Life of the Party

September 23, 2016

The upcoming Sleuthhounds – The Halloween Deception computer adventure game is set during a Halloween party. As such, a number of new background characters were needed to fill the scene and actually make it look like a party (which I’ve blogged about previously). Even though it looked like a party it didn’t really feel like a party as most of the characters were static.

Static backgrounds and background characters aren’t really new to classic graphic adventure games. It’s important to keep in mind that every animation made in a computer game takes time to create. It would be wonderful to have a completely animated background but that’s a lot of work. And when you’re working towards a specific deadline (October 31st for the Sleuthhounds game) you sometimes have to make choices on what can and can’t be included in a game.

There aren’t many games, of any genre, that include party scenes; probably because they do require so much work to implement. However, I do remember one such adventure game that had a party scene in it: Monkey Island 2: Lechuck’s Revenge.

[Mardi Gras in Monkey Island].
Mardi Gras in Monkey Island.

I distinctly remember the party scene because I’d never encountered anything like it in a game before. The scene was filled with a handful of guests whose heads would bob and animate to show they were in conversation. Even more than that, when you stepped close to the party goers, subtitles would appear for what they were saying to each other (this was in the days before “talkies”). It was and still is one of the most “alive” scenes I’ve encountered in any game.

That exact scene popped into my mind as I was considering my own party scene. It occurred to me that, while it would be a huge time cost to fully animate all of the background characters at the party, I could at least make it look like the characters were talking to each other, similar to the Monkey Island scene. I already had talking animations for the background characters as they need to gasp and utter other exclamations during the big Agatha Christie-eqsue “explaining the mystery” sequence in the game.

With such animations in hand, I turned my attention to the technical side of making characters talk without them actually saying anything. Ordinarily, when a character speaks in the game an audio file of their line will play and, if the player has left subtitles turned on, a dialog bubble will appear showing the text of the line. However, in this particular case I wanted a line that would always play with no audio file and no displayed text. I only wanted to see the mouths moving.

[A marvel of innovation: Talking heads!]
A marvel of innovation: Talking heads!

It required only a minor tweak to the code routine my game engine uses for dialog to accomplish what I needed: dialog with no audio and no speech bubbles, only talking heads. With that in place, all I had to do was rig up the characters in the party scenes to have little conversations of their own. The conversations pretty well boil down to “lorem ipsum” text in order to have less repetitive mouse movements than “blah, blah, blah” would give.

Adding the talking heads to the scene also adds a little more life into things. Even better is that the animation is noticeable and yet subtle enough that it doesn’t divert the player from examining the rest of the scene. I had been worried that having too many background animations would be too distracting. Fortunately, I believe those worries were unfounded.

The Halloween Deception grows ever closer to being complete. I’m at that fuzzy boundary between completing just critical gameplay pieces and polishing the game. The game is well on track for its release. The party begins October 31st, 2016. Halloween, here we come!