I thought I’d write today about something that has been bothering me in computer and video games for many years—decades, help in fact. Exaggerated idle animations, click a problem that plagues even some of the most famous of AAA games.

When was the last time your chest was heaving up and down five inches when you were standing still? Really… try to remember. Or when was the last time you saw someone standing in place with his shoulders bobbing in a constant motion? When was the last time you saw anyone outside the boxing ring stand in a pose with slightly angled knees, forever raising himself up noticeably, only to lower himself back down in an endless dance-like loop? Never, is when you’ve seen this in real life. People don’t do that, and yet it has become one of the most common, and perhaps annoying, tropes in video games.

Idle animations have their origin in the mid 80s, when graphics capabilities of home computers began to improve and with the move towards more realistic imagery, it suddenly became evident that a static sprite of a standing character just didn’t cut it anymore. It looked lifeless and had no personality whatsoever. In response to that, game developers began adding a subtle animation loop to these sprites to suggest the character is breathing. However, “subtle” in those days had a very different meaning than today. Back then a pixel was the size of a Lego brick and with limited technical capabilities, these animations became inherently larger than life. They were about as subtle as a 90-ton steam engine, but we had to make do with them, and we happily did.

But here’s what irks me. It has been 30 years since then, and technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Display resolutions have increased manifold, bringing the size of a pixel down to a mere pinprick, even on the largest of displays. With sub-pixel resolutions in the render pipeline, it is easily possible today to create even the most subtle of movements; movement that is barely hinted at, just the way natural breathing looks like in real life. And yet, video game characters are still routinely huffing worse than a long-distance runner after a 5-hour marathon.

To me it appears as if this is a clear case of “this is how we always did it, so that’s how we continue to do it.” It is strange, but the mentality we typically attribute to people in a rut suddenly makes its presence known in something as “young“ as the games industry? Well, that’s perhaps the second-largest misconception our industry has. It is no longer “young”—hasn’t been in a long time. But that’s a topic for some other time.

Quite evidently, a long time ago, someone proved that a looped idle sprite is more convincing than a static one but it would appear as if no one’s really questioned the validity of it ever since. I wonder how many game developers really spend time thinking about these pumping idle stances in terms of how much is too much. Hasn’t it just become routine to make them big and over the top, because it’s always been that way? Shouldn’t we, perhaps, take a step back some time and reevaluate not only their value but also their aesthetics?

Instead of simply duplicating the same loops we’ve used for years, perhaps animators should begin to question the practice and break the mold. It seems strange to me that the practice still continues, because other animations have matured to such a degree that they have become incredibly realistic and fluid—and yet, the pumping idling breaks your suspense of disbelief every time.

Less is often more in all of the arts and I am firmly convinced that many game characters would benefit from idle animations that were really nothing more than a bit of near-invisible breathing. Especially when you are working in a realistic world depiction it is important to remember that the idea is to give the character life, not to turn it into a spitting cartoon image of itself. And while we’re at it, this may be a good time to get rid of the body-builder idle poses as well. People take on a wide variety of poses when they stand. Take a moment during lunch, sit down in a populated place to eat and just observe.
Take a page from real life instead of simply rehashing those universal animation data from the previous character or game you’ve been working on.

Just take a few minutes to really think about idling and I am certain you could come up with a wealth of realistic-looking animations that are no harder to implement than the cycles that are currently being rehashed ad nauseam.

A character’s hair could blow in the wind if he’s outdoors. No chest heaving necessary—the flying hair alone would give him life. If he’s wearing loose clothing, fluttering clothing would add to it.

Idle animations could even be adaptive to situations in the game. If the character comes out of a battle or has been running, make the idle loop more noticeable while reducing its scale when the character is not exhausted. Find ways to let a character come to life through other means, like the fluttering clothes I mentioned, or perhaps simple huffs of condensing breath in the chilly air.

Note that none of these are fidget animations, which are usually added to break up the monotony. I am strictly referring to the underlying idling, which makes up the majority of what the player is presented with.

I truly believe it is time to challenge the status quo and do away with overly grand idle animations, and make sure the movements of a character standing still are every bit as subtle as the ones you employ or him during the rest of the game.

Your players will thank you for it, I am sure.