Remember when part of the fun of playing games was not actually playing them? Attract mode sequences, revelatory end credits, and most importantly, idle animations - I’ll never forget the first time Sonic tapped his foot to hurry me along, or how, after leaving my N64 to grab a snack, I returned to find Mario dreaming about pasta. Conker’s Bad Fur Day stands out especially bright in my mind for the shenanigans Conker got up to when left alone. Juggling balls, chugging beers, reading dirty magazines; just seeing Conker’s bad-arse idle behaviours convinced me that I needed to play that game.
Sadly, idle Easter Eggs have gone out of fashion over the years. Their goofy, self-aware nature clashes with the emphasis on gritty realism that current popular media is enamoured with. The paradigm shift could even be seen as a commentary on the shrinking attention spans of the Computer Age, where the expectation of instant gratification renders delayed satisfaction moot. Whether that’s the case or not, I for one miss those quirky little secrets and the thrill of finding them all.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Not a Hero, the rhythmic shooter from the developer of Olli Olli, hid unique jokes in its post-mission debriefs for players who let the game idle for a while. The reward might only be a few lines of trivial - and frequently distasteful - dialogue, but it was impressive nonetheless. I subsequently paid more attention to other little touches that weren’t immediately obvious, like the random adjective substitutions that gave repeated mission briefings a fresh spin. Things like this added significantly to the sense that the game world was a living, breathing place. As with all good fiction, it’s the little details that sell the big picture.
Reflecting on recent generations, I can recall precious few examples that take this lesson to heart. Sure, Delsin from Infamous: Second Son might pull out his phone if you leave him to his own devices, and Commander Shepherd might engage in some much-needed stretching should you set down the controller, but these tics contribute little to either the character or the world around them. I yearn for the days of Earthworm Jim entertaining his madness by using his head as a skipping rope or frying his face with a shot from his blaster. Now, all we’re likely to get for our patience is an irate NPC exhorting us to go go go! - while they, meanwhile, mill around aimlessly like lemmings without a leader.
Elizabeth always manages to find the light in the darkest of situations...
One notable exception to this trend is Bioshock Infinite. Throughout most of the game, the player is accompanied by Elizabeth, the woman you’re trying to save. She is entirely AI controlled, and the things she gets up to while idle greatly enhance both the gameplay and the narrative. Having been locked away for most of her life, she examines the world around her with keen interest, poking, prodding, and prying various objects in the environment. Not only is this smart characterisation, it also serves as a subtle hint system that doesn’t break the player’s immersion.
I want to see more games take advantage of their downtime to grow their stories. Why not take inspiration from Red Dead Redemption and deliver narrative organically while players are roaming the world, rather than forcing them to read static text or watch fixed cutscenes? Why aren’t Shadow of Mordor’s informative loading-screen audio bites becoming the norm?
Is it just me? Have I simply not been playing the right games? I want to believe that idling isn’t a dying art. So, I have a request: hit me up with your favourite idle animations and loiter-activated miscellany from the current generation. Destroy my disappointment with your picks in the comments below!