Saturday, October 30, 2010

What's in a face?

The human brain is fantastic at recognising similarities when it comes to things like human faces.  Which means when we're dealing with computer games that show people and faces in any sort of detail, designers have to be somewhat particular about the creation of individual characters. Faces can assist in portraying age, personality and even give information about a character's life, so should be created with some thought.

When people are walking down a crowded street, it's easy to pick out the faces of people they know, and this translates to the interactions a player has with characters in a game. Individuality must be a major factor when creating faces and characters because people are so good at recognising faces, so multiple characters that all have the same generic face will immediately break the illusion of reality for the player.  That said, if a player never sees these "generic faces" up close, then the problem is not that significant.

Oblivion suffered partially from "generic face syndrome"

In Dragon Age, like many non-first person games, you don't get a particularly close look at the faces of many individuals unless you talk to them and subsequently get a close-up camera during conversation.  In first-person games there's frequently the chance to get a close look at people's faces, which will translate into requiring a few extra faces needed for the "extras" within the game. However, the most effort should be invested in a game's major characters to make them memorable and distinctive. So how should designers work on creating NPCs and facial appearances that will help to create individual and unique characters?

In computer games, designers have many tools at their disposal to communicate to the player, and portraying the personality of characters is something that can be done in numerous ways.  There's overall appearance and body shape, facial apperance, their speech (both in terms of vocabulary and VO delivery), and things like their ambient behaviour when they're not interacting with the player. A designer should be abke to use all these tools to help convey and reinforce the personality of characters, particularly when it comes to major NPCs like crucial plot characters or allies. Some characters might pace incessantly, sit and meditate, read a book, and so on. This helps convey their character before the player even talks to them.

You know this character's profession from a single glance

When it comes to appearance it is ideal if a character's face can help reinforce their personality, even if in a stereotypical manner. People will associate certain facial types and structures with particular personalities, so the gaunt faced character will serve better as an older or more world-weary person, whereas the character with a larger or rounder face is more likely to be jovial or amicable. This isn't to say that characters should conform entirely to stereotypes, but designers should utilise these to help convey key aspects of character personality when create overall appearances and faces.

So if we're dealing specifically Dragon Age head morphs, there are a lot of things to consider. Skin, eye and hair colour, hair style, skin complexion, then various tattoos and makeup considerations are the basic superficial features that can help convey a character's background. As an example, a particularly flamboyant of flirty female might have strong makeup, perhaps bright red lipstick to attract attention. A character who spends all their time outside might have skin type with more wrinkles but less not an aged facial texture. Consider the shape of the character's brow and whether the corners of their lips are naturally raised or lowered as these could suggest a basic friendly or unfriendly disposition for the character.

This character's face suggests friendliness

Facial structure itself is a little more difficult to define in terms of how it relates to someone's personality, but there are some general sort of rules you might be able to follow. A squarer and more prominent jaw will help suggest a bulkier and stronger character, whereas a more narrow and pointy jaw will tend to make players think the characters is perhaps more dainty or lithe. Consider other facial features: high cheekbones may indicate a more confident or authoritative figure, thin nosed characters might tend to be fussy or annoying, small button noses might be used for more happy or shy people... I'm sure there are many other stereotypes that you can think of to help support character traits.

Ideally a face should just be another means that help support and convey character personality and history. Thus for important characters that have a personal involvement with the player, a designer should try to make those faces as individual as their dialogue and personality.

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