Bendy vs Blocky Character Debate
June 11th 2021 by SDGNelson
Revisiting the pros and cons of soft vs rigid joints.
Unturned II development is slow and challenging because I want it to be as close to perfect as possible. Conversely, developing improvements for Unturned 3.x is fast and easy because it is far from perfect.
The flaws in the current character design have been nagging at me. Negative feedback on the removal of "fingerless" gloves was the breaking point; I decided that a review of the character should be prioritized. While I did experiment with some ideas earlier this year, I am hesitant to make any firm decisions without feedback because changes may stray too far from the classic Unturned character design.
One of the tasks I worked on this week was creating an alternative character design proposal. It features similar proportions, but adds hands, feet, and rigid joints. Exact dimensions (especially the width of the hands) are subject to change. My thought here is that intentional blocky-ness might match the art style better than unintentional jankiness, namely in these areas:
Hands and Shoulders
Firstly the problem that kicked this off: gloves. The character should ideally be able to visually wear shoulder patches, elbow pads, and gloves. Unfortunately, there is no logical way for the existing 3 or 4 character to wear all of those at once; the hand cannot roll separately from the arm. This is particularly noticeable while prone holding a rifle. By adding hands the gloves can be rotated separately from the elbow and shoulder.
Secondly: shoulder stretching. You have undoubtedly seen some awful shoulder stretching in 3 while using a Bluntforce, crawling, climbing, etc. I tried to mitigate this in 4 as much as possible, but it is simply unavoidable when the shoulder has to rotate on three axis at once. Separating the shoulder mesh from the body mesh introduces a gap, but makes dismemberment gore possible.
Elbows and Knees
Regardless of how nicely the joint is weighted, some amount of z-fighting and pinching occurs past a certain angle. With a hard joint we can fix both of these in an intentional manner. One downside is that mesh or texture detailing perpendicular to the arm would not be possible, but it gets heavily distorted on the soft joint anyway.
This approach uses shape keys (Blender) / morph targets (Unreal) driven by the cosine of the angle between the upper and lower bone to correct the vertices. I first saw this in Minecraft / Roblox character rigs for non-game animations, and MrKoix raised similar points in a forum post here. To ensure it was possible in-game, I put together an experiment in Unreal driving the morph targets from the anim thread. Using an anim node rather than baking the morph target curves allows procedural animation like foot IK or ragdoll physics to take advantage as well.
With 4's leg IK the feet clipping into the ground is obvious. It almost makes the leg IK seem redundant. Similar to hands, by adding feet the bottom of the foot can properly align with the floor surface.
Again similar to the shoulders, separating the leg from the body introduces a gap and enables dismemberment. I especially dislike how the butt looks while seated, or standing with feet angled apart in 3 and 4 as-is, but am unsure whether the detachment is an improvement or not.
Would a blockier character fit Unturned II? What do you think?
I have seen feedback that 4's art style is a bit inconsistent already. Items with soft shading like the medkit look odd compared to items with hard shading like the guns. If we go this direction I would lean towards hard shading. In some special cases I think soft shading makes sense to communicate the material, like the new plush item in 3, but in general I think hard shading is the right choice.