Way of the Passive Fist is a side-scrolling brawler … in which you never throw a punch. Rather than tussling with your enemies, it’s all about dodging, defending, and wearing them down until they run out of stamina. Then you simply push them over and move on. It’s the debut of Household Games, and it launches March 6 on PC and PlayStation 4, and March 7 on Xbox One.
Alongside Way of the Passive Fist’s unique twist on the fighting genre, it’s also got a forward-thinking take on accessibility. At Double Fine’s Day of the Devs event last year, I spoke with Household Games founder Jason Canam about how the studio worked with AbleGamers charity and streamer HalfCoordinated to bake in accessibility from the very start. Players can remap every control in the game, play it one-handed, and adjust the difficulty level.
Household Games also considered Way of the Passive Fist’s visual effects. Some players have trouble seeing or they’re sensitive to flashing lights. So animator Rosemary Brennan and the art team worked on tackling that aspect of accessibility.
In a phone call, Brennan walked me through the details of what goes into animating a video game. She also explained how the art team approached making sure a wide variety of people could play Way of the Passive Fist.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Who are you and what’s your background?
Rosemary Brennan: I’m an animator, illustrator, small bit of game dev on the side, very small. And I’ve worked with Household Games for about a year and a half. 17 or 18 months, around there. I’m currently not with them. I’m a freelance artist. But I would love to work with them again.
GamesBeat: You also do some game development on the side. Have you made your own games, or do you mainly freelance for other studios?
Brennan: I have been very slowly trying to teach myself how to code, but mainly I do animation and illustration work for other studios.
GamesBeat: What other games have you illustrated and animated?
Brennan: A bunch of Facebook games and early iOS apps that aren’t around anymore. The first indie game I worked on from the ground up was called Fate Tectonics, which came out in 2015. Aside from that, and then Way of the Passive Fist, those are the “big” games.
GamesBeat: How does artwork and animation fit into the development process?
Brennan: It really differs from project to project. Sometimes art is definitely the focus and sometimes it’s less so. Generally speaking, when I come into the project, there’s usually a firm idea of what the other devs are looking for. It’s my job to take these verbal cues and these scribbled-out ideas and then flesh them out into a cohesive visual style. And sometimes that’s something as simple as just designing a couple of characters, and sometimes it’s completely starting from the ground up and setting environment style and character style and lighting and textures and all sorts of things.
GamesBeat: Did you join Way of the Passive Fist early in its development? Did you have a lot of direction from the team, or did you come up with the aesthetic yourself?
Brennan: They had a fairly robust style already fleshed out, thanks to an illustrator who was on the project slightly before me. They’d set the tone as far as character design and color and layout and that sort of thing. And so my job, once I joined, was to just take that and run with it. I also didn’t really touch a lot of the layouts. That was all Gavin McCarthy.
GameBeat: Is it challenging, as an artist with your own style, to work with others on a project like this, to make sure it’s all cohesive?
Brennan: I personally have never had an issue with that. I was classically trained as an animator, and part of that is being flexible with your style. Each individual artist has their own personal style, which is just shorthand we use to visually represent whatever it is we’re drawing. For me, it was really easy to slide into this project and adopt the very particular style they had already set.
GamesBeat: Have you animated a fighting game before? Are there any challenges particular to doing the art and animation for a game like Way of the Passive Fist?
Brennan: Way of the Passive Fist was my very first fighting game. All of my animation experience before that was either television-related, or if it was in video games, the sprites were very small and much less detailed. This was my first foray into big chunky sprites with lots of animation.
GamesBeat: When we talk about gameplay, often people talk about how juicy it feels. You feel like you’re interacting with the world. Is that a challenge when you’re animating for games? How do you communicate to the player that sense of immersion or depth to the animation?
Brennan: It really varies game to game. With Way of the Passive Fist, it was all about making sure that hits didn’t just visually look good, but you could almost feel it in yourself, you know? Which, considering that it’s a fighting game where you actually don’t do a lot of fighting, that was really difficult. Not only did we have to make things like hits feel really good, we had to make things like dodging feel really good. Which you don’t normally think about when you’re just animating whatever.
GamesBeat: Were you mainly tweaking the speed of the dodge, so it felt very forceful? How did you approach that?
Brennan: Definitely, when it came to dodges, we had a list of movements that every character had to do. When it came to the dodge, it was dodge A, B, C, and so on. We would always start with one that felt very even, so the timing for the animation was very even. It would be your start frame, three in betweens, an extreme, three more in betweens, and a settle. Which, programmatically speaking, is very consistent and easy to get into the game and get it working, but visually speaking it’s very bland and boring.
So once we had the basic dodge animation, then we would go in and tweak the timing, remove an in-between frame here, add another one there, change the drawing so this key frame was a little more pushing into the foreground. It was a lot of give and take and testing and re-testing and re-tweaking, a lot of over and over again to make it just right.
GamesBeat: Can you ballpark how long it takes to nail down the animation for one character like that?
Brennan: Are you talking about just one move set, or all of the animations? In the case of the player character, who has the most distinct animations, which I guess makes sense considering that’s the one you’re going to be staring at the most. Each individual move set will take somewhere between two and four days. We would start with a very rough wire frame. You wouldn’t even necessarily know what character you’re looking at. It’s just a chunky stick man. We would try to check the timing on animations, and then once that’s approved, we go to the second stage, which is just blocking out each character.
Each character originally started as this weird colorful patchwork that would let us track specific items, like faces and hands and hair and things like that. Which we would flesh out the animation a little more, and the characters would become a bit more recognizable at this point.
Once that’s been tested and approved, then we go to the final stage, which is the cleanup and final tweaks. That’s when we would apply what you see in the final game, the final sprite, with the character’s colors, the outlines, the highlights and shadows. That’s the most labor-intensive section, because it’s taking the same drawing over and over again, redoing it, adding all the dithering and the little filigree and things like that.
And then overall, the player character’s animations, from day one when I first built the sprite, to the last day when I wrapped on them—it was basically from the beginning of the project until I finished, but if I were to condense it, it was probably four months of work just on the player character.
GamesBeat: Did you also have to make changes based on feedback?
Brennan: Oh, for sure. We would do something in the game, or even—I would animate something in my art programs and say, “Oh, this looks really good, I’m really happy with it.” Then we would put it in the game and it was kind of floaty, or it didn’t hit the timing we needed, or it was too big or too small. Then I’d have to take that feedback, go back to my original file, modify it.
Luckily, because we did these animations in chunks, in these very scratchy, rough, “easy to distinguish character but still rough compared to final”—usually these issues were caught in the first stage, and very rarely did they go any further. There wasn’t a lot of time wasted when it came to changes and fixes and things like that.
GamesBeat: You mentioned floatiness. I’ve seen that in games. What’s the main solve for that? Is it the body language, or animating the environment in a certain way? How do you make it feel like these are solid characters moving in the world?
Brennan: I can’t speak too much on 3D animation, but definitely with 2D animation, floatiness is the result of too many frames. When a character, let’s say, does a punch, if you need the punch to hit in five frames it has to be five frames. If it ends up being seven frames, because you need the animation to read properly, it takes two extra frames to play.
Even though the player hits the button and it should take X number of fractions of a second to play, if it takes longer, it feels unnecessary, and that’s when players get this disconnection between the character that they’re playing as and their actions. When we first started setting an animation style for the game, we were running into a lot of issues with floaty or unresponsive movements. But we were able to solve these issues with an animation technique called smears, which I’m not sure if you’re familiar with.
GamesBeat: No, is that a kind of motion blur?
Brennan: It’s kind of like motion blur, but it’s a more traditional form of motion blurring. If you watch old Looney Tunes, or even if you look at fighting game sprites from Capcom, if you look at one individual frame as a still instead of seeing it in a series of drawings that are an animation—just looking at one frame, if a limb or their face or something looks like someone’s pulled it out, like taffy, that’s a smear.
It basically allows you to get the maximum amount of movement in the shortest time frame. A good example in Way of the Passive Fist: We had a character who had to take their leg from a rested position on the ground to up in the opponent’s face. They’re doing this wide, sweeping kick. I had to do that in, I think it was five or six frames.
Typically a motion like that needs like 20 frames, just to get from point A to point B and have it read without it just popping from one place to the next. A smear allows you to build this bridge of color between one frame and another, so you don’t have to draw six frames of the leg going from one place to another. It’s just one drawing of this stretched-out, deformed image. But because it plays so quickly, your eye doesn’t register it as a single drawing. It just counts it as motion. It’s a nice cheat, and it allows us to get the exact timing that we want without losing in quality of motion.
GamesBeat: You mentioned four months for the player character. How many different move sets did you have to come up with for all the enemies? Did you try to keep it to a relatively small number, so you weren’t spending years on unique move sets for every enemy you encounter?
Brennan: Well, thankfully—we sort of grouped characters in sets. We have the badland characters, and all their move sets are very similar. When we were in the rough stage, we would typically use the same roughs for them, and then in the cleanup stage give them the appropriate skinning. But we tried to save as much time as possible by reusing move sets within character types.
As an example, we have the sun-worshipper characters. All their movements were very flowy and dance-like. We just made sure that we used the same style of animation for those base character move sets, and then when we applied them to the final sprites, there was a lot of back and forth checking to make sure that timing was lining up, stuff like that.
GamesBeat: How many different categories of characters are there?
Brennan: Five? There’s four basic enemy types and then the bosses, but the bosses are individuals on their own. Each boss has their own set of moves. I guess that’s more than five, then.
GamesBeat: You mentioned the sun-worshippers have this dancer-like movement. Is it difficult to come up with those unique animation styles, since you’re constrained by the way bodies move physically? How do you develop your own style or make a character move in a unique way that players haven’t seen before?
Brennan: We wanted to make sure that each character read as an individual. Because we’d been working so closely with AbleGamers, we know there are different kinds of disabilities that can hinder a player, so we wanted to make sure all the silhouettes were different, so they read automatically as a different character.
Luckily, there are lots of different types of fighting styles that already exist in the world. When we started assigning animations to these very distinct silhouettes, we would say, okay, for the junker fighter characters, we’re going to give them a sort of lower grappling style of fighting. We would watch a lot of [close quarters combat] and modern hand-to-hand combat videos and tutorials and things like that.
And then with the sun-worshippers, we wanted their fighting style to be very light and almost dancerly, so we were watching a lot of capoeira videos. We were looking at ballet videos, looking at Shaolin monks. We always made sure the reference we were using was very distinct, so the fighting styles of each character type were very distinct.
GamesBeat: More generally, about the artwork, can you tell me about what inspired the aesthetic and the world design?
Brennan: Personally, I have a long-standing love affair with early ’90s pixel art, especially from arcade games and things like that. I spent a lot of my very young childhood in arcades when I probably should have been, I don’t know, learning a sport or something. A lot of that ended up being where I pulled a lot of my reference from.
I spent a lot of time staring at Street Fighter II sprites. I spent a lot of time staring at Final Fight sprites. Pretty much any early to mid-’90s arcade game that I could get my hands on, I would sit and stare at how they approached light and color and outlines and shadows and—basically trying to keep that look and update the feel, because a lot of those sprites would have four images for a punch, whereas in Way of the Passive Fist a punch will have maybe eight or nine images. The animation is just a little more fluid. That was what I wanted to do, to make it visually the same, but feel a little more updated.
GamesBeat: I wanted to talk about accessibility. When I talked to Jason, he mentioned you made sure that the buttons were all remappable. What are the things you had to think about from an art perspective as far as making sure the game is accessible?
Brennan: The big one for the art team was making sure that colors read properly. Because we had been working so closely with AbleGamers, we tried to stay on top of any issues that might arise with varying types of gameplay. There’s default filters in Photoshop that allow you to look at an image through the eyes of someone with specific kinds of color blindness. You can turn those on and off.
While we were building sprites for the game, we would constantly turn on these filters, look at it. Does it still read? What doesn’t read? OK, go back and retool and make the contrast higher or change the colors so something reads properly for someone with normal colored vision and someone with a specific type of color blindness. That was the main one that we as artists had to stay on top of.
GamesBeat: Why did you and the team feel it was important to make sure the game was accessible with the art, as well as the controls?
Brennan: There are plenty of individuals out there and everyone has a different way of approaching the world. Sometimes it’s by choice and sometimes those are the cards you’re dealt. We just wanted to be able to make sure that as many people could enjoy our game. Because where’s the fun in cutting people out over something you could easily make accessible to them?
IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.