Thursday, 28 April 2011

Match Stick Men - Character Design in Video Games (Visual)

Designing characters is one of the most prestigious positions that you can get in a gaming company. It’s the job every one wants, and isn’t without it’s merit, after all, the characters are the thing most players take to heart.

But it’s not an easy job by any means.

Character design encompasses many things. The artist has to be able to convey a personality, way of life, style of fighting, just through the way a person’s face is built, or the what kind of jeans they wear. The build of the character has to reflect how fast or strong they are, the set of their eyes should show the little nuances of their personality.

It’s an easy thing to get wrong on so many levels, but when it’s right it’s spectacular, and you have a character that people are going to remember for generations.

Unfortunately, I’m of the view that the game industry has started to stagnate on this front. Franchises have stuck with certain character types for so long that they’ve just become a cliché, and the moment that something new and interesting is made, it get’s done to death within a matter of months.

For instance, I’d like to see a military first person shooter where your main character isn’t a butch, seasoned officer, but maybe a nervous, green around the ears private? A Sci-fi game where the hero isn’t clad in armour made of plastic futuristic blobs that possibly glow? Or maybe a fantasy RPG where your main character isn’t a noble knight or a simple stable boy?

I understand a lot of this is to with the way games are written as well as the character design, but I do believe that there are interesting new ways to spin old stock characters that just aren’t being looked into. Why? Because the current tropes are ‘safe’.

I’ve also noticed that we seem stuck in this belief that all games have to look photo realistic. Personally, I think that’s a bit boring - this might because I come from an animation background, but I find it hard to believe that I’m the only one. Some of the most interesting design’s I’ve ever seen have come from stylised games - Psychonauts and Grim Fandango, for instance.

I think a horror game with Tim Burton-esque stylisation would be spectacular., or a serious fantasy game, with Disney based designs. It doesn’t all have to be grim dark, guys. Even Lara Croft started off as a cartoon.

I think that if you do go down the realism route though, it shouldn’t be some sort of idealised state of it. For instance, take Faith from ‘Mirrors Edge’, she looks like the ethnicity she is, instead of an over sexualised version. She also has a limited colour palette that adds to the impact her character has, looks wise, which when combined with her hair and clothes makes for a very striking character.

And… Unfortunately I’m actually having trouble finding other interesting characters from the realm of realistic games. This is worrying. So far everything I’ve looked at is all much of a much-ness, and has effectively killed my enthusiasm for this. Depressing considering character design is one of my favourite things. Come on guys, even Korean music videos put in more effort than this!

Okay - I’ve come back to the computer after looking at Disney movies and feel I can carry on.

Maybe I’m being too cynical here, but it seems to be a problem that we face even in Japanese RPG’s, where the default seems to be ‘just how much can we pile on this character?’ (Or, if you’re Tetsuya Nomura: ‘How many belts/zippers can I put on this character before they fall over or the world implodes?’).

As such, there are few games where I can really say I find the characters compelling and visually interesting., let alone unique.

Fable, in theory, should have one of these. The character concepts, on paper, are fantastic! Each face and body shape tells a story, while they’re all tied in together by clothing style and colour palette. However, the personality of those characters got lost somewhere in translation, leaving the final 3D product a little flat, visually.

I adored the look of Team Fortress 2, enough said. It was quirky, funny and design wise just about brilliant. Each character conveyed a distinct personality just through the way they held themselves, let alone the differences in their appearance.

Unfortunately, from most other games in the world, I’d just be picking out random characters here and there.

And that’s just for those who are visually interesting. There are even fewer who I would count as three dimensional enough to be involving as far as written characterisation is involved. It’s a fact that as far as character is concerned, games fall flat. It’s is also a fact, that in order for the games industry to grow, and keep raking in revenue and fans, this is going to have to change.


... Just to prove a point.

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