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Character Design is a big deal for game developers, and effective character design can make or break your game. No major aesthetic element for Touch of Death was more complicated for us than the design of our main character. When we say “Design” we don’t simply mean “what they look like,” but the deeper things like what this character is about and how we handle them. This is one of the big challenges of effective character design—creating a character that not only is interesting to the player on their own, but fits into the game and is a credit to the company.

Making memorable characters could be its own Dairy entry, so I’ll save jumping into that except to say that memorable characters created for games are often different from the ones in literature. RPGs present players much of the work of creating a memorable character, but the unseen influence of the game is still there. Characters within a game will become memorable as artifacts of the game themselves. Some extremely memorable characters only got there by having good game mechanics to drive them, like Mario or Megaman, while the birth of personality-fueled memorability is pretty new to game design.

Gameplay Limitations on Character Design

So if you really want people to think your character design clicks, you’re still best off trying to create a character that suits the game you’re making. If your game has a lot of complex choices, that means a deep and nuanced character. If your game is like Touch of Death, and far more linear, a good character has a story to tell already and will tell it through the gameplay.

For us, this started with research. We wanted to figure out what kind of character would not only fit the surreal world we were making here—the strange world of Kung Fu movies, which are both fantastical and yet rooted in Chinese history and folklore—but also give us something to really stand out and let the player focus on as themselves.

Because the character is essentially on one path, with small deviations, I did not feel that a questing hero fit the usual mould. Furthermore, we had the technical constraints put on us by the intended game engine, so we knew the guy couldn’t be jumping off the walls the way Jackie Chan was in Drunken Master. We need someone who could be compelled to walk a path, and literally walk it, and not leave the player feeling frustrated that their dude wasn’t questioning this.

For a quick example, take Link from the Zelda games. Link is a very linear character in a nonlinear world, which to me always felt odd and sucked some of the epic out of his post-SNES games. Clearly, Link speaks to a lot of people as an everyhero, but I know from a fact that my little brother—who is an absolute Link fanatic—justifies this to himself as Link being somewhat dopey, and just accepting the quests handed to him without question. To me, this seems to dent the mythic structure a little, something Yahtzee even mentioned recently. So I would call Link one of those guys who is liked, but has the same character design as a piece of plywood with Hero written on it.

Old Snake turned Limited Gameplay Mechanics into a dramatic story element

Our guy needed some more reasons that refusal of his quest was impossible. The obvious solution was the one we went with—the Ninjas kidnapped someone important to him, and he’s got to get them back. We further cemented this by saying they also took dangerous Kung Fu secrets of his, and that he’s one of those Old Badass Masters. Leaping around isn’t their style. Not only does he not want to, but he doesn’t have to. Think of this as an example of how adversity creates better final products. By forcing yourself to actually pay attention to these things you’ll actually create better characters down the line.

This served the mechanical problems well, giving us an idea for a character that won’t look silly just fighting within the center of the screen, and it also let us do so without implementing blocking mechanics that we wanted to avoid. Blocking and redirecting strikes is such a huge point of Kung Fu that only the baddest of badasses can get away with simply ignoring your attacks, and that left us with a narrow spectrum to pick from.

To me, there wasn’t much of a debate. Villain of several movies and inspiration for several more, Priest Pai Mei was one of the most iconic and, to me, interesting characters to work from. He perfectly fit the theme of the era, and I think his inclusion communicated a strong film reference that otherwise may have been missed. Furthermore, he already had an association with techniques meant to kill by touch. The runner up for this role was the evil monk from Iron Monkey.

The second runner up was Wong Fei Hung, but I felt such a well known, popular, and beloved character went from being good movie fodder to being possibly culturally insensitive. He also felt too heroic, too noble, and far too well established for our purposes. But knowing when something will be cheap cash in is important.

Designing on Terra Incognita

Game designers may not always have access to all the best information on what is or is not true, misrepresented, or a stereotype, and they may not know any better themselves, and those things lead to tone-deaf character design. This gets into the “stand on their own and be a credit to the project” element of character design. We wanted out character to be worth sequels and spinoffs, even if we never make any, and we didn’t want to be embarrassed by appropriating something people really love and just making money off of the name.

Wong Fei Hung and Huang Gar. Most badass bowtie ever.

Often characters will be hyper sexualized, or incredibly bland stand-ins disguised as a “blank slate.” It’s also common to see characters that fit a stereotype and don’t fit reality, but nobody but a member of that group would know the difference, and are often too small in number to voice up about it. Thankfully this is happening less and less, but it’s something to keep in mind when designing your character. Make sure that this character is, itself, not a bad reflection on you or your company.

This is one of the live wires of character design. Consider the apparent double-standard of hyper sexualized female character design versus a reality that does have examples of that being done by choice. Characters, however, have no choice. If their main purpose within your product is to be eye candy and deliver a mere handful of lines, well, then you’ve created an unnecessary character and done so for the wrong reasons.

This is something a lot of people would say is “not a big deal,” but when you look at the tremendous negative response that Samus got in Metroid Other M and the tremendous positive response that BioWare has recently gotten for finally embracing FemShep as a character they want to feature, you can see just how much people do care. Don’t make design choices that alienate part of your audience. If you’ve got an idea, and you don’t want it to be offensive, what can you do?

Let's not even bring Other M's Samus into this discussion.

You can either play it entirely safe, or you’ve got to translate these ideas into actual designs. FemShep did that and did it well, and got a lot of great gamer feedback for it. Just having a concept that you like doesn’t excuse you from putting the work into researching designs though. Surprisingly, character design requires an awful lot of research, something BioWare has often been good on when embracing different sexes and genders and sexual preferences in games. We’re obviously not going into anything so complex for Touch of Death, we just wanted to make sure our character wasn’t going to come off wrong.

He’s based on a possibly historical but certainly folk character from Shaolin’s past, often one of the traitorous Masters that decided to let the temple be destroyed to preserve his own followers or for more political reasons. As someone who did Kung Fu for a while, I knew of the character and thought it’d be interesting to make use of the aesthetic elements without using the character themselves.

First off, I started by drawing him over and over, trying to see what elements of his design I liked the most. This itself involved a lot of research, into basic things like what he’s wearing, how it moves, where it bends, and so forth. For a long time we didn’t know what period of history we wanted to set it in either, so we had to do a great deal of research to see what the fashions and settings were like in various periods in history. Most of this was pretty dull—looking back, doing concepts, drawing it down, and then checking over it again.

We changed his design several times into a more traditional set of robes when I finally, after much looking, figured out what the significance of the colors meant.

I knew that Buddhist monks often wore orange. Pai Mei had nearly always been pictured wearing white and black though. Originally I thought it was just nice color contrasts, but I ran across a movie where it featured more of his disciples and again they were all wearing the same colors. After digging around it became more obvious that these were related to Daoist robes, and that finally made things make a lot more sense–and gave me a great inspiration for how he should think, act, and how we can tie this into the game itself.

Pai Mei in Executioners From Shaolin.

This crystallized several disparate elements we were working on, and gave us a big break from the character he was based on into the character we were choosing to portray. Rather than being a cheap knockoff, the design shifted to representing something on its own and being a complete character. Even for a mobile game, knowing that you’re doing things for the right reasons is important, and it takes so little time to do it right that there’s no reason not to, especially when dealing with philosophies and cultures that you do not understand exactly as well as your own. That’s really the bottom line right there.

The How and Why

How: Characters need to be created to suit the game, just like every other storytelling mechanic. Creating a story element as big as a character also requires understanding the aesthetics involved, how the many story elements will be viewed through the player’s character and the interactions with other characters, and how the choice you’ve made to depict a character in one way or another will reflect on the message you’re conveying to the player. Identify the restrictions of your game, and find ways to make these not restrictions placed on the player, but elements of the character that the player plays through in a natural way. Furthermore, identify those elements of your character that can alienate and distance them from the player, and if those elements are undesired, find a way to bridge the gap or make the character less problematic (or offensive) to reasonable minded people. Stereotypes are bad design and they hurt people.

Why: If you’re uninterested in telling a story or crafting an experience you don’t need good character design, just throw something together and move on. If you want that experience though, you need to reach the player and let their time in that character’s head be enjoyable. Making that character act in ways the player finds offensive, or portraying people and things that player holds dear in negative ways can pull people out of it. Sometimes characters may need to do nasty things, like characters in movies, and these times you need to use good design bridges to keep the player with you and stop them from putting it down and telling their friends not to buy it or say it sucks. Sometimes characters are portrayed as non-people, like eye candy or offensively stereotypical targets for ridicule, and people are pulled out of it because they’re seeing your smudgy fingerprints on the character instead of a real person, and it will reflect badly upon you and deservedly garner negative feedback. Good design isn’t about avoiding controversies and complexity, but about pushing past the impulse to say “it’s not a big deal” and make something special with it that people are going to be able to latch onto. We really hope that when people play our game, they enjoy the character and story, even if it’s a small game. Too many people make stupid, thoughtless choices in their design, and it hurts their games and it hurts us as a community, not only by making us look bad but by alienating voices and ideas and cultures that otherwise enrich us.

SpaceLab Signing Out

There’s a lot going on here, a lot more than I can talk about in one column, so if you’ve got topics you’d like to dig more into, send a trackback or a comment or even write me an email directly and speak your mind. Have a great weekend and see you next Saturday with the next column on X-COM.