Thursday, September 13, 2012

Trials By Fire: Animare

Trials by Fire is a column from D. Bethel whereby two game demos are arbitrarily judged and one is declared the victor.  In actuality, it's a veiled rant.  This edition discusses animation in video games as exemplified by the demos for Dust: An Elysian Tail and Mark of the Ninja.

 Video game animation was created as a means to show that a player was actually doing something.  When games required twitchy precision––thinking especially of landmark platformers such as Super Mario Bros. or Mega Man––animation became a gauge for players, a tool to measure distance and timing.  Some games over the years have shown considerable appreciation for animation; specifically, an attention to subtlety that helps define not only the characters but, by proxy, the world that exists around them.  It’s there the first time a player sees Sonic wait impatiently for the player to act, watching the cloth of Ryu’s gi bounce heavily around his ankles in Street Fighter III, and when your customized Shepard cracks his or her neck and situates those wearied shoulders in Mass Effect 3.

More than that, it’s about world-building which (when done well) helps compel the player to continue playing.  This is especially important in the world of 2D, sprite-based games.  Modern platforms are powerful enough to display games with feature quality animation.  But it’s a dangerous trade-off; games are, distinctly, not feature films (we’ve seen that attempted more than once and the world is still in a collective facepalm) and animation in video games should serve the game rather than the whims of animators (reference the abysmal retail performance of Rayman Origins, a gorgeous and brilliant game that was recently found loose on a clearance table at KMart for $20, just less than a year after its release).  Knowing how much animation is required––and when to pull back––is exemplified by Humble Hearts’ Dust: An Elysian Tail and Klei Entertainments’ Mark of the Ninja.

One of the charter members of Microsoft’s “Summer of Arcade” event this year, what the demo for Dust: An Elysian Tail ends up being is an exercise in indulgence despite being one of the most earnest games ever presented to the public.  As a result, the game presented in the demo––though thoughtful and vivid––feels more like a high-budget sticker book rather than a playable animated film.  The sprites are highly animated and full of character, but that’s it.

The most beautiful game ever freeze frame.

The protagonist and his enemies are big and crisp and move beautifully, but do so in front of a lifeless (though finely rendered) background.  While the character animation is impressive, it’s unsituated and decontextualized, doing little to craft a sense of the world it inhabits.  Compared to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Dust’s most obvious progenitor)––Dracula’s Escher-like castle is as much a character as Alucard (and this was two generations ago)––Dust’s setting echoes from its hollowness.  Furthermore, most of the fine character animation cannot be appreciated because the action tends to end up in a gorgeous orgy of fluid, combo-based action and enemies.  Dust’s creator is rightfully proud of his detailed animation and shows it, but the player is consequently forced to pay attention because the camera is so close to the action it’s impossible to just exist in the game, for there isn’t time to in the demo.  Ultimately, Dust wants to be at least three things: a tightly-controlled action game, a beautifully animated sprite-based adventure, and an inviting exploratory world.  Dust is all of these things, but the sum seems more likely to cause seizures than capture the awe of players because, with regards to animation, everything in Dust happens in the foreground.

What Bambi needed was a ninja fox-wolf-thing.

Blending in, however, is an important part of Mark of the Ninja, another 2D downloadable title that begs to be stared at since it asks the player to closely examine the screen.  Klei Entertainment has a history of great-looking games––such as Eets and the Shank series––but those pale in comparison to Mark of the Ninja.  Where Dust demands that the player pay attention to big, bold sprites upon which a lot of time was obviously spent, the Mark of the Ninja demo eschews any such limitations, and crafts an engaging and fun world of stealth and action. 

Mark of the Ninja, another Microsoft exclusive, revels in animated subtlety which rewards the patient player at every turn.  Like Dust, every sprite in Mark of the Ninja is beautifully animated with a post-Flash methodology (a high-tech cut-out animation method) but, instead, Klei pulls the camera away from the sprites.  The protagonist is shadowed throughout most of the demo (not moodily a la LIMBO, but because he’s a ninja and that’s what ninja do––hide in the shadows), allowing the environment to become a tool in the player’s belt rather than just a backdrop to finely frame murderous actions.  The player must hide from flashlight-toting guards behind flower pots, in doorways, under grates and wait for a guard to walk by so he can be deftly assassinated.

Believe it or not, you play as the rain.

Though the sprites are convincingly and subtly animated, it’s the environment through which the player traverses that makes Mark of the Ninja a much more convincing and successful demo.  No choice seems arbitrarily made, especially in the animation.  For example, instead of having a checkpoint marked with a blob of fluffy, glowing particles that stands out from everything else, a previously unseen portal opens in the building the character stands on (whether above or below) and a small murder of crows flies out into the night.  When peeking up through a grate into a room, the grate slightly tilts up when the player pushes on the analog stick, showing that it is the character doing the looking and not just the player.  This illustrates what video games as as whole are defined as being––an actual interactive experience.

Disco balls are all the rage in Shanghai.
For a world to be interactive, it unconsciously raises the stakes for the player if only because time was taken to make the character a part of the world instead of just a means to destroy it.  With the technology available today, it has to be understood that video game animation is no longer simply a mechanic to show movement.  Now more than ever it embodies the Latin root of the word: animare––to instill with life.  A game is not just its character or its special effects, it is an entire being which needs to persuade in every aspect, a sum composed of its parts.  It makes no sense to spend so much time making the arm the strongest part of the body when the whole thing needs to walk.

The Victor:    Mark of the Ninja

D. Bethel never has time, but when he does, he makes
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  1. It seems to me that Dust looks almost like a game created on a green screen. The actors are crisp and full of life, but the lack of any reality to their environment severely detracts from the experience. This is part of what makes the Star Wars prequels feel There's no physical reality around the actors, and everyone ends up acting in a cartoon world.

  2. Follow up Question to the masses:

    Are there any specific animated moments in your video game experience that stick with you? Anything from small things like waiting animations to, I guess, cinematics and the like would work.

    1. Aladdin on the Sega Genesis is the first game in which I ever noticed "animation" as a thing in games. That is a beautiful game, and worlds better than the Capcom-produced SNES version.

    2. Yeah, Sega Genesis Aladdin is a great example of all of that. Also, the idle animations in Super Metroid show so much with only moving a couple of pixels at a time.