Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Design Primer: Askhat's minotaur

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 7
On Christmas Eve, 2006 I was in Akita, a sleepy town in northern Japan, and posting on the internet.

I know this because yesterday a friend from polycount emailed to thank me for the advice I'd given him over the years, and he highlighted one thread in particular, which bears that date. While I'd like to think that him re-reading old posts of mine to his threads has to do with the endless wisdom one can glean from my writing, the truth is more prosaic. Askhat Mizambekov, aka conte, is an fellow game artist and polycounter (I particularly like his concept art) for whom English is a second language.
 He emailed me thanking me for advice I had given him five years ago that was a little outside his grasp of the language then, and so wanted to thank me after the fact. Other than this being quite a thoughtful gesture, it was also an interesting little window into my own artistic/design thought processes from five years ago.

Other than removing a number of exclamation marks ("An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke" wrote Fitzgerald) and elaborating on a point or two, I present my same post from five years ago as a short primer on logically refining a character design, relevant for artists and game designers both.

Pictured: my illustration for this article about Askhat's minotaur,
not actually his (or my) concept of a minotaur. Wouldn't be very useful as a concept,
 now would it? Where's the rest of him? Is that the star brush from Photoshop?

Sorry Askhat, I am currently in northern Japan and have no access to a scanner or Wacom tablet. Luckily for you, Eric looks to have been on a rather inspired painting streak and has provided some good input on designing the armor and some coloration ideas. Nice paintover, Eric!
I'll do what I can, though: One of the best (and easiest) ways to refine a concept is to think it through logically. Ask what this Minotaur is all about. Where did it come from? Is it a dumb beast, or intelligent in its own right? Does it have a master? If you give yourself an answer to a few of these questions, you can make your concept a whole lot more interesting. Form follows function, right?
Let's take an idea and then just run with it, see where it takes us.
Let's assume that this minotaur is a spin on the ancient Greek myth about the Minotaur, placed in the Labyrinth. Now, without getting into the particulars of the mythology and turning this into a Greek style monster, we'll assume this: there's a Labyrinth where victims/"the hero" are trapped and the Minotaur kills them/tries to kill them.
A Minotaur in a Labyrinth killing stuff is cool, but it still doesn't give us anything interesting to go on. So we introduce a design constraint (often the best way to generate new ideas): in order to really make it difficult for whomever's trapped in the Labyrinth to win, let's say the entire Labyrinth is completely dark. Pitch black.
But the Minotaur has great hearing and sense of smell, so it still manages to catch people in the darkness.
We could also suppose, just for fun, that the Minotaur's hairs covering his body are very sensitive to heat--so if the  hero or victim that's trapped in the Labyrinth is foolhardy enough to carry a torch, the Minotaur will be able to find him even easier. Maybe this is just silly and we'll discard it later, but it's worthwhile to entertain different possibilities, especially in the beginning of this process.
So let's look at what we've got now:

1.) Labyrinth where Minotaur hunts down "the hero"

2.) Labyrinth is completely dark.

3.) Minotaur has very good hearing, smell, and heat sense.

Okay, that should give us more than enough to design the minotaur in an interesting way.
One approach given the lightless environment would be to pull a "Gollum", and make the Minotaur like a slimey, albino cave creature with very little pigment. But that suggests a long time spent evolving in that environment, and frankly  runs contrary to the strong suits and essential character of the Minotaur. Still an option, though.
But let's just assume that while the Minotaur hunts people in the dark of the Labyrinth, it does get some exposure to light intermittently. (Or maybe they turn out the lights during the hunt, because it was getting too easy for the Minotaur to kill people.)
So the Minotaur isn't a cave dweller by nature. The next natural choice would be for it to have a blindfold of some sort, or better yet, some blinders, like a horse. If you go with that, you can create a visually interesting sort of  blinding-helmet, which functions to blind but also protect the Minotaur's eyes and skull. So that's an idea.
Going along with that, the armor should protect him well in this dark environment. He's got a great sense of hearing,  but he can't echolocate like a bat (or Daredevil), so let's say he navigates the Labyrinth because he's memorized the entire layout, from years of hunting people in it before they turned the lights out. But even though he knows the whole  layout, he still needs armor not only to protect him from whoever he's fighting, but also to keep him from injuring  himself too much if he would happen to charge into a wall or otherwise run into an obstacle. Does he keep track of his steps on some kind of counter, like a string of Tibetan prayer beads?
Now you've got a helmet and an interesting possibility for armor/equipment. How about a weapon?
If he's trying to kill something in the dark, he's probably not going to use a particularly precise weapon, either. This suggests maybe a nice big club or warhammer, something really big, blunt, and suitable for a monster in a maze to  use. Something big and capable of withstanding an accidental striking against stone, like the floor or a wall. And it's left in the dark of the Labyrinth, without cleaning or maintenance, so it's probably pretty nasty.
Or maybe it's ritualistically cleaned by cult retainers devoted to the care of the Minotaur, since a dirty weapon would interfere too much with the Minotaur's highly developed sense of smell. Do the retainers/cult members have a supporting role suggestive of gameplay?
Does the minotaur consume the heroes he bests in the Labyrinth after killing them, or simply retire to his lair. And if he doesn't eat the corpses, who does? Is the Labyrinth covered over in beds of fungus in the dark that sprout among the corpses? Some kind of parasitic/carrion feeder food-chain that subsists on the victims of the Labyrinth?
Finally, just to spool out an idea related to the heat-sensitive business, you could give him a really long pelt on his back or around his neck or something, specialized sorts of hair tufts that react to heat. Like cat whiskers or something. That's a pretty bizarre idea so you may or may not be able to do anything with it visually, but it's still a potential feature.
There you go: starting with just a few basic "how about" sort of scenarios, we've been able to come up with a  potentially novel approach to a minotaur design. This methodology (one of many possible) is also nice because it suggests a  whole scene, complete with the Labyrinth and the hero character, and possibly even a game mechanic. Maybe the hero has a torch, but has to throw it around in order to mislead the Minotaur? Maybe the hero uses the Minotaur's memorized knowledge of the Labyrinth against him, and uses something to trip him up unexpectedly?
Blinkered creatures aren't particularly new in games (those wolverine guys in RE4 come to mind, for instance), but it could still make for something that gets beyond just another well-made, but fundamentally uninteresting, obvious Minotaur character.
I apologize for the lengthy posts, but it'll do in the place of my inability to give you a paintover. Maybe even better, since you're able to draw just fine yourself it looks like :) I hope this idea-generation technique proves useful for helping you flesh out this character and future ones.

Radiator Yang's Interview with yours truly

There have been mild suggestions that I update this blog. Such efforts have resumed.

In the meantime, Please enjoy this interview piece by Robert Yang wherein we discuss a whole host of designerly things, if you didn't catch it on Rock Paper Shotgun.
gausswerks: design reboot. Design by Pocket