It’s when you notice the little details in games that they really come alive. Those little things that hint at some sort of existence outside your control or awareness. They could be art props made to suggest who lived in the spaces you’re romping through, or little room layout details that show how the world works, but some of the touches that bring games to life the most come through animation.
This is a celebration of incidental animations that don't help you win or make you lose or do much of anything important. They just happen, and you probably don’t even notice them, or think about how much work they actually took. There’s a madness to incidental animation, that so much effort has been lavished into producing something so ancillary, something which many players might never come across. But it can make the difference between a game feeling right and feeling that little bit off. It’s about conjuring that suspension of disbelief. It’s where the magic is.
This selection of great incidental animation can’t hope to be exhaustive, since it’s simply compiled from the games I’ve played, and even within that paltry selection it’s only the things I’ve noticed, remembered and captured (with some pointers from some friends). But hopefully it’ll give you a new appreciation of the little things.
Assassin's Creed: Origins: Wet Bayek
Props to that special moment when a game nonchalantly plays out a very human response to something you’ve put your character through. Bayek doesn’t complain at you getting soggy, but his little hand and foot shakes give a sense of the person under all the stabbing.
Rise of the Tomb Raider: Wringing out the ponytail
Relatedly, Lara’s attention to her hair after coming out of water is a reminder of the tricky nature of dealing with long locks in extreme conditions. It’s just one of the many little animation details in Rise of the Tomb Raider, but several friends pointed towards it as their favourite and heck, they’re right.
Prey: Q-Beam wobble
Who was it at Arkane Studios who realised, "The Q-Beam absolutely has to comprise three objects which wobble as you move"? They are a genius. Weapons in games rarely passively react as you move around, and OK, that’s maybe because it’s a little distracting, but here in the Q-Beam, it’s wonderful.
Overwatch: Junkrat's grenade launcher
Another delightfully ramshackle weapon is Junkrat’s Frag Launcher. The way all its jiggling bits and pieces move as you walk do a great job of communicating Junkrat’s pegleg limp, and the way the flap on the end of the barrel flips as you fall really gets a sense of momentum across. You can almost imagine how his insane launcher actually works.
Titanfall 2: Alternator
Still on guns (because games are basically guns, right), I just love all the unnecessary (i.e. necessary) movement in Titanfall 2’s otherwise fairly straight Alternator submachine gun. Little bits flick back and forth as you fire, simply to express and celebrate its name. The Alternator was designed by Respawn animator Ranon Sarono, who’s a master of the gun animation form. His showreels and game gun jokes on his YouTube channel are recommended viewing.
Far Cry 2: jammed shotgun
Technically, Far Cry 2’s gun-jamming animations don’t fit our criteria for incidental animation because they directly affect the game, but they’re just so expressive. The sheer annoyance of the player character, as demoed here by Tigerfield, is just wonderful, and completely matches your own reaction to finding your gun suddenly refusing to work.
Far Cry 2: Hand
Far Cry 2’s filled with incidental animation. The way the player character’s hand interacts with the world around you set new standards.
But here’s the real incidental animation gold in Far Cry 2: the fingers change position to turn the watch’s bezel one way or the other. I’m sure Ubisoft Montreal could have designed it more efficiently, and I’m so pleased they didn’t.
Head over to page two for more wonderful incidental animations, including indie Quadrilateral Cowboy, Dishonored 2 and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.