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What Video Game Characters Do When You’re Not Paying Attention

What Video Game Characters Do When You’re Not Paying Attention:

Video games are overwhelmingly goal oriented. Run up the hill, stomp on the enemy, upgrade the sword, talk to the villager, take down the boss, and run it up the flagpole. Most players, particularly old school players, keep things linear and keep things moving.

Sometimes, however, real life intrudes upon gaming time. A player might need to get a drink, or answer the phone, or put out a raging fire. In other words, he or she might be away from the TV for awhile. When left with some free time, what’s a game character to do?

A lot of game designers insert “idle animations” into their games. If no one touches the controller and no one pauses the game, the characters, now unattended, will find their own means of passing the time. Maybe they’ll shuffle their feet, or crack their knuckles. Maybe they’ll retie their shoes. Maybe they’ll start juggling. And maybe they’ll even break the fourth wall and shoot the player an impatient glance. “Hey! Are we doing this or not?!”

Here are some of the best idle animations in gaming. Some of them are naturalistic, and some of them are overblown, but all of them are creative, and do a great job of adding nuance to their characters. First, let’s look at a classic.


’SONIC THE HEDGEHOG’
Idle mood: impatient
Idle animations had been around long before Sonic the Hedgehog (Commander Keen showing his butt to the player was a notable early one), but few were as simple, yet memorable, as this one. It’s just Sonic tapping his foot impatiently, but it fits his character perfectly. The average player powers through Sonic levels at top speed, so quickly that he runs upside down and directly up vertical inclines. The tapping foot is one of excitement and irritation —Sonic wants to start running, and the player had better go along for the ride too.

Later Sonic games kept the tapping foot, but added new, sadistic wrinkles. In Sonic CD, Sonic would get so impatient that he would leap to his death, triggering an automatic ‘Game Over.’ Always remember to pause!


’EARTHWORM JIM’
Idle mood: playful
For a couple of years in the mid ‘90s, Nintendo tried to appeal to the young male demographic by creating disgusting ads in print and on TV. Nintendo Power ads would include images such as a jar of toenail clippings, a leaky barf bag, and a massive tray of school cafeteria meatloaf. These ads must have worked on somebody, because Nintendo kept pumping them out. And one of the most memorable things about Earthworm Jim was its advertising campaign. It featured an old woman eating worms; how literal can you get?

Fortunately, the video game itself is a classic, well known for its notorious difficulty and cartoonish humor. The developers put that humor on full display during the idle animations, which (among other things) showed Jim shooting himself, singing opera, flexing his muscles, and using himself as a jump rope.


’BOOGERMAN’
Idle mood: embarrassed
You might think to yourself: “What sort of cretin would buy a game like this?” But you shouldn’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Once a fan is able to get past the sophomoric humor (snot, picked directly from Boogerman’s nose, is the basic weapon attack), he or she is left with an excellent platformer and some of the most comical facial expressions in 16-bit gaming.

The designers used idle animations to inject more humor; they created this priceless one, where Boogerman picks his nose, eats his booger, realizes he’s been caught, and delivers the biggest shit-eating grin known to man (not literally, thankfully).

Image via Master0fHyrule


’THE LION KING’
Idle mood: playful
The neat thing about the 16-bit The Lion King was that, like the film, it followed Simba across the different stages of his life. At the end of the game, he’s a full-grown adult, with a claw swipe, a hind legs attack, and a dramatic throw move. But for the first half of the game, he’s baby Simba, and he’s armed with nothing but a forward roll, a roar (more like a meow), and a ground stomp.

The Publishers used the idle animations to play up young Simba’s childishness; they recreated the scene from the very beginning of the film, where Simba chases and toys with a little butterfly.

Image via Master0fHyrule


’COMIX ZONE’
Idle mood: repulsed
The style of Comix Zone was its major selling point, and obviously took a page from the classic Daffy Duck cartoon “Duck Amuck.” Your character inhabited a comic book; he bounced from panel to panel, and an unseen, off-screen artist was sketching obstacles to stand in his way. This particular idle animation was both gross and funny, and it was consistent with the game’s comic book style—stink lines and all.


’KEN GRIFFEY JR.’S WINNING RUN’
Idle mood: impatient
There’s a degree of fourth wall-breaking in many idle animations—the character will shoot side-eye glances at the player, or look at his or her watch. But Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run took “meta” to a whole new level.

If you take to long to start a play, the umpire turns around and knocks on the glass of the television screen. “Hey! KID! Play the game!” Humor can be found in the strangest of places, even in an otherwise straightforward baseball title.


’SUPER MARIO 64’
Idle mood: sleepy
Super Mario 64 was groundbreaking for its time. It was Nintendo’s first attempt at a 3D perspective. It also constituted a lot of firsts that we take for granted today; it was the first time that Mario had a voice, it was the first time that Mario could backflip, and it was the first time that Mario could punch. Prior to Mario 64, unless Mario had a powerup or item, the only thing he could do was jump on someone’s head.

For the first time, Mario felt like his own character, rather than a mustachioed avatar for the player. The idle animation reinforces that autonomy, and was a wonderful escalation. Mario goes from yawning, to snoozing, to straight up snoring, where he mumbles in his sleep about his beloved spaghetti. Mama mia!

Image via Video Game Idle Animations


’THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME’
Idle mood: primed
Known as “Zelda 64” during its long development cycle, Ocarina of Time, like Mario 64, took a 2D franchise and translated it successfully into a 3d experience. And just like Mario, Link was made to be more relatable and sympathetic; up until that point, he had been little more than an elf, viewed from a top-down perspective.

The idle animations helped characterize him, and showed him adjusting his gear and practicing his sword strokes. It was the behavior of an overmatched hero, who wasn’t accustomed to combat and adventuring, but was more than willing (and brave enough) to learn.


’AMERICAN MCGEE’S ALICE’
Idle mood: bored
This dark take on Lewis Carroll’s beloved books was a wonderful intersection of visual cleverness and dark sentiment. Alice was re-imagined as a damaged, broken teenager, who could only regain her sanity by venturing into Wonderland once more.

But despite this morbidness, the idle animations depict Alice differently—as a young girl with a repressed playful side. It’s these little touches that help players get emotionally invested in her quest for normalcy.

Game via Gamechive


’CONKER’S BAD FUR DAY’
Idle mood: playful
Conker, like Earthworm Jim, engages in a whole variety of activities to pass the time; he juggles, he plays with his yo-yo, and he reads porn (Beaver. Get it?!).

The most meta moment, however, is when he decides to squeeze in some Game Boy. Based on the music, Conker is a big fan of Killer Instinct, another Rare-published property. “Portable Power” indeed.

Image via Video Game Idle Animations


XBOX
Idle mood: creepy
The startup screen for most consoles is soothing. The Wii has dreamy music in its background, and the Playstation 3 has a similar, Zen tone.

The original Xbox, however, took an entirely different tack—if a player left it on long enough, he or she would be subjected to an assault of creepy ambient noises, including what sounded like muted human chatter. Microsoft would later explain that they were distorted clips from NASA’s Apollo missions, which doesn’t make the noises any less discomforting.


’OUTRUN 2006: COAST TO COAST’
Idle mood: energetic
There’s really not much to say about this one—its amusement and hilarity is self-evident.

If a player stays at the starting gate, the portly flag guy will first try and coax you to start racing. Ignore that, however, and the flag guy will eventually give up, and go into an extended break dancing sequence that has to be seen to be believed.

Image via dstln


’THE LAST OF US’
Idle mood: impatient
The Last Of Us had optional conversations between Ellie and Joel, which were a nice touch; they offered subtle exposition about the characters, and they made their burgeoning father/daughter relationship seem more organic and less contrived. But a lot of players don’t know about this particular Easter Egg—probably because The Last of Us does not lend itself to idleness. If Joel stays around in the same spot long enough, Ellie will started complaining about his lack of progress. She asks if he’s going to go somewhere or “do nothing,” or she complains, “You are literally walking around in the same exact spot.”

Ellie was a treasure trove of idle moments—when she was mad at Joel, she’d sit on a ledge and sulk, and when she was scared, she’d huddle near him for protection. The Last of Us is often referred to as one of the greatest games of its generation, and that’s actually underrating it; based on its storytelling ability, it’s one of the greatest games of all time.


’DONKEY KONG COUNTRY: TROPICAL FREEZE’
Idle mood: playful
The Donkey Kong Country franchise has become known for its endearing idle animations. It started with Donkey Kong Country on the SNES, which had Donkey pound his chest like King Kong, and had Diddy take off his cap and scratch his head. In Diddy Kong’s Quest, Diddy would juggle balls, and his new friend, Dixie, would take a bubblegum and soda break.

The most recent game, Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze, was the most self-aware of all of them; Donkey Kong took out a 3DS, and Dixie peeked over his shoulder as he played. But wait, there’s more! Based on the sounds, the player can actually pick out which games he’s playing; Donkey has a particular fondness for Mario Kart, Animal Crossing, Super Mario 3D Land, and, of course, the previous game in his own series Donkey Kong Country Returns.


’PAC-MAN’
Idle mood: primed
Super Smash Bros. Melee appealed to the hardcore fans. Brawl appealed to the casuals. Could Nintendo find a way to please everyone? Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U is the probably the closest that they were going to come, balancing technical strategy with the party game fun that seems to infect every Nintendo release. The company’s steadfast emphasis on in-person multiplayer contributes to Nintendo’s unparalleled cultivation of community and brand loyalty.

Each of the game’s many characters has their own taunts, entrances, and idle animations, but Pac-Man deserves special notice for that massive smile and tongue-in-cheek wink. When someone smiles that big, it’s hard to trust him, cuteness be damned.


Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.


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