Adding Weight to Your Game Design Part 7: Arcs
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Weight is a physical and emotional sensation that people feel everyday. And conveying that in a visual way can be incredibly challenging. But it is something animators do all the time, and the principles they use can be applied to game design.
In fact, it needs to be, as many of these principles are sacrificed by the animator for the good of playability. Thankfully, since both animators and designers have to juggle multiple disciplines to bring their creations to life, they speak much of the same language. They just use a slightly different alphabet.
Each part will lay out the 12 principles of animation, and how they are not only used in animation but how they directly relate to game design. Both animators and designers will realize quickly that many of these are unspoken truths, but the benefit comes in knowing that they can now speak to each other on a deeper level. A level that takes animation and design past being purely functional, but now fully functioning towards creating an honest experience.
It is how both can add an extra sense of weight and purpose to the game and the characters within it. Many of these fundamentals are inter-connected, and it is through a combination of all of these working together that you will have characters that move with weight and emote with weight. And that is what will stick with players.
“It is important for the animator to be able to study sensation and to feel the force behind sensation, in order to project that sensation.” – Walt Disney
Applied to Animation
This is the principle that probably everyone has some knowledge of. One of the quickest ways to rob something of feeling fluid, organic or alive is to move it in a straight line. Sure, straight lines may be the fastest way to get from point A to point B, but they are also the most boring. They are all about the destination, and care nothing for the journey. And that journey is where you find growth and meaning in a character.
In animation, think again of the pendulum. It doesn’t move from apex to apex in a straight linear fashion. It drops in the middle, creating a beautiful arc that gives it weight, and fluid motion. Arcs are what animators love more than just about anything else. It is pure beauty in motion and what makes the movement between key poses fun to watch. The extreme of the arc conveys so much, be it big and grandiose, or small and contained that is impossible not to enjoy the path that gets you there. It shows the personality of the character and leads the eye through a smooth ballet of motion. Likewise, lack of arcs is how you can make something feel cold, weightless and mechanical, which is useful when animating a robot... or Spock.
A page demonstrating arcs during body movement from the Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams. Notice how there are in every part body parts movement, even the hips.
Applied to Game Design
In a narrative sense, this principle is a no brainer. This is the classic narrative arc that everyone learned in grade school. A character or story arc is the fundamental of creating a strong narrative. Every character & story must have progressive challenges that allow them to grow. And as those challenges increase, they reach an eventual climax, which is then resolved.
And in game design, arcs can work much the same way. It means you are starting the player on a journey, or growing a game mechanic organically. As they move forward in the game, it builds, and builds until eventually some sort of resolution is required to make it feel complete. Often times, this means adding more power or functions to the mechanic until it maxes out. But at a certain point, you need to know when to pull back on how much is too much, and allow the player to digest everything you have given. As this mechanics arc is pulling back, the player will feel comfortable, and more than willing and capable of digesting the next mechanic's arc. Arcs are what link everything together towards a complete and final point, as well as how you create beautiful and flowing overlapping action. But be aware of the staging of your arcs to make sure that the one with the biggest arc is the most important at that moment or to the overall game. Everything else needs to have smaller arcs that will not compete, but flow seamlessly compared to the larger one.
Notice the hierarchy of each arc and how the smaller help to hold up the main story arc.
If every enemy, weapon and level can have an arc, no matter how small, they will feel far more connected to the world they reside in. And it will give each their own history and experience, making each feel like a fully functioning element of the gameplay experience. In most cases, this already happens on a regular basis. When you encounter a new enemy in a game, there is usually a unique intro for them, which is the beginning of the arc. You then fight them, through different attacks and stages, until finally you defeat them, which is the climax. At which point, you want a death or surrender that matches the arc leading up to it. This works exactly the same with puzzles. You establish the layout and tools. You allow the player to face each step of the puzzle, growing the challenge, until they complete it. And just completing a satisfying puzzle is often times the resolution to the arc for the player. If built up properly, and fluidly, then the resolution will resound strongly for the player.
But remember, when leading a player through an objective or level, that the straight path will always feel the most mechanical. Let them feel the organic flow of an arc as they go through a level. Like a roller cost, let the dips take their breath away while the hills make them hold it. But keep the arcs clean and fluid, so that it feels effortless. Because the arcs are where the beauty lies and different points in an arc carry different sensations of weight. The moment you nail the arcs is the moment you can get lost in the motion and just naturally feel it flowing throughout everything you do. And that is the moment that the player and the game become a seamless unit.
Next : Part 8 - Secondary Action