Designing Zara: Creating a Character Steeped in Personality

Welcome to Streamline Media Group’s ongoing blog series where we interview a Streamliner from one of SMG’s business divisions. Recently, Streamline Games, a business division of Streamline Media Group, soft-launched their newest game, Nightstream, in Malaysia.

Streamline Games is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the heart of Southeast Asia. For the initial launch, it was important for the team to represent Malaysia and its cultural identity – including the different faces of Malaysia.

We spoke with Lynette Wong from Streamline Games about her work on Nightstream, how the design of one of Nightstream’s more prominent characters, Zara, came to be, and what the reception to her has been like.

 

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Can you introduce yourself and your role on Nightstream?

I’m Lynette Wong, a 2D artist in Streamline Games. I concept characters and am a story writer on Nightstream.

 

What is Nightstream?

Nightstream is a runner mobile game set in the world of Persepolis. It’s a game like Temple Run and Subway Surfer, but the difference being you’re not running on your feet, instead, you’re on a hoverboard with full freeform movement.

 

Can you tell us about Zara? How would you describe her and her personality?

Zara is an uprising musician who is haunted by the death of her younger brother. She’s the sort of person who seeks justice. She’ll do everything in her power to protect her family and friends. She has a serious, cool and collected front, but to anyone who’s close to her, she’s a total goof. Oh, and she’s also a part-time barista.

 

How long did it take to finalize Zara’s design, from concept to finished design?

It took about a couple of weeks, maybe a month. Design wise it was me, with inputs from the art director. Story-wise, there was at least seven to eight of us.

 

What rules and guidelines did you have in place for designing Zara?

From the get-go because of religious reasons, her design had to be modest. But at the same time, it had to evoke a fresh, modernized, sci-fi feel fitting into the world of Nightstream. Since she had to cover up most of her body with clothing, I took some inspiration from Nike Pro’s hijab campaign. I tried to be sensible about the amount of clothing she wore since our characters wear active wear.  I couldn’t pile clothing on her since she’d be riding a hoverboard and basically be moving a lot.

We had to make sure the back was also interesting since the player would mainly be viewing the character from the back most of the time.

 

“Audiences feel more connected to characters when they have flaws. Otherwise, she’d just be a fantasy with no characteristics. There aren’t many characters in current media that look like Zara.”

 

What was your workflow for designing Zara?

In the beginning, we didn’t know if our character was going to be male or female. Once we decided on her gender we started working on her backstory. It’s important to know who she is first to be able to successfully translate that into the design. Once we had that down, I did a ton of research on real-life fashion and active wear. I came up with a couple of designs, and our art director, Renier, picked the one he liked most. Initially, I tried to mix batik into her capelet, but it ended up being too distracting design wise. But If we had gone with batik, it would’ve been a nightmare to draw it into every single panel of our comics. After refining the design further, I started on color combinations, and finally, we settled on the default color scheme you see in the game.

[Editor’s note: batik is a technique of dying cloth that results in elaborate patterns and designs. It’s especially popular in Indonesia and parts of Malaysia.]

Around the time I was designing her face, I was watching Netflix’s Punisher in my downtime. I really liked watching Dinah Madani, played by Amber Rose Revah. I felt that some of her personality matched Zara’s. I wasn’t so much inspired but influenced. I was also looking at Overwatch, to study what makes their characters so popular from a design standpoint.

  

 

What do you think makes Zara appealing?

She’s relatable; she has flaws. One of those being headstrong and stubborn. Audiences feel more connected to characters when they have flaws. Otherwise, she’d just be a fantasy with no characteristics. There aren’t many characters in current media that look like Zara, especially role models to look up to. Many western kids have a variety of superheroes they look up to. There aren’t many (if any) for young Malaysian girls to look up to, and even though Zara isn’t a superhero, I hope that she inspires Malaysian youth.

 

How do you define good character design?

There are many factors that play into this. Research is one good reason for good character design, that and of course, readability. When I talked about Zara’s background that also played into her character design. Her personality must show in her design. Her silhouette should also be unique from the other Nightstream characters. It should set her apart as an individual. I think I accomplished that by sticking to a lot of the rules we placed for Zara. A good character design makes for a memorable character.

 

What were some of the design challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge about Zara was mainly getting the dress code of a Muslim woman down. Since I’m not part of the religion I had to do a lot of research and collaborated with people from the faith to nail down a modest and modern outfit for her. Checking in with people often served as a sanity check, they’ll often tell me if something wasn’t modest.

 

What has the reception and feedback been to Zara’s design?

From what we see when we attend events, people like her. It’s something new that they’ve never seen before. It’s not every day that you see a hijabista as the main character of a video game. We’ve had tons of people taking pictures and selfies with the life-size standee of Zara.

[Editor’s note: hijabista is local slang, a combination of the words hijab, a traditional head covering for female Muslims, and fashionista, a follower of fashion. Think hipster with a hajib – after all, Zara is a part-time barista and musician.]

 

What aspect of Zara’s design are you the proudest of?

I don’t have really have a favorite design aspect about her, she was just fun to create. The idea that she culturally represents a lot of people in Southeast Asia takes the cake.

 

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Special thanks to Lynette Wong from Streamline Games for sharing her thoughts and design process on designing one of Nightstream’s playable characters.

Nightstream is available now in Malaysia for iOS and Android devices. For more information on Nightstream, including upcoming content releases, visit our website and follow our Facebook page.


Are Video Games an Art Form? Consider Rez HD

You can draw a direct line from Fantasia to Michel Gondry to Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Some games rise to art. Rez HD is one example.

The techno pulse of the game draws you in, creates a compelling vortex, the geometric grace of the game design spins you through a tron-like trance. This is the idea. To engage the emotions, like the pounding experience of the dance club floor. Flashing lights. Bright colors. Four on the floor. You get lost in this game.

"With Rez, it was more about conveying the joy of listening to music through a game. The two titles share a common denominator in that they’re based around music, but they have a very different sort of expression. One aims to make you happy; to make you want to get up and dance, while the other aims to create a deeper response to the creation of music itself." Tetsuya Mizuguchi gaming.moe

It was the Russian artist Wassily Kadinsky that thought to pursue the concept of sonic vibration in an art. He called it Synaesthesia.

"Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul." Kadinsky

 

Mizuguchi followed this inspiration from the techno clubs to his game.

"I was reminded of that and Kandinsky's concept of synaesthesia. I thought, 'If I could bring this kind of feel to a game, what kind of game can I make?' I didn't have any answers at that time. I needed time. So maybe three or four years later, I had a very funny image of something - visuals and sounds, a spark like that. Then I was getting the music. We tested many types of this kind of process, and that's how we made Rez." Wired

It's difficult to see art when it first arrives. Time is the ultimate arbitrator of what is and what is not art. Are video games now considered a legitimate art form? What Mizuguchi is seeking is an emotional response to games that has proved elusive. Someone might walk through the Louvre and break down in tears at a beautiful painting, but can that happen with a game? And is that even a fair benchmark to distinguish art?

"The experience is getting greater in the games industry. Just 40 years ago, we started from black and white dots. No sound, just beep sounds. Then we got colours, 2D then 3D… but we will have a much greater evolution in future games." 

Rez HD first dropped in 2008. it's closing in on a decade. And the game still resonates in a unique way. It conjured a future for us

"Maybe we won't be able to tell the difference between real images and generated images. Maybe we'll be able to see a movie and stop to change the point of view in the future. We need to prepare all the time. We need that kind of inspiration." 

 

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The Idea of Video Game Art at Streamline Studios

We set a high bar for our digital art. But where do our ideas come from?

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Have you read Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods'? If you haven't, stop reading this and read that right now. It's an unbound tsunami of creativity. You read a story of such intensity, and you think where did the dude come up with this stuff? Lucky for us, Neil is very forthcoming about his process.

"For me, inspiration comes from a bunch of places: desperation, deadlines… A lot of times ideas will turn up when you’re doing something else."

Sometimes I think perfecting your process, your workflow is the greatest key to getting a consistent creative result. But the real trick is to recognize when it's time to take a detour. Real creative inspiration often lies down the unexpected path.

". . . Ideas come from confluence — they come from two things flowing together. They come, essentially, from daydreaming. . . . "

An artist's work matures when they learn to recognize a detour as the main path. Not every detour turns into platinum inspiration, but every spark of authentic inspiration comes from an unexpected place.

"Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea — it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else; we just notice when it happens a little bit more."

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How Do You Develop Iconic Characters For Your Video Game?

Nothing makes a game sing more than a great lead character. Where do you find them?

Photo courtesy of http://pacman.com/en/

Sometimes I wonder if the fault is in our engines. There’s a sameness to a lot of games. A sameness in movement. A sameness in look. And a sameness in character. Which means a sameness in story.

But in any creative the key to great success is originality. Sure, after a hit game you’re going to see 20 hit games that simply look like variations on a theme. That happens in movies and TV and on the shelves of your local bookstore. Why should video games be any different?

What I’ve been working on are different ways to look at story, different ways to approach things, and asking myself how do you develop iconic characters? Because if your aim is a great game, it begins right there, with a great character living a great story.

That’s what captures people and spins them into the heart of your game. That’s what they remember. And that’s what signs them up for the next ride.

We’re talking story here, which gives rise to character, which underlines your game with iconic force.

I’m not discussing iconic characters in games (because that’s already been ably done right here) but rather looking at ways to pop those iconic characters out of your personal brain pod by examining the context of your story.

Now some games are more story focused than others, but every great character has a story, even if that story only belongs to the design team. Every character needs context and that context begins, always, with desire.

What does the character want above all else? To chew on this let’s look at a simple character that also is arguably one the greatest video game characters of all time: Pac-Man. A simple character in a simple story.

Pac-Man’s whole goal is to survive. And when he doesn’t he lets out that plaintive little cry of despondency, a perfect match to your dead hand on the joystick. I have failed. I have been eaten. Desire so clear-cut means everybody instantly connects with a character, and yes, everybody apparently connected with Pac-Man. And identified with Pac-Man. Another essential criterion for an iconic character.

The context of Pac-Man is the Maze. He’s caught in a Maze. Aren’t we all? That’s the underlying message of the game and why it was an instant cultural tsunami.

A strong, clear-cut desire in a universal context. You can’t beat it.

Let’s stick with Pac-Man a moment because by examining and re-examining context, we deepen our story. What I am suggesting is when you get stuck in your story, check your context. If you find your way forward from the contextual point of view, not only will you uncover new storylines, you will deepen your protagonist’s character.

Pac-Man is trying to survive. Pac-Man is also insatiable. And Pac-Man is trapped. To ultimately survive Pac-Man must escape the maze. The Maze is everything. It defines every single thing about Pac-Man. His world is bound and limited. His hunger is a product of the Maze. His harried scurrying, crazy left, and right, and backward and forward, his limited choices a product of the Maze. Everything about Pac-Man is the Maze and if you want more character in this little ball of fun, keep returning to the Maze, because the Maze will give you endless ways to develop his character, and therefore his story.

You can write a War and Peace length epic novel about Pac-Man if you keep harvesting context from the Maze. And no, I am not going to do that. I said you could do it.

Let’s say some mean ass game producer gives you the assignment of developing Pac-Man’s character. Where do you begin? The Maze. Once upon a time Pac-Man was bored.

What next?

He was bored because he was stuck in the Maze. The Walls were high, the paths limited. The same slog again and again. What would that context mean to Pac-Man? I’d say it would drive him crazy. Pac-Man is insane. In fact, Pac-Man has reached his breaking point. He can’t take the Maze anymore. He snaps. He becomes a homicidal maniac.

Now what?

What if he escapes the Maze? Without the Maze, he wanders the city in an unconfined rage. He kills and maims and becomes Dark Pac-Man. The lack of the Maze is the now context. Without the confines of the Maze he loses all touch with reality. He begins to hallucinate. He starts to babble, but people he meets mistake his babbling for enlightenment. Pac-Man becomes a guru, with followers and a religion springs up. He’s carried around the city in a golden chair.

And then?

Umm, The Maze! Always return to the original context to find your story. He decides the Maze now means survival. He needs to escape the crushing pressures of being The One. He must get back to the Maze. But without walls he is hopelessly lost, there are no boundaries, so how can he find the Maze again?

You figure it out.

There are a million roads to take in a story, but the right ones will be the ones that return to the context of your story. A context can evolve, and shift, and sometimes change completely, but when you get lost in your storyline, step back, check out your context and right there is your new way forward.

Understanding your context and placing your character firmly inside of it can lead you to a protagonist with iconic resonance.


3 Pillars of Great Video Game Design

An idea floats in the ether, formless, a spark, inspiration, but to bring it into focus you need a great design.

A great game, no matter the medium, engages people, gives them new challenges to take on, and skills to learn, and rewards them in the end. This might be chess, or it might be Final Fantasy. It's fundamentally the same.

A well-struck balance between different factors is the hallmark of great game design.

There are three elements that work together to produce a great video game design. There are multiple factors at play, some of them intangible, but balancing these three fundamental parts of a game design, getting everything just right, can take you a long way down the road to a game experience that hooks you and won't let go.

1. Gameplay

Is it possible to make a game so intuitive to play you jump into the game, and you're completely immersed from the start? Maybe not, but I believe that should be the goal of every great game design. It's truly a fundamental part of games that is often overlooked. People will talk story (so will we in a moment) and art and atmosphere when they discuss game design, but the gameplay makes the difference. Good gameplay design gets you into the game fast, and you forget about it. It's seamless. What can be more fundamental and critical in game design?

You might spend hours getting the look of your characters just right, but if the gameplay is off, nobody will ever get a chance to enjoy all your hard labor on character design.

There is a place for all those elements people often discuss when it comes to game design, but I rolled them into one big, meaningful whole because seeing them that way creates another concrete pillar for our game design triad.

2. Dimensionality.

Let's borrow from String Theory for a second (yes, really) to discuss dimensionality as height, width, depth and time. To create a vibrant four-dimensional place, a game must look to different emotional elements working in harmony: Soundscapes, art, music, voices, story, all combining to design a real immersive atmosphere, The idea is to transport a player.

Gameplay gets them into the game, but dimensionality propels the player into another world. The perfect balance achieved, and the player is barely aware of the game at all, the player becomes part of the game. To bring a player to this state, it's important to understand all the elements of a game's dimensionality must work together. Anything superfluous must go.

A great game can be a crude sketch, a simple world of 8-bit depth, but even in the most straightforward game the right dimensionality draws a player into the game and provides a memorable experience.

Let's play that again; the greatest compliment a game designer can hear.

Which brings us to the third pillar a fundamentally sound game design must have, and arguably the most important. Without this, you might as well not even begin.

3. Concept.

When I was a kid, I started out in an advertising agency that was devoted to the Big Idea. The Big Idea was everything. It was undeniable. It was unique. It set an impossible standard, but it served an exact purpose. Unless your idea resonated, breathed, had its own momentum, you shelved it and looked for another one.

Believe me; I spent many hours staring out my office window at 3 A.M. waiting for the Big Idea to appear. And when somebody nailed one, it sent a charge up and down our New York skyscraper. Nothing has more power than the Big Idea, and it's as true today as it was twenty years ago.

Do you alway come up with a Big Idea? No. If every game, every designer had a Big idea, the world would be a better place, but sometimes you have to move forward with what you've got.

The point is to examine every aspect of your game idea until you have shaped and understood your concept. Because Big Idea or not, everything must serve the concept. If it doesn't, hit delete.

Test your concept, challenge your concept, go over it with other people, make sure your entire team is on the same page about every aspect of your concept. What's the ultimate test of your concept? You can't wait to start. And that eagerness to share your work is at the bedrock of every great game design.


The Beautiful Process of Digital Art at Streamline

In our digital art, we seek mystery and depth.

We endeavor to break new ground, wander new realms, find our way to something new every day.

It is an artists' charge to do no less.

An artist strives to stand away from society. To be different. The rest of us - the bankers and politicians and scientists and teachers - are under no such obligation. But an artist stands alone by choice, becomes their own testing ground, their own experiment, creates their own path and rules. Not that any of this process is all that considered or fits any pattern or route. The best art surprises the artist as well. It is unexpected. All revelations are.

Experience in art only means experience in discarding and choosing, no experience in the process, and every master will tell you the life of an artist is losing all technique until all you are left with is the core of your inspiration.

So most of us take it for granted the life we have, the nuts and bolts of it, but an artist recasts it, approach the mystery beneath, not to solve it or find any great answer there, but merely to point and say all may not be as it seems.

In digital art, in the complex collaboration of video game development, this dance toward art is the greatest challenge. It requires a process that is rigorous and free at the same time. It requires a depth of communication between different teams. It 's hard. But it's possible. And the result can be translucent.