Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Character Design in Games

So this week we talked about what makes a character. There are a few fundamentals that I think should be followed to creating a great character which has been echoed in all successful games to date. I’ll generally talk about these topics in this article.

Character Design to me is the representation of a fictional world seen through the eyes of this character you control. You experience their world through them, a medium of sorts…not the one that talks to spirits mind you. Sometimes you see them in front of you and other times you see them sometimes but it’s mostly you being them, in other words first person rather than third person.

The visual representation of  the character is important but is also carefully tweaked and mastered to make sure that it not only fits in this world but it’s something you can relate to. This is a massive task that I expect only high IQ people to do but somehow there are a few men and women out there that imagine these guys from their common brains. A few examples of some seriously over-rated but memorable characters are, Altair, Kratos and my least favourite Master Chief (or as I like to say master chef). Now as I like to disagree with the general male public these characters are memorable for the way they look, sound, act and their attitudes towards situations which include minor wounds to the body or massive exploding shit that rocks the universe. They relate as a human to the consumer which is what sells.

I know there is a misconception of most people that fantasy games are stupid looking and are crap but as they say, different strokes for different folks but it all boils down to what relates to who. If I talk about your average Joe who doesn’t really seek cultural influence will typically find master chief a great guy because he’s important, burly and has a gun. Someone who is interested in more exotic things and of a more fantasy nature will probably prefer a character like Cloud from Final Fantasy VII because he’s got cool, spikey un-natural worldly hair and holds a massive sword somehow on his small tiny body. Character design really is just who you want to target.

If you take a game studio like EA versus Square you’re going to get two completely different character sets because they’re targeting completely different audiences. Ideally they’d love everyone to go for their game but people are different for a reason which is why characters are created differently. Now the thing that these two very different studios have in common is that they make these characters seem human, compassionate and empathetic. You need characteristics of real human beings otherwise you aren’t going to relate. Now you could argue that an ogre for example doesn’t relate to a human at all in which case I put to you that it does because weather you  seem them as this war hungry green monsters they also have a sense of collective and pride which gets them in these wars in the first place. How can you not relate to that?

I think something a lot of games fall short on, which I consider to be a big importance, is racial definition. Sure you can have a bunch of strange and wonderful creatures plodding along in the world but what’s the point of them if you don’t get to interact with them. Something I think Mass Effect does quite well to represent. You’re full conversation and back stories with these other races makes you feel more connected to them and care more for them, in other words you empathise with them. You can see a repeating pattern here of what I think is important. A game I think that does poorly in this is Final Fantasy XII bar one race because she’s in your party. There are a ton of cool races in this game but yet you don’t interact with them very much at all and the only race you do is a bunch of bunny people. I’d rather talk to the funny blue guy sitting on the bench then the bunny lady.

The most memorable character for me in my life so far is Nemo from Finding Nemo. I know it’s a recent film but when I saw the movie I just felt more connected to him than any other character I’ve seen in my life. A child who is loved and cared for by their single parent but ultimately rebels because of feeling trapped under their love. I think every teenage growing up feels this pressure from their parent(s) and as you watch the movie you see how regretful and overjoy he becomes as he eventually he realises his mistake and shows just how much he really loves his dad and he becomes a better fish for discovering what his father was trying to do. Every child feels scared leaving their parents for the rest time and its shock at the start but you slowly realise you are capable on your own.

I think an important part of this connecting to people and me included is how real the situation is. It is a life experience which Pixar generally uses in its movies. The character might be a fish but they stick a couple of big eyes and some eyebrows in there for expression with a big nice mouth for expressionism and WALA! You have yourself a fish that connects to you through expression and life experience.

Now I don’t think just the way it looks and the way the story pans out is enough. The voices all the characters have in the movie have to relate to you as well. You have the dad who is very attached to his son, over protective and also a little bit boring because they’re afraid of leaving their child for a period of time, you have the son that’s really enthusiastic, excited and curious about the world around him but is ultimately rocked by the revelation he’s restricted by the one true person he trusts. The way these characters act reflect through their lines. When Nemo is told he can’t do something he rebels and says the most hurtful thing he can think of. If you did have good writing for characters you really wouldn’t understand the way their creators intended them to connect to the audience. An example of complete utter confusion in character connection for me is Silent Hill 2. I didn’t get one single character in that game apart from they’re fucking crazy. I’m sure there was more to them but I really couldn’t be bothered when I heard how annoying and dull they sounded.

Stories I love are generally about a deep life changing time or scarred moment in your life. With the Finding Nemo story you also get UP. A man spends his entire life with the woman he loves for her to die before they could achieve their dream together. He becomes entangled in what he thinks they were meant to do but all along they’d done what they had set out to do. I like the feeling of connection through emotion. It feels more real to me then some guy blowing up a planet.

So these things I find important in a character design. It doesn’t have to be an over the top design but one that brings out a true connection through their general being. Since my teen years my opinion on characters has changed. I used to be into the really fantasy type characters with the horrible voice acting that really didn't look like those clothes should be staying together like that. I now want a character that's more believable. A man who's been to war shows the scars, shows the draining of life from his eyes and the terrible realization of the things he's seen. A man that looks broken. A buff man with a gruff voice who thinks it's cool to shoot guns doesn't seem like a true person to me. 

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