17 Nov What’s in a Pose?
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.
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.
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:
This pose, which was more closed, felt cool to me:
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