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‘ICO,’ ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ Animator Explains Challenges of Creating VR Characters

Convincing players to believe in a video game character that can only communicate through non-verbal actions is difficult. In virtual reality, it’s even more of a challenge.

This was the subject of a talk given Monday at the Game Developers Conference by legendary Atsuko Fukuyama. She was one of the animators behind beloved games like “ICO and “Shadow of the Colossus” who gave life to some of those titles’ most important characters who also happened to be non-playable characters (NPCs).

In a lecture titled “Animating Memorable Characters that Communicate Without Words,” Fukuyama broke down the importance of non-verbal communication in creating believable NPCs with which players can create a bond. She shared what she learned from her previous work and challenges that she has faced with developing the upcoming VR game “Last Labyrinth.”

2001’s “ICO,” released initially for the PlayStation 2, was a game in which the player takes control of a young boy lost in mysterious ancient ruins, who must lead an even more mysterious young girl, named Yorda, out of danger. Yorda was an extremely important NPC in the game, though she could not communicate with the other characters, or with the player, verbally. Therefore, her animations became an integral part of the experience for the player. Fukuyama was in charge of animating Yorda.

“Yorda from ‘ICO’ is a very important character for me,” Fukuyama said through translation by her fellow animator, Alexis Broadhead. “She was the first character I got to create from the ground up.”

She said that at the time in game development, the late ’90s and early ‘00s, NPCs were traditionally used as a way to explain the story to players and not treated like actual, living parts of the experience that could enhance the experience of the game.

“[NPCs] were more of a symbolic presence and didn’t have more of a connection with the player in the game,” Fukuyama said. “But the heroine of ‘ICO’ was completely different. She wasn’t there to explain the story… she was a presence a player could feel a bond with.”

She said that the team who developed “ICO” spent a great deal of time with developing the character, the relationship and the animations of Yorda at the direction of the game’s creator Fumito Ueda.

Following that, Fukuyama took on the role in animating another important, though very different, NPC for “Shadow of the Colossus,” a game in which the wordless main character travels to defeat one giant boss character after another in order to bring a girl back from the dead. Fukuyama created the animations for Argo, the main character’s horse.

According to Fukuyama, both of these experiences taught her about how to create believable, endearing characters who don’t have the option of communicating with words.

“In Yorda from ‘ICO,’ I wanted the player to want to protect her. With Agro, I wanted the player to feel like he was a partner they could trust and wanted to be by their side,” she said. “My character animation style is based on my time and what I learned from ‘ICO’ and ‘Shadow of the Colossus.”

The current game she is developing, “Last Labyrinth,” takes the challenge of non-verbal communications from NPCs to the next level since it’s in VR.

“If the npc moves unnaturally, the player will lose their immersion and stop viewing the npc as a living being,” she said. “Our job as animators is to build life in our characters so people can feel a connection to the characters.”

Last Labyrinth is an “escape-the-room” VR adventure game that uses the player’s immersion in the experience to create a different type of connection between them and an important NPC. You as the player wake up in a strange place, strapped to a wheelchair, with a laser pointer attached to your head.

In the game, you appear to be trapped with a young, 10-year-old girl named Katia. Katia speaks an unknown language, and therefore all of her communication to the player, whether that’s about experience or instruction on progression, has to be in a non-verbal form. You as the player solve puzzles and work towards your escape by working with Katia.

“Katia points and the player nods ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and the character responds accordingly,” Fukuyama said. “This is the one and only concrete form of communication between the player and Katia during the game. “

Working in VR has created a number of challenges with regards to animations communicating to players. Because the player is essentially the camera, Fukuyama said that the animation team has to take into account how those animations look from all angles, scales, and perspectives.

“Normally you would use a camera to increase the presence [of the NPC], but in VR, the player determines where the character is,” she said. “It is very difficult for an animator to animate in VR because the camera hides nothing.”

VR also affects how animators have to show things versus a set camera perspective.

“For VR we have to add more detail to movements in space,” Fukuyama said. “If there’s less detail, the movement begins to feel lonely or incomplete.”

She recognized that imparting information to a player simply through animations is a difficult, drawn-out process, but said that it was enormously rewarding to see a player reacting positively to an animation that she creates.

“It’s really a job worth doing,” she said.

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