What’s in a Pose?

17 Nov What’s in a Pose?

Tameem Antoniades


Sometimes, it’s the seemingly little decisions that are the tricky ones.  I came across one this week when deciding on a combat pose for Senua.  Surely a simple combat pose shouldn’t be a tricky decision?

Striking a Pose

Now that we know the approximate camera framing for combat, we just needed to find a cool pose to frame Senua and the enemy.  I asked Jitaik to come up with a bunch of poses that might look good.  He set up a few in Maya for me to look at. Here I talk through the poses:

This is the one that we liked the most:


We liked that it was unconventional and loose. We liked the 3D effect of the sword coming towards the camera and how it framed the enemy.  But it was at about this point that I started to worry.

Posing is a Big Deal

The default combat pose is an important one.  All combat animations need to take the pose into account and be able to return to it.  I remember a time on a previous game where the publisher asked us late in development to change the default combat pose.  This involved changing dozens of animations, nearing a hundred, in fact.  It took weeks and everyone was groaning and moaning throughout.

Another reason you have think about this carefully is the unfortunate reality of striving for responsiveness: animation snapping. The more responsive you make your game, the more you will have to deal with animation snapping as the character switches from one animation to another as fast as possible.

Response vs Fidelity

Many games over the years have tried to avoid animation snapping at the cost of responsiveness. The first example of this I can remember was stunning.  It was Prince of Persia on the Amiga:

Despite the lethargic response times, understanding the rhythm and motion of the character was in some ways part of the gameplay challenge. This influenced the controls and animation style of various games going forward including the very first Tomb Raider, the Prince of Persia remake and Assassins Creed.

It was in this spirit, that we had accurate foot placement and animation blending in our own Heavenly Sword and in Enslaved. We got some stick for that.

With DmC, Capcom was not interested in making the character animation blend smoothly. All they cared about was the responsiveness and so we let the animations instantly snap rather than blend. I worried that people would complain about this but, in fact, there was near universal praise at how responsive the combat in DmC was.

It is a hallmark of Japanese games to put responsiveness over visual fidelity of animation blending especially when compared to western developed games.  I believe that prioritising response is absolutely the right way to go and that, given a choice between response and fidelity, you should always pick the former.

Feedback Forgiveness

If you saw the level of snapping you get in games in a CG movie, it would look obviously glitchy but not so in games. Why is that? There is a curious psychological effect, which I arbitrarily call Feedback Forgiveness that happens when you push a button or push the control stick.  As long as you get an immediate response, all else is forgiven, and the glitches do not even register in the players mind. But there is a limit to this forgiveness. If the poses you are snapping between are too extreme then it stands out and takes you out of the Feedback Forgiveness zone.

Mitigating Snapping

To help stay in the zone, there are a few things you can do.  Number one, choose a default pose that can easily transition to all of the most common animations.  So for combat, all initial attacks, hit reactions, blocking, evading and so on must all start with the default pose in mind.  This is why it is so important to pick the right pose.

Beyond this, you can help hide snapping with secondary animations on the character.  Physics-driven animation like hair and cloth can help hide the extreme animation snapping quite effectively.  But if you can make snapping feel ok without relying on this, then it will look silky once you do have these elements in place.

Reality vs Fantasy

There is another factor in play: how real vs cool do you make the pose. I do not know how the Pictish Orkney Celts posed for combat. So we have to invent one that feels right for the character we want to portray.

Now combat in movies and games has nothing to do with the reality of combat. Take this video that purports to show a realistic recreation of Viking combat:

It’s certainly very interesting and it feels real enough but it is a stark reminder that reality is seldom attractive. That’s why magazine covers are photoshopped to hell and back.  Now compare it, on the other end of the scale, to this fight in Hero between Jet Li and Donnie Yen:

Clearly, that wasn’t how people fought but it has a very specific style and feeling that is totally in keeping with the fantasy of the movie. Again, that isn’t where we want to take Hellblade.

With Hellblade, we want our combat pose to feel like it could have been real while retaining the style of fantasy we were pursuing.  Too real and it wouldn’t be exciting. Too fantasy, and it would be less immersive.

Revisiting the Pose

Ninja Theory’s lead animator, Guy Midgley, happens to be a black belt in Ninjutsu so I asked him to take a look at the pose I picked.  He immediately felt it was not practical: too exposed to be functional, and difficult to attack or block rapidly.  He took me through a few more poses:

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This pose, which was more closed, felt cool to me:

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But when you look at it from a game camera perspective it looks like this:


It doesn’t frame the action nearly as well as the impractical pose.

Nevertheless I did a straw poll with the team to see which of the two people preferred. The results were evenly split and a big old open ended discussion ensued without a clear conclusion. Some liked the open pose simply because it looked cool, others liked the closed one because it looked more practical.  Melina captured some of the discussion in progress:


I enjoyed this debate very much, it’s the kind of thing that makes game development fun but it’s time to move on.  In the end, it doesn’t matter too much which we pick as long as we are moving forward.

Jitaik offered a pose last thing on Friday for me to look at.  It was the closed pose but with a tweak. Instead of resting the blade on the forearm, it was raised above the head:


This is clearly a “movie-pose” but it was closer to a real pose.  Perhaps it isn’t as cool as the open pose but from it you can attack and block with minimal movement which will help avoid jarring snapping and stay in the Feedback Forgiveness zone.

It perhaps looks a little Ninjutsu in nature but I feel that Senua needs to have a technical edge over the barbaric Vikings she is fighting. The pose helps emphasise that she has mastery over technique that the Vikings lack.

And as for the open pose, perhaps we can still use it.  We intend to have charge attacks in the game that do leave you exposed and this is perhaps an ideal pose for it.  So we’ll push ahead with this pose but I’d be interested to hear what you think in the comments below.

Till next time

  • Martin
    Posted at 16:52h, 17 November Reply

    I like the pose you’ve chosen, but my favourite is the practical one. I would love to see all these poses in game anyway, in form of some kind of stances like in HS. That was first thing I thought of when I watched the first video. Anyway, looking forward to Hellblade. Good luck!

  • Brownie_USSR
    Posted at 17:09h, 17 November Reply

    Do not hesitate, as the selection is great – a happy medium so to speak! You are moving in the right direction – very long to see other movements and postures of the protagonist.

  • Kevin Nguyen
    Posted at 17:36h, 17 November Reply

    I agree with Martin in seeing multiple poses during the game as well simply because different stances help in different situations and scenarios but if you want some realism certain stances are required for certain weapons not just a spear compared to a sword to say but different swords have different balance points and different weight/uses like a katana is more of a slice motion type weapon vs a blade that is straight and used for puncturing the opponent as much as hacking at them. This should also be taken into account I do not know the specifics regarding the weapons nor fight style the game will precisely have but this is just my opinion when it comes to stances for the protagonist.

  • Dewi
    Posted at 17:53h, 17 November Reply

    Another insightful blog post! I like the pose you’ve chosen, but I can totally see how the other one (the impractical one) would be easier to use for charge attacks. I never realized that such a small detail would need so much attention, but now I understand its importance. I never really thought about it, but I guess now I know why I vastly prefer any responsive action game like DmC over the combat in Assassin’s Creed, which just feels extremely slow.

  • Arijon
    Posted at 18:05h, 17 November Reply

    I think the practical pose is the best, maybe because I’ve never actually seen it before. It may look perhaps too real but it still looks exciting and gives the appearance that she does know how to use a sword..

  • Shezza
    Posted at 19:48h, 17 November Reply

    The first pose up there everyone likes is actually the best one, it really suits Senua. Also for the last pose, even though it doesn’t give off that barbaric vibe, the ‘technical edge’ makes it more interesting instead of sticking to one dull theme.

  • Zura
    Posted at 20:45h, 17 November Reply

    Thank you for this nice blog post! It would be nice having multiple stances to choose from. But if I had to pick just one, I would go with the practical one.

  • Brian Reynolds
    Posted at 21:09h, 17 November Reply

    I would strongly urge you guys to check out Warframe if you haven’t: with its over-the-shoulder camera and heavy (and surprisingly deep) melee combat, you might find lots of ideas and answers.

    Warframe answers the question by allowing you to equip different stances for different weapons. I imagine this would mean more work for you, more coding, more animations, but with an emphasis on responsiveness and snapping maybe it wouldn’t require as much coding so much as raw data (just a longer list of attack animations). Not sure if there will be multiple weapons, but even if there aren’t, the option of multiple stances, especially that could be switched between on the fly, might broaden the combo possibilities while also emphasizing Senua’s combat mastery.

    All of that said, I think the open pose has a very threatening look, and it looks good for framing. The more practical pose looks like it would fit well for when enemies draw closer, or when you’re blocking, or “guarding” (if there’s some sort of counter system that requires holding a button down — i.e., the “aiming down the sights” feature in shooters, where the camera focuses in). Warframe also features this, and the poses in general are strikingly similar to what you have come up with: a more open pose when the weapon is drawn, with the closed/practical pose for blocking (in Warframe it’s used for blocking projectiles).

    It might simply be that the two poses, both of which look great, could be two different stances, offering players a choice between slower, heaver attacks that leave themselves open (the first pose) and tighter, faster, but weaker, attacks that allow for better defense. Given the fifty/fifty split in your team, perhaps it suggests you might be best off finding a way to incorporate both stances in the game? After all, the snapping between animations should allow for a smoother integration of both styles.

  • André Vila Franca
    Posted at 22:03h, 17 November Reply

    I loved the CLOSED POSE, looks really cool and it feels very technical!
    SUGGESTION: why don’t you incoprporate more poses, maybe we could change them and depending the pose you choose the movements of the attacks would be different.

    Keep up the amazing work. I’m with you!!

    • Sérgio Nehama
      Posted at 19:08h, 25 November Reply


      We had already different move sets and poses in HS, maybe some form of it here. Anyway, i would love the possibility to use the open pose to boost attack sacrificing defense and the closed one for the opposite effect or something of the sort.

      that is one of the problems i had with Shadow of Mordor: its always the same moves, it gets old really fast. I’m really hoping you guys add some sort of strategy layer on top of all that

    • Muneeb
      Posted at 23:12h, 09 May Reply

      Agreed. I absolutely loved the combat system in DMC and lost count of story completions. The possibilities opened up just by switching between weapons (or maybe fighting styles, stances in this case) were part of what kept things fresh.

      In terms of preference, I like the open pose if you guys need to choose one to rule them all, purely for cinematic value. Although I would like to see my controller functions multiplied by stances, possibilities even if there are no predefined combos, they can be created more imaginatively this way.

  • Stefan Köhler
    Posted at 00:28h, 18 November Reply

    I feel like the pose you’ve chosen looks like it would be too tiring to maintain over a long period of time, so that makes it a strange choice for a standard pose IMO. I mean, I imagine that sword to have quite some weight to it and holding that weight over your head for long amounts of time would surely get tiring quickly and it looks kind of uncomfortable, too IMO, even more so as she’s holding the sword with only one hand.

    I much prefer some of the other poses you’ve had Guy do, like the one where he’s resting the hilt on his thigh with the blade pointing forward and upward. I guess you’d have to tweak it a bit to make it look good from the in-game camera perspective but that feels more like a pose that’d be believable for someone to hold for a longer amount of time and keep going back to throughout a fight.. The one where he’s holding the sword behind him, pointing at the ground, and the one where’s got the hilt next to his head with the sword pointing upward also look cool (but I suspect the latter one wouldn’t work because only a small part of the blade would fit into the frame and that would look weird).

  • Joana Ramiro
    Posted at 01:16h, 18 November Reply

    Hellblade is looking good so far. I love that you are allowing us to see all this – I find it absolutely fascinating. Thank you.

    Now, as to my feedback about this particular subject, I can only offer you the insight from a writer’s perspective, as it’s what I do best. Senua’s combat style will be heavily influenced by her personality.
    A character who values her life and wants to stay alive at all cost will be more mindful about her actions and protect herself often – so she won’t be too reckless when she attacks; a closed stance suits her better.
    A character who doesn’t value her life will be someone (probably) more focused on revenge. Someone with a mindset like “I will die in this fight but I’ll take you down with me,” is more reckless. This character will focus more on attack than defence and would be more brutal than someone fighting for her life. A more opened (and less practical) stance suits her better.

    I hope my feedback helps in some way and I’ll look forward to read and see more of Hellblade.


    • Sérgio Nehama
      Posted at 19:10h, 25 November Reply

      Your’e right, not all fights are the same and not all moments of the fight are the same. If i’m fighting that super tough boss and he is about to die, even if my health is low i would go berserk if i had the chance..this won’t play like demon’s souls and the gang, so there is that

  • Isaac Taylor
    Posted at 01:32h, 18 November Reply

    I like the end pose you chose. It looks like it has technique mixed with brutality. Also, just a brief observation. Please make sure the combat doesn’t get repetitive. The types of enemies should vary widely. I also like the camera placement very much. I love how close the camera is to the character. It just feels right.

  • Vova Vdovichenko
    Posted at 01:49h, 18 November Reply

    Great post. I didn’t even think how much work can be undone if you decide to redo seemingly such a small thing as a default pose. I really liked the practical pose, I felt it was more defensive, but threataning and cool looking. I don’t know how the combat will flow, but I think if the fighting is at least based in something real then it will look really convincing and show how skillful and more technical Senua is. Thanks for sharing these posts, I love ’em. Can’t wait for the game!

  • André Rogers
    Posted at 02:29h, 18 November Reply

    I think the pose you’ve chosen is a happy medium between the two splits. The closed pose was cool until the in-game camera view was shown and, for me, it just killed the composition. It looked a bit cluttered around the character’s head too. With the pose you chose or even the other more open pose it not only frames the action better but you might be able to see some cool details on the character herself without them being blocked. I guess we don’t know what her final design looks like for certain but my favorite thing about 3rd person action games is that you see how cool the character looks when they do stuff.

    On a similar note, do you apply a similar process to deciding how the character looks when walking/running outside of combat? In Heavenly Sword, believe it or not, I spent most of the game walking rather than running because I loved the characterization you guys nailed with the walking animations, especially with Kai.

    Looking forward to this game!

  • Maria Bucceri
    Posted at 04:20h, 18 November Reply

    You don’t know what it means as a fellow Martial Artist alongside Mr. Midgley how much it touches me that you all are so engrossed with combative accuracy. It’s what makes Ninja Theory so impeccably unique and beautiful. So for a tip on stances, with the camera angle some were clearly not that great, but perhaps you change the angle of the camera with certain opponents that way you can use those? If you’re really bent on using them. OOO!! And also, for a realistic part, when fighting certain opponents have certain techniques (I think in the game world it’d be combos then) that include pressure points or something else of the like. This could be a part of the skill and mastery that she with holds compared to the average Vikings.
    Looking better with every upload! Ecstatic for the next!!

  • Artiom Buchkowsky
    Posted at 08:05h, 18 November Reply

    Of course, finding the spot between realism and fantasy can be a tricky endeavour, but referencing one of the old manuals on fighting with longswords can go a long way towards ensuring the right feel for the game. A great resource would be wiktenauer.com , a site dedicated to posting and translating/transcribing the manuals. There are only so many ways to hold a sword, after all.

    Oh, and for some more interesting sword and shield combat, I’d recommend looking up Roland Warzecha’s videos on youtube – particularly the one where he describes the use of a viking center-grip shield.

  • Niccelson
    Posted at 14:03h, 18 November Reply

    I like how the final “closed” pose has Senua’s left hand open: it gives a lot of versatility with animations that aren’t sword attacks. Anything from a taunt, a grab-counter, consumables, secondary weapons or even a magic system if you felt like diving further into the supernatural side of the world you’ve envisioned. That said, a two-handed pose still gives a greater impression of weight behind any potential attacks that flow from it in my opinion. My default instinct would be to have two default poses, (one for fast attacks with no recovery/cool-down animations and one for strong attacks that do stop the continuous motion for a moment afterwards) with the character model reverting to the one that corresponds to the last attack the player made.

  • THA
    Posted at 15:52h, 18 November Reply

    After seeing the demonstration of the closed pose and how you can block every angle with it the pose registered in my mind as the “professional” way (= cooler). This lessened the negative aspect of the framing greatly. Also it goes along with the design of Senua (practical, not too beautiful).
    I would go with this pose given there is a cutscene that explains it. either she is teaching someone or in a fight where she blocks all the attacker’s strikes before finishing him.

  • GCH
    Posted at 20:06h, 18 November Reply

    I have to say that those poses where the Blade is pointed at the enemy above the shoulder are looking the most threatening and propably give you the most feel of power. And I think that is the most important aspekt at least for the gamer! I Like the last (first) one the most and right after thet the one where you said it does not frame the action very well!
    Hope I could helped and looking forwoard to the next steps 😉

  • morgan howell
    Posted at 12:01h, 21 November Reply

    in regards to your concerns with snappy animation i thought i should point out that i saw a developer video from naughty dog about the last of us where the guy who animated the combat was saying he was experiencing the same problem, his solution was to hide the snapping with camera shakes from the impacts of the characters attacks, not sure if this advice would be helpful but i thought it was a pretty clever way to address the problem as you can have snapping animation that essentially goes unnoticed…..

  • Henri Eberhard
    Posted at 12:43h, 21 November Reply

    that debate was interesting. I like stylized combat as much as realism but here I take the opinion of realism for one of the same reasons that are in the conclusion,

    “It perhaps looks a little Ninjutsu in nature but I feel that Senua needs to have a technical edge over the barbaric Vikings she is fighting. The pose helps emphasise that she has mastery over technique that the Vikings lack”

    to me that technical edge is efficiency, and that has always been over looked in stylized combat.. stylized combat is not technically really good in that sense. and although this might, for some, appear to make her character seem technically ahead of the curve from her viking opponents, it is not indicative of actually being a good swordsmen and so she, to me at least, appears a poor swordsmen. though I know that the way things feel is important, and as important or more than authenticity but it deepens what the game is going for, but I guess that doesn’t necessarily matter so long as the combat is consistent with the game world. I mean no one questions DMC of not being realistic enough or that its characters are technically bad at sword fighting.

    it depends partly on whether the game aiming to be stylized and cool, or realistic and immersive, or some where in between? I’m not sure and its hard to make an opinion on the combat stance or anything at that if you don’t have a vision of the game as the dev’s do, and the considerations that should be made, even with the amazing insight that hellblade’s development gives.

  • Asuka Jr.
    Posted at 04:56h, 27 November Reply

    As I was watching the video, and especially when you mentioned his training in ninjutsu (explained why it looked familiar- and made me wonder WHO’S ninjutsu he has studied – Hayes/Hatsume?), it brought to rapid focus one particular point:
    Be cautious about HOW ninjutsu you try to make her combat. Video game combat, by nature kind of HAS to be flashy, but ninjutsu is NOT a martial art (thus NOT flashy), but is a combat style. Movement is truncated, and strike/defense is streamlined to such an extent that a tremendous amount of action can occur in such a fashion that it’s almost unable to be fully understood. If you watch some videos of Masaki Hatsume in demonstration combat, you see this often, where you see the result of the attack/defensive move he performed, but it was so streamlined that without slowing it WAY down, you can’t even tell WHAT he did…

    I think it’s great you guys are sharing all this process information, and letting the community comment as you go. I’m really looking forward to how things progress, and really look forward to Hellblade! Keep up the great work!

    Loved Heavenly Sword, and it looks like Hellblade is shaping up to be a blast!

  • David Zamora
    Posted at 15:50h, 27 November Reply

    As you said: “Too real and it wouldn’t be exciting. Too fantasy, and it would be less immersive.”. The first pose was too boring or “real”, but the second one actually seemed uncomfortable or “fantasy”. The last pose fits perfectly between both descriptions.

  • LadyLemon
    Posted at 04:16h, 11 December Reply

    I agree that some times the real stances can’t look better than the ones we see in movies. I’ve practiced different martial arts in my life, and it’s really difficult to make it look good if it’s being effective XD

  • Michel
    Posted at 02:33h, 25 January Reply

    Very interesting post! I really like the detail of thought you put into combat/the standard pose. It seems that you use a different aproach to combat than in enslaved or heavenly sword. In another post I said that I feared combat to be too much like in those games, say, too anime like. I am happy to see the direction it seems to take in hellblade.
    By the way, I think that both movie examples look unrealistic. In both you can see that the combatants don’t really try to hurt each other.
    Keep the good work going!

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