The humble walk cycle. The way a character moves through the world can say a lot about their personality… for better or worse. While it's not exactly the most important component of a good game, walk cycles can afford a lot in terms of immersion: a happy-go-lucky protagonist may move with a spring in their step, while someone grumpier may be more heavy-footed and hunched over like Mr. Hyde. Some walk cycles are done so seamlessly that I don't even notice them unless I'm really paying attention. Others have me sending my character around in circles like a dog chasing its tail, unable to comprehend whatever the hell it is they're doing with their body.
With so many games and an endless number of walk cycles contained in them, it was tough coming up with a list of the best and worst ones I've come across in games. But a rare few are still sashaying through our minds many years later. With the help of my fellow PC Gamer crewmates, here are some of gaming's sassiest, coolest, and daftest ways characters have walked over the years.
Worst: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)
To this day, I'm not entirely sure whether Morrowind's walk cycle is utterly cringeworthy or the most vogue thing I've ever seen. Vvardenfell is nothing but a catwalk, and doesn't our protagonist know it. Despite not really playing Morrowind, the strut is burned into my memory thanks to the aptly dubbed YouTube video "The Morrowind Strut." It's a walk full of purpose, sass and style. That doesn't make it good, but it sure is funny to look at.
Worst: Lost Ark (2019)
I'm not even sure where to start with Lost Ark. I feel like the game deserves a certain degree of 'Korean MMO bullshit' allowance, but within minutes of giving it a go last year, I could not get over how my character strutted around. It's like Smilegate tried to ply Bayonetta with multiple tequila shots and then made her do a walk-the-line test before she could drive. It's one of those walk cycles that's so painfully cringe I lost focus on what I was supposed to be doing, instead taking multiple videos while laughing in pain and bewilderment.
Of course, it's mainly the females who fall foul of the walk cycle curse here in Lost Ark. Their hips and butt sway so wildly they seem completely disconnected from the rest of their bodies. It's so ridiculous that I tried to see if it was feasible to do in real life without flinging myself halfway across the room with every step. It was not feasible. I know it's a fantasy game, but even then some things are a little too out there.
what the fuck is this walk cycle lmfaaoooooooooooo pic.twitter.com/J8jSGLSMIWFebruary 12, 2022
Worst? Marvel's Midnight Suns (2022)
This game already feels so bizarre. I can't tell if Firaxis is begging us to take this ragtag group of Marvel superheroes seriously or treat it like a friendzone dating sim. It definitely leans into comedy at times I wouldn't expect, though there's at least one area where I don't think it intended to be so goofy: the way my character, the Hunter, runs. In their defence, I suppose my legs would also be a bit stiff if I was having to sprint around after 400 years in a coma. But it's definitely giving a bit of 'stick up the butt' vibes, and for once it's the male version of the protagonist that looks way more bizarre than the female version. The two appear to share identical animations and some of them look a little odd on the male hunter's slightly bulkier frame. But in a way it adds to the charm of what quickly became one of the PC Gamer team's favourite games of this year.
Best: Persona 5 Royal (2022)
God, the walk cycles in Persona 5 Royal. It wasn't enough for literally every other element of this game to ooze style—even the pause menus are slick as hell. But the way Atlus handles how each character walks and the juxtaposition of their stance inside and outside the Metaverse is so damn cool. Take Joker in particular. In the real world, he saunters around with his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. Almost as if, you know, he's trying to lay low while he plays phantom thief on probation for assault. On the other hand, his movements inside dungeons exude confidence. He strides around each Palace, with small movements like glove adjustments on the fly while maintaining his lunging pace further emphasising how at home he feels.
The personalities Joker assumes in both still have a baseline coolness to them, it's just that he's able to be far more expressive and cocky when assuming his phantom thief form. I wouldn't have expected anything less than excellent walk cycles for a game as meticulously detailed as Persona 5 Royal, and it's still something I love about the game years later.
Worst: Mass Effect 3 (2012)
I feel like this is the first one that comes to so many people's minds when talking about bizarre walking and running animations. It's warranted. The way Shepherd runs in the Mass Effect series has always been a bit clunky, but the third game seemed to ramp that up to the max. It was a lot nicer to control but the trade-off was Shepherd's legs flying all over the place. It doesn't look all that terrible from the waist up, but everything below the belt is straight body horror.
Once again FemShep takes the brunt of the pain here, with her legs looking especially comical in comparison to male Shepherd. It's particularly noticeable during the opening tutorial with Anderson. She's like a dinosaur trying to drive a little tike's car. My favourite example of it has to be in this video during the prologue though, showing just how goofy the whole thing is.
Best: Untitled Goose Game (2019)
When I thought about games that had interesting walk cycles, a lot of them ended up being animals and four-legged creatures. Games like Stray and Spyro the Dragon have some incredible animations, but the one that came out on top was Untitled Goose Game. Developer House House has such a simple design for its waterfowl hooligan. It has a basic silhouette and for the most part, is a white blob atop two orange feet.
It's quite incredible then that the game does such a fantastic job of presenting how much of a bloody menace the goose really is. The way it waddles, craning its neck to glance at nearby humans before it commits heinous acts of theft and vandalism. The way its wings occasionally sprout out, ruffling feathers. There's a very childlike, goblin quality to the whole thing that communicates so much while maintaining such a toned-down design. It conveys so much humour in its movement and it's no wonder that the game gripped so many people. We all want to be that goose.
Best: Skullgirls (2013)
You probably don't think much about walk cycles in fighting games since they're seen for only a second or two at a time, but they're home to some of the slickest animations you'll see in games. 2D fighters have tons of creative liberty in how their characters can move in a given space, and no fighting game showcases that better than Skullgirls. Every character on the roster has a delightfully unique walk cycle that can give you a glimpse into their personality within seconds. Retired wrestler Beowulf beckons his opponents towards him when walking backwards, while giant orchestral machine Big Band causes the whole screen to shake as he takes slow, heavy steps forward. Painwheel literally crawls along the floor while Squigly enlists the help of her parasite Leviathan to cart her backwards and then daintily tiptoes forward.
The way the entire roster moves is so emotive, just a few frames can give you a good idea of each character's vibe. Skullgirls has such a wonderful aesthetic anyway and it's helped even further by the way each character is portrayed through their movements.
Best: Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2022)
If anyone knows how to make good walk cycles, it's PlayStation's first party studios. You can't have a story-driven cinematic game catalogue without realistic, hyper-detailed walk cycles. Insomniac is the champion here, doing some fantastic animation work on Miles Morales for his spin-off game.
I feel like it would be unfair to call his web-slinging a type of walk cycle, though it looks mighty clean. But when you let Miles drop down onto the wintry New York streets and chill for a bit, you get a rather simple yet expressive walk cycle. Both his run and light jog are rather standard, feeling quite chill like Miles himself. But I love that you can wave and point finger guns at pedestrians with the click of a button, or interact with certain Spidey lovers who'll fist bump you or point you in the direction of a crime taking place. It's not as out there or fantastical as other walk cycles, but I really love how polished it is for how little time Miles actually spends on the ground. Miles Morales is full of those little details that make characters feel alive, and make it seem like the developers thought of everything.