When Guerrilla Games debuted the new trailer for its Horizon Forbidden West DLC a few weeks back, it sent developers into a frenzy. Those in the know were astounded by the briefly glimpsed hug that Aloy shares with her friend Gildun. The rest of us were in the dark about why any of this was a big deal. Wonder no more. There’s now a very good explanation for why hugs are so hard to do in video games.
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In response to the Burning Shores launch trailer, indie studio founder Xalavier Nelson Jr. tweeted about a moment that lasts no longer than a second. “That hug at 0:45 is a technical flex like YOU HAVE NO IDEA,” he wrote. “TRUE: [developers] can make games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than the industry assumes is possible ALSO TRUE: a single Hug will increase your project budget by one to eight million dollars.”
Aloy has been hugging people since Zero Dawn, but that DLC hug looks really good! IGN interviewed Guerrilla’s animation director about why hugs in video games are so expensive and complicated. Richard Oud explained that complicated movements are created using motion capture suits (mocap). These suits have sensor dots that computers can pick up and read as movement. Unfortunately, hugs end up blocking a lot of these sensors from view, meaning that the software can’t detect them. These missing sensors have to be manually located by developers, a process that Oud says is incredibly time consuming. Once that’s done, they then have to begin the process of making adjustments to the data as they account for factors such as the different armors that Aloy could be wearing, since this isn’t accounted for in the mocap itself.
Actors also normally wear “head mounts” that track facial movements, but they can’t be worn during hugs. So animators typically hand-animate characters’ facial expressions during hugging scenes. The scene also needs to run at a higher frame rate, since a low frame rate would result in jitter—which makes cutscenes feel choppy. And Aloy’s hair presents all kinds of issues of its own. For one hug in which another character’s arm moves through Aloy’s hair, the developers had to put colliders on that arm so that her hair physics would respond naturally to it, rather than the arm just awkwardly clipping through.
Hugs are one out of many video game interactions that are much easier to shoot on camera than animate in a gaming studio. The Last of Us Part II made waves in 2020 when players spotted its impeccable rope physics and characters removing their shirts. But Oud thinks such moments are worth the financial and time investment.
“If we just bail out of those hugs or those intimate moments, the story just doesn’t come across,” Oud told IGN. “So we have to find a way to actually do these things and still make sure the emotion and the connection is delivered to the player and they don’t really have to think about it. But as long as [the players] feel it, then I’m already blessed that we actually hit our target.”