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Creating a character is not an easy job, it can be done by creative insight or careful calculation. The main hero is the soul of the game and whose avatar is used by a player to explore the game world. Players identify themselves with that picture on the screen, empathizing with it, enjoying, grumbling, and taking all the situations to heart. Therefore, the objective is to generate an emotional connection between the character and the player. It is not necessary to provoke only positive feelings; ironically, sometimes the player can hate his avatar. A graphic look of the character can induce a wide spectrum of emotions, and these emotions can be calculated in advance. This is based on the fact that humans usually have nearly the same reactions; in this case, the rules of their behavior are pretty conspicuous.
To illustrate the principles, I created the Scale of attractiveness, made of four main entries. At the very left, there is the Cute mark, in the middle is Brutal, followed by Human likeness, and to the right we see Scary. So, the chart begins with something very adorable and sweet but end with a scary character. Each position has its own collection of qualities.
Making characters cute
Cuteness is one of the most popular and demanded features that game designers want for their creations. Protagonists of majority casual games are cute to some degree; they look and act as sweet and comely creatures. It is simply impossible to ignore them and not fall in love with them. Recall the famous image of Nintendo’s Mario, he is 100 percent cute. What is the secret of such popularity? First, the cuteness is not about beauty (it is hard to call an alligator’s baby truly attractive, but it definitely is cute), which depends on personal taste and preferences, but about some basic patterns and proportions. Here is a citation from Natalie Angie’s article The Cute Factor published in The New York Times:
“Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.”
All listed features are general descriptions of one class of creatures on Earth: little babies and cubs. They are small, their heads are noticeably bigger than their body, their limbs are short, eyes are large, and so on. When we see something like that, a special system inside us tends to react commonly. It says that probably in front of us is a defenseless young creature that needs protection, care, and tenderness; a list of positive senses is switched on. Figuratively, we are filled with light.
By introducing a cute character in a game or other media, the authors simply exploits one of the natural human reactions. This is possible because it is pretty unconditional, the brain only needs some basic patterns, and the factual meaning of an object is totally irrelevant in this case. Thus, we consider something as cute despite the fact it is not a baby at all. Kittens are super cute, but adult cats can be cute too because they are small, have round and smooth bodies, and big eyes. Another popular example is owls, they have big round heads and large expressive eyes, making them one of the cutest birds on the planet.
Moreover, some mechanical objects are cute as well: majority European compact cars from the 1950s are adorable, remember the BMW Isetta, Fiat 500, original Mini, and VW Beetle? All of them look so nice and sweet, that you want to hug them, cover them with a plaid, and give some milk in a plate, as though they are small mechanical babies of bigger adult cars. The industrial design in that period was inclined toward cuteness (may be it correlated with the baby boom). Even utility vehicle such as buses and trucks were cute, in addition to household devices such as radio sets and refrigerators. But the most amazing thing was cute weapons. Of course, I’m not talking about the real ones, but imaginary ray guns that appeared in sci-fi art and in the form of toys were definitely adorable. It is clear why illustrators prefer to use objects from previous decades in their pictures, the final illustrations look warmer.
Therefore, to create a cute character, you need to follow some evident visual rules:
- Short body
- Rounded angles
- Curved contours and chubby figures
- Smooth surfaces without folds and wrinkles
- Big head with large forehead and small low jaw
- Small mouth and teeth
- Large eyes (or they stand wide) with big pupils
- Wide-open eyes with eyebrows lifted up
- Animals with big nose
- Short arms, legs, and fingers without visual joints
Making characters scary
Generally, cuteness is necessary for a protagonist to have a corner in the player’s heart. An antagonist must give birth to opposite feelings: loath and fear. Good enemies are creepy characters. To choose their visual appearance, let’s again exploit some ancient mechanics from the human brain. There are a lot of alarm systems that alert us when something looks or behaves suspiciously. Deep-seated fears of various forms are inside most people. A game, of course, should not provoke a real panic action, but can tickle some sensitive zones, playing with associations. Creepiness is the complete opposite of cuteness, it gives not a feeling of warmth, but that of cold.
To find an effective scary factor, it is good to look at common fears. Traditionally, many people try to avoid insects or even have phobias. Attributes of such creatures are interpreted as unpleasant or frightening. The only exception is ladybugs (they are round with white dots on their head and large eyes) and butterflies, which are primarily associated with petals of bright flowers. It is important to note that in most cases, insects are not aggressive and harmful, but they remind us of creatures from our worst nightmares, giving us the creeps (few examples are mole crickets and earwigs, eek!) Besides them, there are other types of arthropods with high potential of creepiness (and some of them are really dangerous!): spiders, scorpions, and centipedes.
They have adverse visual features such as jointed legs, spikes, exoskeletons, tails, multiple eyes, mandibles, and pincers. The key visual element is a gad, associated with cuts, injuries, and so on, that contradicts a cute creature’s properties, which has no acute angles. Moreover, fishes, reptiles, birds, and mammals look dangerous when they show their teeth, canines, tusks, horns, clutches, or sharp beaks. A predator is frightening because it shows it threatens with its weaponry: the potential danger is pretty obvious and their current intention is questionable. Now, the eyes comes into play. If they are fixed at you and are not blinking, it is most likely that the predator is paying attention to you and that is super scary. Furthermore, the eyes can be red because the reflection of light creates such an image. Dangerous creatures are fast so they can move and attack quickly; this means their limbs are pretty long, but bodies are narrow and streamlined. The following figure shows a scary creature:
Besides aggressive elements, other unpleasant properties can be used to increase the emotional impact; for example, the character can be additionally disgusting if it is covered with strange skin and even mucus. That turns on the dread of biological substances and the fear of germs and parasites. Squeamishness is one of the protection systems of a human, and sometimes it is very unconditional. Such an approach was used in Ridley Scott’s science fiction classics Alien: apparently the xenomorph was inspired by various creepy creatures, including arthropods and reptiles.
In addition, it had a very disgusting feature: toxic saliva was always dripping from his mouth, causing the viewers to feel terror and revulsion, a doubled negative emotion.
While creating a scary character, remember some basic features it needs to express through its design:
- Long and skinny body
- Nonhumanoid structure
- Many angles
- Many legs or at least noticeable joints
- Acute elements, such as spikes, clutches, and horns
- Small head
- Naked eyes that stay very close and can be red
- Weaponry openly displayed (biological tools such as pincers, real guns, and grenades)
- Unpleasant skin with verruca, folds, wrinkles, and some mucus
- Warning color that can mean that the character is venomous
Making characters brutal
Brutality, at the middle of the scale of attractiveness, describes the properties of a character that should exercise some heroic duties, being a soldier or a mercenary. It is obvious that such a person cannot have cute characteristics, otherwise it would look comical. Adorable creatures are associated with something very young, but the heroic character should be an adult. He must demonstrate strength and confidence with a little aggression. So, his look should be a little scary, but only a little, as far as he is not a creepy creature from the end of the scale. Since the brutal hero performs various acts of bravery, he must be fast and agile. So, his anatomical proportions should be close to hyperbolic athletic ones like heavy action heroes from the 1980s, featuring a well-developed muscular system and military toys. The following figure shows such a heavy action hero:
The apparent illustration of a brutal character is Duke Nukem, a protagonist of the game series of the same name originally developed by Apogee Software. He is brutal and fearless, and definitely not cute. A bunch of good examples is included in the game Gears of War from Epic Games. The members of Delta Squad are canonically brutal and tough guys.
Such type of characters generally are used in action games such as shooters. Figuratively speaking, they are mix made of a human and an armed vehicle, since they hold heavy weapons and armor. The following are the basic visual properties of such a hero (it is important to note that the brutality is gender independent, and although many such characters are men, nobody has forbidden you from creating a strong woman protagonist):
- Figures with no acute angles or rounded corners, but ones that are roughed down
- Strong legs
- Heavy feet to lean on the ground reliably
- Big hands with tenacious fingers to hold weapons and other objects
- Wide chest with ram-like powerful shoulders that are bigger than the legs
- Normal head with mid-sized forehead and a big low jaw
- Naked big eyes
It is pretty apparent that the extreme position on the scale is too categorical a benchmark to follow, whereas in most cases, nobody needs super cute or extremely scary characters. Something more universal is a mix of different properties, which is far more expressive. It is interesting that, as a rule, designs of a protagonist are situated between cuteness and brutality, so the character is anatomically adapted to make complex actions: move fast, climb ladders, fight, among others, and at the same time being pretty attractive.
The game lets you create a universe and settles it with characters, describing the rules of their behavior. This is a real gift for your imagination! And it is not about realism. The game universe can be based on your own principles and artistic taste. It can be cartoon like or gloomy and dark. It all depends on the mood of the story you are going to tell the players. Now, you know how to create a cute character and why you should be careful with real anatomical proportions. If the animation does not look scary, you can easily animate the protagonist and other characters.
Resources for Article:
- Development of iPhone Applications [Article]
- iPhone User Interface: Starting, Stopping, and Multitasking Applications [Article]