Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Books on Character Design and Development

I picked up two books to read over this module to hopefully expand my knowledge and awareness of both the process of writing/designing game stories and characters and designing concepts: Character Development and Storytelling For Games by Lee Sheldon and The Art of Game Characters by Leo Hartras.

Something I found interesting is the variety of approaches these two books take to developing characters. Lee Sheldon comes from a background as a scriptwriter for television - he has worked on shows such as Charlie's Angels and Star Trek: The Next Generation - and his job is primarily as a game designer and writer, so obviously aspects such as concept art are much less of a focus in his book. He believes writing characters and narratives should not be thought of lightly - considering we spend days on end experiencing a game whilst only a few hours watching a film, it is deserving of just as much respect and attention than it receives in other mediums.

He covers a wide range of topics, including an informative introductory overview of the history of storytelling, from cavemen telling tales by campfires to Aristotle and Homer; references to Jung's psychological theories of the ego, the personal conscious and the collective unconscious, and his writings on symbolism, dreams and myths in Man and His Symbols as valuable sources of knowledge for the writer - "great fuel to fire our creative thinking."; he also covers Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey, or the monomyth, which is said to be found in countless stories from around the world:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The monomyth is said to consist of up to 17 stages and is a fascinating focus of study in its own right.

On top of this the book covers designing successful and intuitive game worlds, and writing effective and interesting characters that avoid stereotypes and cliches:

"To recognize when you are writing stereotypes, as yourself questions: Does the character look, talk, and act exactly as you'd expect her to? If there are no surprises, you've got a stereotype. Do the concept sketches the artists are making from your description look a lot like the concept sketches from other games? Stereotype."

... "We must give them a life within the game, not just a gameplay reason for being there. We need to choose how they will grow, and how much they will learn about themselves."

It isn't easy avoiding stereotypes. Sheldon gives a few reasons of why we can quite quickly fall into the trap of creating characters of this nature, including us not realising they are stereotypes, which is usually the result from having too narrow a focus on your favourite mediums and genres, and not observing and 'absorbing' the world and as many stories as possible (I'd very much like to keep myself from falling into this).

As an important note, it is fine to use archetypes in a story - it is entirely possible to have "goddesses in leather" or "dashing, romantic hero" and allow players to live out their fantasies, but they have to be turned into "living, breathing individuals", otherwise the experience is hollow.

Another passage which was of interest to me was about the fantasy genre. Of course, my project falls under this definition as it involves creating a fantastical world which bears no real resemblance to our own (no matter how poorly I might be doing it - it is my first attempt!).

Sheldon gives some reasons as to why fantasy and sci-fi are so popular in the game industry:
- The roots of games are in tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and films like Star Wars which were popular at the beginning of the "personal computer revolution".
- The primary crossover audience from other media is still a fantasy/sci-fi audience -  young males. And with "cross media fertilization" (i.e. transmedia) being a big market focus, companies are bound to feed audience expectation.
- These genres are often preferred by game developers who are attracted to the idea of using technology and interactivity to create "anything our imaginations can conjure".
- It allows a wider range of solutions to fiction-breaking game problems like player-characted death, healing, etc.
- In games set on earth we're more likely to spot details that aren't correct, or shortcuts taken to make it manageable to a game engine. Alien worlds are much more flexible.

(for some reason I wrote a lot more than this but it disappeared, and the draft that's saved is missing it. I don't have time to write it out again, so I will have to leave this blog as it is!)

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