Character Shapes and Character Development
The earlier section of this article explored the aesthetic sensations that we associate with primary shapes. In this section we will look at how these shapes can help us make sense of various character designs in the context of dynamic composition. The characters in Nintendo's Mario games make for great examples for this application.
Nintendo characters from left to right: Mario, Luigi, Wario, Bowser, and a Goomba
How would you describe Mario's personality? Perhaps: dynamic, youthful, positive. It's therefore no surprise to find that everything about Mario's design is based on the circular concept -- from his spherical torso, to his round moustache.
Luigi's supportive, brotherly personality can also be evidenced in the verticality of his figure, which references the rectangle in contrast to Mario's round shape. While Wario -- and almost every enemy within the Mario universe -- is aligned to the aggressive triangle.
In actual fact, what we're looking at is the same character! The artists at Nintendo have simply taken Mario's body and dialled the forms to be softer or sharper for different aesthetic effects based on the circle (Mario), square (Luigi), and triangle (Wario).
But what if Mario, Luigi, and Wario indeed represented one character that dynamically changed over the course of a narrative? The question relates to the way that we treat character development in video games.
Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), Nintendo
Take a look at the screenshots from one of my all-time favorite games, Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). The screen on the left depicts Link early in his quest, while the right-side image shows Link after you've helped him battle his way through many dungeons and large boss fights. How do we know that Link has grown in strength and ability during the course of this game? The evidence is not where most would expect to find it -- in the physical appearance of the character -- but in the user-interface. Link on the left has fewer hearts and a single sword equipped; and Link on the right has more hearts and many more weapons and gadgets.
While user-interfaces make sense to experienced video game players, those unfamiliar with the medium rightfully expect to see a visible change in the central character -- as occurs with actors in theatre and movies. Video gaming's treatment of character development is the equivalent of an actor verbally stating, "I am now stronger and more confident!" while his posture and behavior remains the same.
To create realistic and emotionally richer narratives we must begin treating video game characters as real people with a breadth of emotions. As the French Romantic painter, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), wrote on the topic of personalities:
"There may be ten different people in one [person], and sometimes all ten appear within a single hour."
- from The Journal of Eugene Delacroix
Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003), directed by Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema
Delacroix's remark extends to narratives and the fact that characters never start and finish in the same state. A narrative implies that a character has gone through an emotional change, which should be made visible for viewers to comprehend. Frodo's character in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, performed by Elijah Wood, illustrates how dynamic body language communicates his character's mental and physical state: from mock indignation; to a fevered shuffle; panicked run; and an exhausted stupor.
Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney. Sequence animated by Bill Tytla.
Disney animators from animation's Golden Age not only made a point of understanding the emotions of the character, but also understanding what the character is thinking. A character expressing its thoughts and motivations instantly appeared more lifelike.
The above sequence is featured in the must-have book, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation (Disney Editions 1995) by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, in which Grumpy has just received a good-bye kiss from Snow White. Notice how, from right to left, the aggressive angularity in his gestures soften to gentle curves as his temper dissolves.
Such dynamic character animations do appear in games like Resident Evil -- where the protagonist becomes physically impaired when poisoned or injured -- however this has more to do with communicating the character's health stats -- much like a user-interface icon -- than an emotional purpose.
Journey (2012), thatgamecompany
To date, the most successful game to express the playable character's emotions through physical gestures is thatgamecompany's, Journey (2012). In the opening sections of the game, the character has an upright posture and jumps freely and gracefully. But we witness a delicate shift in the character's physical state as we eventually guide it up into the storm where it begins to hunch forward against the pounding winds.
Perhaps thatgamecompany could have included character animations that communicate a sense of fear for the darker underground levels where the player is first confronted by a threat from flying Guardians. This may have made the final flight under blue sky even more cathartic.
The fact that players have a strong emotional empathy for their on-screen avatars will allow game designers to bring more emotional subtlety to video game experiences through increased use of dynamic character shapes. A character's shape can also be adjusted with a costume change; however, its physical posture is the strongest and broadest visual clue to their inner feelings.
This brings us to another aspect of dynamic composition associated with the character, and that is character animations in terms of jump arcs and lines of movement, which we'll explore in the next section.