Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Elements of game design, part three: character

The greatest focus of any game, aside from the plot itself, is that of the characters within them. Without dynamic characters, you are left with a simulated world, though beautifully designed in itself, with very little more. Static characters are just as bad, as they lack definition, emotion, and any tie to the character. For any game to succeed, the characters have to be memorable and dynamic, and thus a great deal of work and care is put into them.

Main characters are the figures within the game whose boots you step into for the journey ahead. The story most likely heavily involves them, and what happens around them during the course of their great adventure. But what exactly is the role of the main character in a game, book, or movie? Are they meant to be the most important individual? Do they alone dominate the focus of the game? A main character is usually the figure given the most attention, no matter if they are in a movie, book, or game.

A main character can be either protagonist or antagonist, depending on the type of game, and what the creators want out of them. Throughout the story, you are given perspective of the character in various ways. You can see what they look like, how they dress, and this grants an idea of their personality. Through their actions you find more about their ethics and morals, whether they are loved or hated, or even neutral. However, it is difficult to truly define a main character alone.

In any game, movie, or book, there are certainly secondary characters which compliment the main character, build their characteristics, and tell a much deeper story about them based on their interactions. These secondary characters are most likely dynamic characters as well, with their own histories and individual personalities. This grants a much greater variety in your cast. You don’t always have to adore the main character, as aspects of a secondary might be far more interesting, given the individual.

What elements make the characters, whether they are primary or secondary, most appealing to the reader/player? Mainly, I will discuss characters from games. There are many ways with which to accomplish this. On one hand, the character can be the most amazing and profound individual in the game; a hero or otherwise, but with their own faults to grant a balance and dynamism. Or, they can be a very simplistic character; a normal person with which the reader/player can envision themselves as that character, mixed in with the action, and taking part of the adventure firsthand. Some games can fulfill both of these tasks quite well. Two examples which I will focus on are the Half-Life series, and Dead Space games. The characters within these games have left the greatest impression on me.

In Half-Life, your character, Gordon Freeman, is a silent protagonist. He started as a mere scientist who is drawn into a terrible situation, which he alone is left to resolve despite all odds. Despite lacking many features, the player can impose their own characteristics upon Gordon, which makes him all the more dynamic. Silent characters tend to have this effect, much like RPG’s where you can define your character immensely. Another factor that allowed me to put myself in Gordon’s boots was the setting of the game, Half Life 2 specifically. The game takes place within Eastern Europe, and the setting reminded me a great deal of my home city. As with Half Life, Dead Space as well features a silent protagonist – at least in the first game – which allows you to step into his heavy, body-dismembering boots. These are the types of stories which I find irresistible, as they create an emotional tie with the player.

One of the most basic techniques a writer can use to draw a player to their character is sympathy. If you can become sympathetic of the character’s situation, you have all the more reason to play the game, and form a more emotional bond with the character. A more dynamic character requires emotions, which in itself takes good writing, designing, and animating to make the character real. The way the character moves, gestures, appears, talks, and interacts with their environment and other characters makes them truly appealing and dynamic. Many developers will hire celebrities to voice their characters in an attempt to make them more popular, which is sometimes unnecessary. Your character should be unique by themselves, without needing a famous voice to draw attention to them.

In the end, there are many ways to make a character successful. But essentially, their has to be a balance between realistic and supernatural qualities. The character, above all else, has to be believable, so that the player can bond further with them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Elements of game design, part two: art direction for games

Game design is a massive team effort, and while there are many leads for each aspect of design, the final decisions rest mainly on the art director. The art director is the person tasked with coordinating the flow of art in any game. Essentially, they decide what type of art should be implemented into the game, how the characters look, and how the environment blends with the overall style. The responsibilities of the art director are huge, since in the end, every approval or disapproval falls to the director, giving them control over the final product.

But what exactly is an art director? What kind of influence does he have on the game? And is he the person responsible for the whole game? The role of the art director is quite important, and though their decisions hold a great deal of weight, they must still rely on a team to make final decisions. Developing the art of a game is a process that requires a lot of people, power, and time. The first task for the art director and his crew is to brainstorm ideas for the overall art style. All of their ideas have to be incorporated in such a way that they will fit with the story and genre, and not look out of place.

A very important factor in modern games is the environment. Without a well developed environment, you end up with a potentially well-designed character that simply feels out of place in the surroundings. Deciding on a working environment concept sets the overall mood and feeling of the game, and thus a great deal of emphasis must be placed on it.

The art director for a game is quite similar to an art director for a movie. Both of them have to make important decisions about the look of a set/game level, and characters. With an art director in a film, they must coordinate with set builders, wardrobe teams, and the actors themselves, much the way a game art director deals with the lead artist, writers, and animators.

The job of the art director can be quite difficult at times. They have many responsibilities they have to keep up with, and are constantly moving about getting feedback from the various teams under them, and planning for the project’s future. Personally, I think the role of art director is amazing. There are times that I would probably hate it and the stress that comes with it, as well as the massive responsibility, but in the end, I would hold a great deal on influence over the concepts in the game. Having my own design ideas incorporated into a game is a thrilling idea.

As far as the creativity of the job goes, I’m honestly not certain how much actual designing the art director does on their own accord, since many of those tasks fall to the lead artist and their team. Simply giving orders to other artists doesn’t appeal much to me, as I’d much rather draw what I have in mind myself, instead of tasking someone else to do it. It’s much more effective than giving another designer a vague idea of what you want done. They can be creative in that they guide the other artists

In effect, the art director has many roles. They guide their team, keeping them on track with the overall style. They manage ideas, giving their input, getting feedback, and making final decisions for the product at hand. And most importantly, they ensure that every member works together and blends ideas, so that no aspect of the end product conflicts heavily with another.