Danger, Will Robinson!: Designing An Artificially Intelligent Companion Character

This guy keeps showing up, and I mentioned him before, but he hasn't gotten a formal introduction yet.

This is Captain Midnight. In The Only Certainty, he's your closest ally in the known universe.

Harry and I discussed the atmosphere of the game a lot when we first started working on TOC. We had a pretty good idea that the game would overall have a solemn and lonely tone; but we also felt it would be best if the protagonist had at least one other soul to communicate with. Hence, the idea of a built-in guidance computer was born from Harry's ever creative brain, and he's been a part of the game since.

Designing his appearance was a challenge from start to finish. For the most part, human (or at least human-like) characters are what I do most, so I knew I probably needed to approach Midnight from a slightly different angle.

I started out by considering the overall shape. Most computers nowadays are recognizable by a 4 sided monitor and some kind of understructure--but I wanted to look at the shapes of various, non-computer objects before deciding anything. I looked up everything from phones to radios to arcade cabinets to mailboxes. I didn't have anything in mind yet; I was merely looking for any interesting shapes to focus on at this point.

After collecting a lot of images, I began to pick out shapes and toy with what sort of personality each one gave off. Blocky, horizontal objects seemed more obtuse, maybe even a little uptight--the type of character more likely to get annoyed easily or have a short temper. Thinner, more vertically oriented forms conveyed intelligence and pride. Rounder screens/monitors seemed more familiar and inviting, while sharp angles came off as a bit more hostile. Of course these were just my reactions--but I was trying to get a feel for how other people might react on a subconscious level to the shape language in Midnight's appearance.

For the most part, I wanted to avoid giving Midnight too much of anything that would come off as a clear complete 'face', so I had to be careful not to place 2 knobs close together that looked like eyes or anything like that. But I did want his design to include a central area of focus--a screen, a collection of blinking lights, etc.--someplace that the viewer would imagine this voice was coming from.

After a lot of exploration, it was time to move on and whittle it all down to a few concepts to present to Harry.

At this point, I began to consider Midnight's personality. Harry had already written a few example lines of his dialogue in the game notes, so I copied those and tried to imagine how different versions of Midnight would look reciting these lines. This was also a chance to figure out how his appearance would change depending on his mood. Would his lights flicker if he was excited? Would his dials start to rotate when angry? Stuff like that.

He used to look a lot different, didn't he?

Midnight is essentially a talking computer, so it seemed necessary to have some wires plugged in somewhere, or to have him rooted to a module somehow.

Harry and I both agreed that the traditional, personal computer-esque appearance of concept C was best so I used that as a basis for further development. The squares on the screen were a good way to show emotion without it being too obvious; he could frown, grin, or he could express his mood in abstract symbols so it wasn't too much like a human face. I decided to leave out anything looking like eyes--makes it a little more difficult to read his emotions.

From here I'm working on polishing the final shape.

Even though we're trying to avoid any obviously human features, people have a tendency to see them even when they're not there. See how the designs with a thin neck come across, compared to the ones where the monitor is flush against the underlying base--almost like he has hunched shoulders (or none at all depending on how you see it). Another thing is I had to be careful not to curve the underlying base too far outward--might come across as a bust and people might associate Midnight with being female at first glance (which could have been interesting, but I think Harry wanted it to be masculine). I'm also trying to figure out how the base should look here--how many keys on the keyboard, does it need a disc tray, where to place the dials, etc.

That's pretty much the story of Midnight's birth. All the while I was researching shapes, I was also considering other AI companions in media--GERTY from Moon, the computer from Dexter's Laboratory, and everything in between--to get an idea of the kind of presence we wanted to give Midnight. I'm really glad I got the chance to design him, though--definitely forced me out of the comfort zone. It turns out that designing a machine character is actually not too different than a human. Whereas humans convey personality with facial expressions and body language (posture, hand movements, etc.), non-humanoid characters can do the same with shape language.

Thanks for reading. Hope that this has helped a few people get some ideas on developing a character's design process from start to finish. Shapes are just shapes, colors are just colors... but for various reasons we tend to stick meaning to them in our heads, deliberately or not. So try out a bunch of stuff and consider how your audience will react, and how you want them to react. When in doubt, find out how those traits have been used in other examples in the past and generally how people have viewed them-- you can use them in the same manner or completely subvert their meaning.

Happy designing!

No comments:

Post a Comment