Since 1958, when the game “Tennis For Two” was first exhibited, the question of animated representation entered the field of video game development. How could one represent a tennis match using external electronic inputs from pushing computer buttons? Developer William Higinbotham used an oscilloscope to represent the tennis court, with a bright moving dot acting as a ball. This rudimentary ball animation has kickstarted the development of animation for video games, which then grew to be very different from animation for film and television.
Film animators are able to control the action that takes place in the frame. A completed film will be rendered and mastered for viewing, and once it is on film (or digital file), it will play the same no matter what the production technique was. In contrast, game animations do not ever get finished: whatever is on the screen at the moment is being processed by the machine in real time. In other words, “the digital output has to keep up to the player’s input” (Sanders, 2020), for example, with the rendering of characters, projectiles, and other elements that are not under direct control of the player at the same time as their character. Instead of delimiting specific sets/scenarios where the film will take place and work within those constraints, games have to simulate believable spaces for the player to exist: hallways and empty rooms need to be designed and rendered as the player approaches them. As Jason Schreier (2017) explained, game design is akin to building a railroad while a train is already moving.
Animations have progressed with games but that was not enough for the medium. For a while, computers and consoles could only handle rendering a few elements at a time, with many limitations. As computational power kept evolving, hardware became capable of rendering more elements on screen. This includes other player characters (in multiplayer settings) and more antagonists moving on screen at the same time. In addition, game designers started taking advantage of the new computational developments to add environmental animations to their games: elements that are not necessary for the software to run and respond to player commands, but that add depth to the gaming experience.
Set animations in game design contributed to the discussion of whether video games were on par with other interactive and animated art. While “are video games art?” is an old discussion, many pro-art arguments come from 2000-onwards growing 3D realistic graphics. Yet the presence of set design animations in older 1980s/1990s games occupying processing power from the CPU that could have been used for more utilitarian purposes make it clear that whenever there was an opportunity, game developers would work on making their games meaningful beyond their strict necessities.
Take The Addams Family (1992) for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The goal of the game is to play as Gomez, the father in the show The Addams Family, and rescue the rest of the cast while recovering their mansion. Almost every room you can visit has obstacles moving at once, and the player has to execute several inputs to make Gomez move. Yet, there are plenty of animations that do not affect the gameplay, such as a pair of legs sticking out of the window, that make the haunted Addams Mansion feel
Figure 1: The Addams Family (Ocean Software), NES
Similarly, the classic adventure The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), developed by company LucasArts, was created for the bigger computing capacity of personal computers and implemented more intrincated graphics. Monkey Island takes several liberties to properly represent the rambunctious pirating life of the island: in the tavern, the player immediately sees a character that clearly seems to be important for the narrative based on his animated movements and unique color palette (Figure 2). Yet the player will also notice patrons drinking and cheering in the background, but not being a part of the main quest. Another obvious example of the atmospheric set animation is the pirate spinning on an anchor hanging from the ceiling, out of the player’s reach.
Figure 2: Animation of the cook in The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasArts), MS-DOS
Finally, it’s important to observe that the growing powers of consoles allowed developers to experiment with worldbuilding. For the 1999 Playstation game Legend of Mana, the latest installment of a successful series, developers at Square were delighted with the possibility of making an “open sandbox/diorama” game, in the words of director Koichi Ishii: a game where the player could access adventures in any order and follow major storylines at their own pace. The entire game is intricately hand-drawn, including the map; yet each aspect, land, and representation of the weekday moves around, filling the world with energy.
Figure 3: Legend of Mana (Square), Playstation
Game animation is particular for its ethos: it breathes soul (anima) to what otherwise could be the bare bones of computer programming for a given objective. By examining how the developers used animation to add depth to the players’ experiences of their games, we can appreciate it as its own discipline and explore the effects of elaborate game animation.
“Legend of Mana – 1999 Developer Interview”, Shmuplations. Accessed June 16, 2023. https://shmuplations.com/legendofmana/
LucasArts. “The Secret Of Monkey Island”. Microsoft DOS. 1990.
Ocean Software. “The Addams Family”. Nintendo Entertainment System. 1992.
Sanders, Adrien-Luc. “Animation for Video Games vs. Movies: What are the main differences between the two genres?” Lifewire. February 4, 2020 (Last updated). https://www.lifewire.com/animating-for-video-games-vs-movies-141113
Schreier, Jason. 2017. “Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made.” New York, Harper Paperbacks.
Square. “Legend of Mana”. Playstation. 1999.
Mar Scardua is a game designer, animator, and cartoonist with 15 years experience in Brazil and the United States. They have a M.A. in Poetics of Technology on queer temporality and video games and a postgrad diploma in Game Design. They are currently a PhD candidate in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media.