Analysis

At Rest: On Idle Animations & The Poetry of Sitting in Games

Dragon Age

Wednesdays are tough. Just ask Krem. It can be difficult to push through when you’re feeling down (or up, if you’re on a chair), and while video games can help with that, I’m starting to notice an interesting trend: other characters are being allowed these moments, too. This started to occur to me as more and more Life Is Strange tweets like this one have been cropping up on my timeline, offering a few minutes to sit, relax, and contemplate. But what if there’s more to this whole sitting thing than meets the eye?

I’ve seen a few major publications cover the phenomenon in games. Most of them are funny, as with Polygon’s take on the trend. It’s the idle animations, however, that seem to generate the most press. There are entire articles dedicated to this subject, though quite a few of them seem to focus on classic games of yore. And if you’re more the modding type, there’s no end to available idle animations over at Nexus Mods. You could really spend days sorting through all the different ways your Skyrim character can move once you’ve stepped away from the keyboard.

What’s so interesting about a playable character at rest, you ask? Quite honestly, I’m still asking myself that question, but this aspect of games is really fascinating to me. I’ve reblogged enough of Lara’s idle animations to serve as a love letter at this point. There’s Hawke, too, who twists and stretches and shifts—almost as if she couldn’t keep still if she tried, a force perpetually in motion. Harry would even glance back at the screen when you’d left him standing in the corridor too long, his Gryffindor robes swirling dramatically around his ankles.

These idle animations are all reflections of the characters themselves, but what if the act of sitting was a chance for us, the player, to cede control?

Tomb Raider

I admit, during my initial playthrough of Rise of the Tomb Raider, I was surprised when the opportunity presented itself for Lara to sit. When would she even have time to rest? What was the point of allowing this character a moment of quiet contemplation? How did that even fit in with the established narrative? I’d thought it removed that sense of urgency propelling Lara forward from task to task, but really, it was in the breaking of that tension that offered the game something quietly and beautifully nuanced.

Even the most productive and well-meaning person requires time to exist, unmoving, as the world continues on around them. For me, selecting the option to sit was an almost poetic experience—a reminder that Lara was meant to be human, as flawed and deserving of a break as the rest of us.

There were other games I played recently that employed this opportunity as well. Fallout 4 allowed the player the option to sit, though I found myself accidentally forcing the Sole Survivor into chairs at the most inopportune times. But that’s interesting too, isn’t it? When a game forces you into a sitting position, it’s a jarring reminder that your character is meant to be living a life independent from you. While you may control some things in relation to their story—certain dialogue choices, whoever they end up romantically linked to, what skills they choose to level up—there’s that sense that you can’t control everything, nor should you.

For me, these experiences felt a great deal like reading a book. I used to curl up in my aunt’s gigantic armchair when I was very young, dragging a stack of well-worn novels along that would keep me entertained for hours. When the text finally began to run together and I couldn’t force my eyes to stay open anymore, I would heave a sigh, relaxing into the stiff cushions for a few minutes just to let the sheer force of my emotions wash over me.

From Bilbo’s mad dash through Mirkwood to Lyra Belacqua’s descent into the underworld, I needed that brief moment of peace to process the adventures that had come before, allowing it all time to percolate.

Life Is Strange

We all process things differently, and I believe modern games are starting to pick up on that—if not actually celebrating the fact. In Life Is Strange, DONTNOD takes this concept a step further by providing us with commentary from Max that we wouldn’t have otherwise heard if you didn’t allow her to sit. With this brief moment to breathe outside of the often harrowing events of the main plot, Max is able to reflect on the changes happening within her, and we’re treated to a rare glimpse into her character. This makes her so very human, and we’re actually encouraged to allow her this moment of reflection.

It’s interesting to me that while Life Is Strange offered new dialogue as a reward for sitting, Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t provide an opportunity for the player to hear Lara’s stream of consciousness unless you return to a base camp. This, I think, is more a reflection of the protagonists and their inner lives than it is a negative reflection of the games themselves. Lara is too caught up in her mission for anything less than absolute attention. She faces not only hostile enemies, but also animals and frigid temperatures. The wild isn’t kind to those who don’t know how to survive, and Lara can’t allow herself to let her guard down unless she’s safe at camp.

This isn’t the case for Max who, through no fault of her own, is safely tucked away within Blackwell Academy’s walls. She has the luxury of retreating to her thoughts without having to worry about being beset by an outside threat (certain staff members notwithstanding). It’s in these moments where she’s finally allowed time to process, and to a certain extent, this tells us where Max feels most comfortable: outdoors, a gentle wind rustling through the trees while a bird chirps nearby.

We could discuss how all of this is awfully cinematic; that games are edging further and further into territory long held by the film industry. But I’m interested in how the act of sitting ties in with the characters we all know and love, and more than that, how seeing these people simply exist can change the way we think about games entirely. What are your thoughts on all this? Are you sad Krem actually sits in chairs now? Me too. I was hoping he’d start a new trend of standing on furniture, but alas! Fingers crossed for Dragon Age 4.

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3 thoughts on “At Rest: On Idle Animations & The Poetry of Sitting in Games”

  1. The example that springs to mind for me is Skyrim (which I know you’ve mentioned), and how I would never have seen those slow-spin idle animations if I had a dining room table. I don’t, so if I’m playing Skyrim and need food, it is going to be eaten at my desk. If it’s hands-on, I’m not likely to be touching my mouse, which is how I first ended up at those slowly-spinning idle screens.

    I appreciate them. The more so now that an unintended consequence of a new batch of companion mods means everyone in my game looks way too pretty. I don’t like it. I didn’t equip a battleax and sling the remains of a dead wolf around my shoulders to go out on the runway here. So when my pretty, plasticized character wipes her nose with the back of her hand or scratches her head, I’m pleased. These are natural, human things to do. They’re things I do–moreover, they’re things I know not to do when anyone’s looking. The fact that “my” character feels comfortable enough, in idle moments (and only in those moments!), to do pursue just such instinctive, comfort-aiding actions, adds a veil of self-awareness to her that I appreciate almost as much as I appreciate the shattering of that too-pretty facade.

    I should add, though, that–having thought about it as I read this article–I wouldn’t appreciate, say, the idle animation of guys scratching their crotches. (Do they? I don’t know; I don’t roll guys in any Elder Scrolls game.) For the very specific reason that you can see that all the time in real life. (Such a thrilling world we live in, right?) They can stand there at a bus stop or in line at the bank and shove their bits around for greater comfort, whereas we get the death stare in a meeting if there’s an itch right under the base of our ponytails. I hate that. So no, I don’t need to see some idle dudes jiggling their junk around. I get that they’re allowed to possess so little self-awareness that that’s okay. But I like that, left to their own devices, the women are allowed to be plain old humans on a rocky escarpment, or a wind-blasted plain, the way they aren’t at their desks or even on their own front porches.

    Besides, even if some judgey bandit or cultist out there wanted to give you flak for it, you could just give him an arrow to the knee and leave him to the wolves.

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  2. Interesting. I don’t always pay a lot of attention to idle animations unless they stand out on their own — Hawke’s definitely comes to mind, I like that you mention her! I enjoyed that she shifted positions, rolled her ankles, etc., like she was rearing to take off again. That being said, one of my favorite moments from Life is Strange is when Max and Chloe are hanging out on Chloe’s bed (after the night at the school/pool), and you have to press a button to make Max get up. So if you don’t press that button, you can enjoy the camera panning around the room, the birds, the music, Chloe says a few words at some point… I really cherished that moment.

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