From the 80s to Now: The Evolution of Animation in Video Games

Video games have certainly come a long way since the Pong days. Video games are no longer a few pixels on the screen making a basic geometric shape; they're complex pieces of art that take years and years to create. Most video games are rich with story, just like you would see in any movie, and as the technology advances game devs are constantly pushing the limits on the graphics that can be rendered in real-time. For example, 14 years ago it would be impossible to see dynamic hair simulated in real-time, but now games like Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition implement dynamic hair convincingly, without sacrificing the gaming experience. Another very impressive aspect of video game advances come in the form of movement, or the animation. Not too long ago, the character animation consisted of very rigid movements, because a complex rig couldn't be built out without sacrificing the game experience, but that's starting to change as we get into the next generation of games. As the graphics improve with each new video game, so too must the character animation. Fluid and believable animation needs to be created to help push the complexity of the characters, whether that's with hand-keyed animation or motion-capture. The expectations of gamers are increasing as graphics improve and the level of character animation they expect is rising. Complex facial rigs are implemented into games and the use of motion capture creates a whole new level of realism to the experience. In 2014, the level of character animation that's possible in a game is nearly on par with fully animated feature films. Let's dive into the evolution of animation in games and look at just how much character animation is implemented into modern games.

The 80s

[caption id="attachment_31716" align="aligncenter" width="800"]the legend of zelda screenshot © 1986 – 2011 Nintendo. Nintendo properties are trademarks of Nintendo.[/caption] The 80's was the era of arcades. Donkey Kong is likely the first game to come to mind. The animation consisted of a few poses that would switch out for Donkey Kong's barrel throw, and his chest thumping. Mario also had a walk animation that mainly consisted of his arms moving back and forth. Of course, you know how simple the animation was for Pac-Man. In 1987 The Legend of Zelda pushed the animation further in video games with a few attack animations and some unique enemies to encounter.

The 90s

[caption id="attachment_31717" align="aligncenter" width="800"]super mario 64 screenshot © 2014 Nintendo. Games are property of their respective owners. Nintendo of America Inc. Headquarters are in Redmond, Washington[/caption] The 90's saw video games like Super Mario 64 where the graphics took a huge leap forward into the realm of 3D. No longer was Mario a simple flat surface. This meant that the animation also had to take a leap forward, and it certainly did. Gone were the days of a jump animation consisting of a single pose. As you jumped Mario's arms and legs would flail around, and he could even do flips. There was also Metal Gear Solid, which implemented some nice subtle stealth animations. As the new millennium approached, the character animation started to get more fleshed out as video games enter the world of 3D.

The 2000s

[caption id="attachment_31790" align="aligncenter" width="800"]tekken 5 image TEKKEN © 2014 BANDAI NAMCO Games Inc.[/caption] The 2000s saw not only the release of the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, but also the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 came out within that 10 year span. With two generations of consoles, there definitely were more complex animations introduced in each game. There were more unique attack moves and take downs in games like Tekken 5Grand Theft Auto 3 gave you free range to an entire city, allowing you to do just about anything, meaning more and more animations, from punching and kicking pedestrians to hi-jacking cars and driving said cars. As the video games expanded and allowed you to do more, having just a walk and run cycle and an attack animation was not enough anymore.


[caption id="attachment_31794" align="aligncenter" width="800"]middle-earth shadow of mordor image MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.[/caption] With a new generation of consoles, animation in video games has increased tenfold. The hardware is more powerful, allowing for complex rigs giving animators much more control over the characters. The use of motion capture to create spot on facial animation has increased. And games like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor are giving unique animations and facial expressions to every Orc in Mordor. From the early days of video games, you had the 8-bit graphics and rigid movements to go along with it, but it served its purpose, and to you it was the most amazing thing you'd ever seen, a character running across the screen, and their feet actually moving. Looking back on those 8-bit games now, the animation is about as minimal as it can get. When the character shot his gun there was no recoil, no complex dying animations where the enemy would flop and roll on the ground, and the jumping was a single pose that was hit and locked in place. Sometimes, we can take for granted just how much animation goes into modern video games. In the early days of games, there was just enough animation to get the point across, a run animation, jumping (single pose) and an attack. There were no subtle idle animations where the character's hands would flinch, or they would scratch their head like you see in games like The Last of Us. An idle animation wasn't even implemented, when stopped; your character would sit frozen. A reload animation in a first person shooter? One of the first games to implement it was Medal of Honor in 1999. Of course, you could reload, and your gun would go off screen for a moment, but certainly no reload animation. Now if a first person shooter doesn't have a reload animation that is just insane! Imagine playing Call of Duty and you reload without a visual indication. As the game engines started progressing and the tech to run them got better video games would start to implement more and more animation. Now, however, more than ever character animation is a vital part of the creation process. Animation infuses the characters with life, and makes them feel like real living and breathing people. More than just the basic walk, run, attack and jump animations are implemented into the game. Up close facial animation is required, and subtle character traits you would see in animated movies are now being put into video games. The amount of controls on character rigs are being pushed further with each new game, giving the animators even more control. Animation in games has certainly come along way from their early days of a few key poses. With the release of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, you can really see the time spent on the character animations. The amount of unique attack moves and assassinations and the fluidity from a counter to an attack, to a dodge is impressive. When playing the game there are no hitches and the character is as fluid as you'd see in any movie. This is where animation in games is moving.