Intrepid Explorer: Birth of a Protagonist

I've been communicating with the nice people over at MDNL Studios for the last several months, and I recently got the green light to show the work I've been doing for them. We've been working mainly on a PC game tentatively titled Intrepid Explorer, so definitely follow their blog for details on its conception and development--there's a lot of interesting points on how it got started and the process of trying to program a game from scratch. Here I'll try to explain the role I played in getting the idea off of the ground.

The story centers around a guy named Jarred and a legendary artifact that takes the shape of a Pickaxe. In terms of what we needed for the game, we wanted to hash out ideas first for the main elements--we began with different ideas for enemies, and of course, the look of the main character. I've mostly been communicating with Harry Howarth, the Creative Designer, who's been in charge of much of the backstory and vision behind the overall universe it takes place in. Along the way Harry has provided extensive notes on the visual look of the characters and other aspects of the game, and we've been working together to produce the best results from each batch of concepts.

The design brief called for a young male character, with a physique athletic enough to be able to run and move with ease, but not to the point of looking like a bodybuilder. The game focuses more on constant movement as opposed to purposely engaging enemies; as such Jarred wasn't really supposed to appear too much like he was prepared for combat. This went for not only his build but his clothes as well. He also needed a backpack and a lightsource, neither of which should interfere with his movements while on the go. Other than that, his look was left to the wildest reaches of my imagination and these were the first 4 iterations I came up with. There are parts about each that I personally like, but overall I'm glad we agreed on the leftmost design.

From there, after much feedback and discussion between us, we continued to refine Jarred's look. We took parts that worked from different designs--such as the overall look of design A and the backpack from design C--and decided to focus on those in the second pass. Other key elements like work boots and various designs for the artifact were included in the revisions. After a bit more work, Jarred was starting to take shape.

Still experimenting with a lot of things while retaining the important elements. As mentioned earlier, the ancient artifact that Jarred holds is an important part of the story, so designing that was as much a challenge as the character himself. I tried to nail down the basic shape of a pickaxe; in essence it's really just a rod with a sharp semicircle for a head. From there I could replace those simple shapes with real world objects and other symbols. The tool itself also had to clearly appear sinister. But through all of the craziest iterations, the most important thing was that it still looked like a pickaxe; so these 4 were the best solutions at the time that appeared recognizable without (hopefully) being cliche. The top right design remains recognizable, but it's not exactly sinister; the bottom left design is unique, but it might be a stretch to call that a pickaxe. And the bottom right design is sinister, but with the batwing blade and skeleton handle, it's trying a little too hard. We decided that the first design struck the appropriate balance.

As for Jarred himself, I tried to take the boots in as many directions as I could, even trying out rain galoshes. For some reason I've always found shoes to be one of the more enjoyable parts of experimenting in character design. They can be easily overlooked, but at the same time they have as much a chance of being an iconic part of the design as any other article (just look at Sonic.) Some of the previous light sources were too modern for the game's setting, so I stuck with mostly lanterns/candles. I experimented with his attire a little more, considering what kind of personality each would convey to players. Eventually we settled on the overall look of the top left concept, and Jarred was born.

We agreed on hashing out a final version of Jarred to use for future reference, and to finalize all of the little details that would make him who he is. In essence, we were also getting a feel for the visual style that would govern the rest of Jarred's universe.

And here we've got our main character! It was a lengthy process but Harry's constant feedback and direction were invaluable the entire way. A real pleasure to work with. After a little more discussion on the pickaxe and its role in the story, we also finalized the look of the artifact itself.

It's... well, pretty old, having been around for quite some time before the events of the game take place, so I wanted to add a few nicks and scratches here and there. Ultimately the blade still has a bat-like silhouette without going overboard, and it retains much of the same look seen even in the very first concepts. But iteration is always important just to see what works and what doesn't.

That's a pretty basic summary of what we went through from start to finish in terms of Jarred and the pickaxe. The other half of the project thus far was concepts for in-game enemies Jarred would come across, which I'll talk about next time.

We're still working together on Intrepid Explorer, and another project in the works that I'll hopefully get to talk about soon enough, so stay tuned.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. :D There's still a bit more progress to show for the project, so keep an eye out for the rest.