Monday, 4 March 2013

Elements of game design, part three: character

Design in games is something I love, when a game delivers design work that is both visually stunning but technically intuitive always impresses me. The area of design I like the most is the character design, don’t get me wrong I find vehicle, environment and weapon/prop design brilliant as well but something about that interaction with characters is important. Characters in any book, game or film are the faces we grow accustomed to or despise, we form emotional attachments and that can only happen if they are believable.

Now I am a sucker for sci-fi, I was raised on Star Wars and love future tech, design and concepts. I’m going to explain the importance of characters in game by breaking down the elements of one of the coolest sci-fi characters to be created.

Thane Krios.
The last face some will ever see.
Thane is a drell assassin in Mass Effect 2. Being an assassin instantly brings the idea of cool to people’s minds. But why? Well I think that it’s because assassins have long held the mantle as death dealers from the shadows, individuals to be feared and respected.  That’s not how it is officially known but I think that’s a good summary. This kind of association like does not necessarily happen overnight. Semantics is the study of cognitive responses humans give when shown signifiers such as words or signs, it’s like word association, when a person see’s said thing the associate things with it. Ice is associated with cold, fire with heat etc. etc. my point is for any character design an element of semantics must be conducted. For thane to be the cool assassin that he is the designers needed he to portray the traits that most people think of as cool.
He appears in the light from the shadow, it adds drama and mood to this scene

In an assassin’s case they are seen as cool because they do things that the average human cannot, they are illusive, shrouded in mystery and skilled in the art of killing. That’s not to say   Assassins are not mindless killing machines they are surgeons with a precise craft. The reason I say this is because to kill a man in the minimum amount of moves, raising the minimum amount of awareness, in the minimum amount of time requires intelligence. Like a mathematical equation of death squared.  
>>He shouldnt be mistaken for a common soldier<<

To show this element of civility amongst chaos I like how Bioware portray Thane as a spiritual man, routinely saying prayers for those he killed. I think this is a nice way to add depth to a character, it give him a personality and shows that he isn’t proud about bringing death, but it is the fate they have been dealt for their transgressions. His personality goes beyond saying prayers because a personality in itself is not a one dimensional aspect one does not simply have a personality, it is a collection of traits habits and characteristics that make up a person’s personality. This turns him from a bunch of polygons to an individual being.

Something games or film directors do to create involvement with their product is to create emotional attachment. I have mentioned this earlier in the blog but I didn’t say how. Script writers have the important job of creating believable stories but the best ones are the ones which engage the audience with what they are seeing. In the case of Thane there are two distinct relationships you can have with him, each with emotional repercussions.

One of those relationships, the one I had when playing, is the friendship relationship. You meet thane in mass effect 2 he is introduced with a slick scene of martial arts combat and you are immediately impressed and intrigued. You slowly grow comfortable with his presence but it is revealed that he is actually dying of an incurable disease. Now for me this experience was like just getting to know a good friend only to have them tell you that they are dying, immediately I want to help them in any way possible. That is the response the script writers want, they want the action to evoke a response and it did. The fact that he is infected with a disease makes you a concerned friend, but to know that the disease it both fatal and incurable changes him to a valued friend, you only have a limited time with him so you add value to it.
"I love you bro!" , "I love you too man"

Contrast this to the romantic relationship you can pursue with him and things are much different. This relationship option is only available if you play as female commander Shepard and as with any romantic venture love is the key element. The emotion love is a complicated one. I know that is an age old statement but the reason for that is because there are multiple ways of loving someone. You can love them as a friend, a family member and of course a romantic partner. When I played the game I saw thane as a friend but let’s imagine he was a woman for a second and I had feeling for him, they are very different. If she told me she was dying and there is nothing you can do about it makes you heartbroken. This isn’t to say you aren’t upset as a friend but what it does to you, your perception of things changes when in love. To reflect this dialog options you can have with thane change, your character takes an active interest in thanes past, you get to know him as a person. You learn that his wife was murdered as a result of his profession and that he has a son, the player feels his pain and the emotional attachment is far greater. You have this option as a friend but the way it is scripted the emotion in the voices changes.

This nicely brings me on to the voice acting and animation. Seeing as how the actors aren’t actually in the game, unless we are talking mo cap, they have to reflect the movement and emotion of their digital counterpart through their voice. This is important because no matter how badass thane was and how well he was animated, if his voice is ten octaves high no one would take him seriously. That is not to say voice acting is the most important, creating a believable character in a believable scene is all about balance, everything must fit well together.

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