mandag 19. mars 2012

Character design

Yesterday I started playing Batman: Arkham City. I’m not familiar with the Batman universe at all, I just picked it up because I’d heard good things about it and it was on sale. So when I, or well, Batman, entered a warehouse and there was a big, hulking monstrous beast of a man with liquid tanks and tubes all over his body in there, standing with his back against me, I immediately turned on my bat-heels and fled the warehouse, thinking I’d stumbled into a bossfight prematurely. I’d only played for barely an hour, I didn’t feel ready to take on a giant lump of muscles.

Oh hell no.

Curiosity got the better of me a bit later and I returned to the warehouse, thinking I’d just reload if that thing beat the pulp out of me. And the giant lump of muscles with the iron cowl and the glowing green eyes turned around as Bat-me approached… and it turned out to be a friendly character.

Now, I’m not saying this is an example of bad design. Obviously, when you work with a licence like Batman you have to stick to the source material or the fans will chew on you, and the character is a villain, it turned out, he and Batman just have a temporary truce now that they have a common goal. It’s just an example of how I immediately interpreted the character as a threat I should run from, based on a brief look at it.

Similarly, if I’m playing Team Fortress 2, skipping about gleefully as a scout. If I catch a glimpse of an enemy heavy, I’m running in the opposite direction because I am ill equipped to take the threat on. However, if I encountered an enemy medic, engineer or spy or another scout in the same situation, I suppose I might have gone after him with murderous intentions. The colour of the character lets me understand if it is friendly or not, and the silhouette of the character helps me assess the situation in no time to quickly make a decision; fight or flight.

When designing a character, I need to think about what sort of character I am trying to design, and how to effectively communicate this to the viewer. How can I do this using only visual cues, without any dialogue?

First, I should think about silhouette. The viewer should be able to recognise the character based on silhouette alone. The silhouette of the character is determined by three factors: The character’s physique, his or her’s costume and props, and their body language and posture. Each of these are tools that alone can communicate a lot about the character with broad brushstrokes. When thinking about this, I should keep in mind that the posture should be easy to read and have strong action lines.

I should also pay a lot of attention to colours and contrasts within the costume and look of the character. I should use these tools to draw attention to interest areas, or, indeed, to the character itself. No one notices a grey mouse.

I should keep in mind what environment the character is from and in; what is the climate like? Where is the character, is it a city, a forest, a mountain? What culture is he or she from? What is the role of the character within society? All of this should be visibile in the design so that the character is consistent with the environment and does not stick out like a looney toons characters in a live action movie.

The iconic big daddies from Bioshock not only blend into their environment perfectly, they are almost Rapture embodied.

I need to keep assymetry in mind and use it; our faces are not symmetrical, and it would be uncanny if they were. Similarly, costumes should also be assymetrical, it makes it more interesting. Symetry is boring.

The face of the character needs to be easy to read. Facial expressions, along with body language, convey what kind of character this is and what they are feeling, and how they react to the events around them.

Characters are often the soul of a story, be it in a book, movie, or game. I’m willing to sit trough a flat, dull story if the characters engage me in a way that makes me care about them, and usually I find myself caring about characters because they display emotions. Sometimes we even perceive items, such as houses or cars, to have feelings or a personality, often because certain aspects of the object resembles an abstracted human face.

This car looks friendly because of its rounded shape, the lights resemble round, cartoony eyes and the bumper looks like a smiling mouth.

Wall-E and Eve from the Pixar movie Wall-E. They are robots, but we still care about them and feel like we can relate to them because they display such a wide and convincing range of emotions.

Another thing to be aware of and use is stylisation. Applied in small quantities it can be used to enhance and exagerate the physical abilities and the personality of the character. Even if a character is heavily stylised, or doesn’t resemble a human at all, we can still relate to the character, like Ewe and Wall-e, above, shows us. In fact, if the character becomes too realistic but isn’t “quite there,” we might find it off-putting. This is the uncanny valley at work again. The more the character resembles us, the more we expect it to be have and be excactly like us, and when it doesn’t, the effect is gross, frightening, and immersion-breaking.


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