the whole thing less shaggy. Here's how she looked when the head was done. The vectorization probably took the most time, as I'd never done it before. To be honest I'm not sure it was worth the trouble, as the sprite is never too large on the screen. Next time I'll probably just paint the lines and hope for the best.
As a final step I came up with a style for her hair and painted it into all the frames. I think by the end the thought of doing any more vector art was just too exhausting.
Once all the lines were in place I decided to try out a color palette. I needed something that was very different from top to bottom, so her orientation would be readable. I did a quick color pass with a light on top, dark on the bottom rule. Here's how she looks in the game as it is now. It's not finished - I have big plans for her hair, and different ideas about colors - but I'm quite happy with how it turned out.
And here's the jumpcycle too. There are fewer frames than the runcycle, but they don't play in rapid succession. Instead, she gradually transitions between these frames over the course of her jump.
And that's it! Leave your comments in the comments.