The technical logistics of designing a diverse character creator in Witchy Life Story

The technical logistics of designing a diverse character creator in Witchy Life Story

In part one of our interview with the developers of Witchy Life Story, we got had an insightful personal discussion with studio founder and lead designer Allie Ast, programmer Aubrey Scott and artist Sara Hagstrom, on why character creators are important to both developers and the audience, highlighting their impact on self-expression, identity, and inclusion. In part two, we talk more with 

Scott and Hagstrom about the technical depth of the character creator in terms of how they developed its visual cohesion while making the process fluid and time efficient. In it, they detail the process of layering the separate components of the creator’s character options, how the facial expression and body type features were implemented, and how to design for freedom of expression, among other things. Here’s how they managed to streamline the process and stay faithful to their design values while managing the character creator’s myriad permutations.  

Game Developer: What is your name and role in the development of Witchy Life Story? How did you become a part of the project?

Aubrey Scott: My name is Aubrey Scott, and I’m an engineer on Witchy Life Story. I had met Allie at a previous GDC, and we had kept in touch about the projects we were working on. During one of our chats, she mentioned a need for a programmer to create a custom character creator for Witchy Life Story. I let her know I had done some inclusive character creator stuff before, and after chatting a bit, it seemed like a good fit, so we signed some contracts and began collaborating.

Sara Hagstrom: My name is Sara Hagstrom, and I’m one of two artists working on Witchy Life Story. I focused on character art and background design. I became part of this project through the other artist, Lianne Pflug, who recommended me as a character artist. She worked on the floral art and design of the game.

What were the game’s primary design goals?

Scott: One of the inspirations for this project was Little Witch Academia. We wanted a plucky protagonist that the player could step into and relate with through their plight of proving their mettle and showing the world and themselves that they could actually do this witch thing and help folks in the process. I think the character creator served the purpose of making it easy for the player to relate to the protagonist by inserting themselves or someone they made into that role. It also was sort of one of the novel things that we haven’t seen in narrative sims much that a character you create actually has a full range of expressions.

Hagstrom: Allie’s main design goals were cottage-core, 1970s vintage design. Lianne and I were both so excited to take this aesthetic direction and run. For character design, Allie gave me so much great direction and references. I looked at a lot of ’70s fashion and tried to make each character, as well as the fashion options in the character creator, embody different aspects of that time period. In the character creator, I really wanted there to be enough hairstyles, fashion, and facial features that would give players a sort of toolkit to craft their own character within the aesthetic voice of the overarching world we created. Color-wise, we wanted a warm, cozy game, evoking a lot of the warm tones that were popular in the ’70s, as well as traditional and rustic design.

Why are diverse character creators important? What do diverse character creators mean to you personally?

Scott: Character creators are a portal into our game world that allows players to connect with the world deeply and fully. Whether folks are interested in playing as themselves or as another person they create, it is important that players have enough tools to make the characters they really want to play in the world we’ve created. Character creators are specifically important for marginalized folks who may not see themselves in games that often and a wider set of options can help them feel seen in a way that is really important and meaningful.

To me, character creators were always a way to put myself into games before I even knew that I was trans. I would create girls and women characters to play as my avatars, and there was a level of comfort that allowed me to explore my gender even before I knew why I was doing it. Had character creators been more robust back then, I may have used them to explore my gender identity and figure out what kind of woman I actually wanted to be. I think we have a long way to go in making character creators first-class features that allow a deeper exploration of gender identity and expression. But as they stand, I still love dressing my character, mixing and matching outfits, changing her hair to match as closely to mine, and getting freckles and glasses that resemble my own as well.

Particularly diverse character creators have a way of giving folks permission to take up space and exist in the virtual world. Sometimes that is the only space that feels safe and welcoming to someone who is going through a rough transition or a difficult life due to circumstance and stigma. A diverse character creator says we value you and want you to feel comfortable playing our game and it is important to us that you enjoy your time here and are able to express yourself in a way that feels natural to you.

Hagstrom: Diverse character creators make it so that everyone feels seen, considered, and comfortable. Video games are an immensely valuable tool for integrative and immersive storytelling, and if a player is not given the tools to tell their own story, they’ve been constricted in an unfair way. More and more, video games provide a space to explore one’s own identity and expression, so it’s important to give every player a full set of tools to craft and hone that identity! For me, as a character designer myself, character is really my bread and butter. To create a character that literally gets placed into the world of a video game is a unique experience that allows for an immersion and exploration that few other vehicles of storytelling can provide. It’s so important to be able to not only see oneself in a game, but also, to be able to try on new identities and methods of expression within the character creator itself.

How many character options are included in your creator?

Scott: I believe there are twenty different options to explore in our character creator, with varying numbers of choices or colors within each of those options. These are split into the categories of Body, Face, Features, Fashion, Name, and Pronouns. Notice that there is no option to select a sex or gender which unless you are showing nudity or it is vital to the story or interactions with the player, these are often an unneeded box for players to put themselves into. But overall, there are two hundred and forty one individual choices with 2.0E+20 possible combinations. We hope that it feels big enough to express yourself authentically within the world of Witchy Life Story.

Was that number shaped by technical limitations or were there other considerations? What challenges arise from trying to bring all these elements together cohesively, despite the amount of possible visual permutations? How did you design for identity traits that are maybe less obvious to the naked eye, like sexual orientation or gender?

Scott: Yes, the options were mostly limited by budget and time constraints, as well as only having a three-person team for the character creator. It was, however, a major focus for the team, with significant time and effort put in by all of us. As far as technical limitations go, we explored custom shaders that would make the clothing easy to change colors to give a much wider range of fashion options. The route, though, didn’t work with our art pipeline and would have limited the artistic freedom and the quality of the final product. It is, after all, really important for the artist to be able to create work they are proud of without hindering their process too much.

In a 2D character creator, the biggest challenge we faced with the features we committed to was layering and breaking apart images that needed to exist in multiple layers (foreground, midground, background), like the hair, to be split up asset-wise and then arranged and displayed properly in the game. I built a flexible data-driven system that would allow each feature to exist in one or many layers and could be different for each option in the set. If one hat needed three layers, but another only needed one or two, that was completely fine and they could exist in the same list of options. This allowed the artist to either make all one image or compose the image of many separate elements that were composited in the data objects. It also gave the designer full control if they wanted to mix and match baubles on a hat, or reuse the lines for eyes and change out, say, glitter or sparkle effects to add different options without the entire asset being new.

Another piece that went into this is features that needed an alternate style, like hair that would look different for particular hats. The hat data object can toggle on the need for an alternate look if the hair has one, and this allows our hairstyles to exist independent of your hat choices. It is important for diversity to not limit the choices based on other choices you make about the character. If they have body hair or beard shadow, they can still have a feminine figure with breasts. If they have an afro or pigtails, they can still wear a witch hat that would push their hair down while it is on.

Body type is a big one for diversity, and we have a different set of assets and data objects for each body type chosen. We called this feature variants. Each variant is attached to the main data object for that character feature and has a designated, required character feature that must be selected to be displayed. It made it simple to stay organized for the designer and easy for players to change an outfit or body type and have the rest of the character show properly.

The expression system was also tricky. It was essentially a character feature that could toggle on and off specific features set by the designer in the data object and replace them with expression-specific art assets. Once the character is created, the game runs through these expressions and takes a snapshot of the character, saving them as images to be accessed later. The full implementation of this feature meant that some custom code had to be created for the Fungus middleware framework to recognize these new images at runtime. Seeing your custom witch named and interacting with the characters, though, definitely made the complexity of this feature worth it.

The lips were also an interesting feature because they could be toggled on or off and needed to have different colors. At first, this seemed straightforward, but those lips also needed to be represented in the expressions in different positions. Some custom code for the lips needed to be added to the expressions systems, but essentially the variants and alternate systems came in handy when completing this feature. Adding a bit of color to the lips that looks natural or more boldly colored definitely increased the amount of personality that could be expressed for the witch.

The last tricky feature I want to talk about is getting the layers to blend with multiply or dodge effects. If you aren’t familiar with digital art, multiply allows layers to add together, lightening the color in the blended spots, but making it feel natural to the base color. Dodging has a similar but darkening effect. Both of these were essential to the art pipeline of not needing custom color lines for every feature. This allowed the artist to make one asset and have it apply to many different color variations for skin tone, hair color or the like. This affects additive features like freckles, moles, tattoos, blush, that are really important for diversity but would normally be cut if they had to be made different for every skin or hair color choice offered.

As far as design choices for gender, sexuality, gender expression, pronouns, etc. we tried to only have players make explicit choices about things that may come up in the story and gameplay. There are lots of options for gender expression as that shows in your outfit choices, body types, accessories, and such. Pronouns definitely existed because other characters and even the main character may use them at times. But we don’t make players pick a sexuality as that is usually personal and can be expressed through gameplay better than chosen from a list of options. Likewise, gender is personal, and unless it really mattered to the story, I wouldn’t want players to have to put themselves in a box. We have to do that enough in our daily lives that we don’t need to do it in a video game when we are trying to relax. This is supported by making sure whatever choices you make, you aren’t blocking off other options. The world is good at categorizing us and telling us what we can and can’t do or who we can or cannot be. Pronouns are not limited based on the presentation of your character. They can wear a dress and use he/him or she/they, or any combination of pronouns that feel good to them. An inclusive character creator leaves space for players to make that decision for themselves without judgment or expectation from us as developers.

Hagstrom: Of course, there were not only technical limitations but also time limitations. While I’d love to design 20 outfits for people to try on, I wasn’t able to within the time period necessary to timely release the game! That being said, we still made a really hefty number of hairstyles, eye options, body types, and outfits. The most difficult thing about bringing the elements together cohesively was probably getting each feature to fit effectively on the bases we made. As a character artist, I usually create unique silhouettes depending on the character’s traits, personality, etc. In this case, the silhouette had to largely be the same, or at least constricted to the five body types we landed on. Each eye and nose had to fit on the same head shape as well, to allow the assets’ integration into the actual game. Getting those each to fit in a way that looked natural was definitely a challenge! In terms of designing for identity traits like sexuality or gender, I generally tried to create body types and features separate from these concepts, as traits really don’t correlate to one’s orientation or gender, which is why Allie’s goal of getting the player to assign their own pronouns really excited me. For fashion, though, I wanted to give enough options that could represent the player’s personal presentation. That meant some tighter options, some looser, some inspired by more femme fashion and some more masculine.

Were there any character elements that you wanted to include in the creator but could not? What was the reason, and can you walk me through the thought process behind it?

Scott: Because our character creator was in 2D, we decided on a static pose for every character. This meant we could not allow the player to express their personality through body posture and positioning. A lot of our gender expression comes through non-verbal communication so this would have been a big win for a feature to be able to have. Had we been making assets in 3D, posing would have been more of a possibility since you make the assets once and then just move the character around a bunch. In 2D, all of the choices have to be made for every position and angle which is a huge multiplier for a small team. Similarly, we did not have character animations which also would have been a huge multiplier. There are definitely ways to make this possible even in 2D, but it definitely would have required a different art pipeline.

There are also diversity representations that would have been more of an option if we had posing, like wheelchairs, walkers, or canes. These mobility tools become a part of the way the world sees you and how you come to understand yourself and it would have meant a lot if we could work these elements in. I feel similarly about glasses as many games give you a couple glasses options but mostly have a variety of sunglasses. Glasses end up framing your face and becoming a dominant part of your look, so it is important to get a shape close to what you actually might wear in real life. There are a lot of hard decisions we made when deciding what features to commit to. I only hope that the features that make it into the game help push progress forward and allow players to more comfortably exist in our virtual world.

Hagstrom: I would have loved to include more face shapes, but it was simply impossible with the amount of assets we’d need to create in order to get the features to fit on each shape, as well as the character’s expressions that cycle throughout the game. I’d also love to create more outfits, and the only thing that prevented that was the amount of time it’d take.

Are there any character creators from other games that really stand out to you? What games did you model yourselves after as the design for your character creator came together?

Scott: I think the interface that games like The Sims have created are interesting because it almost feels like you are able to “model” a 3D character in the editor in an accessible way. I used to look at a lot of character creators at my previous job and there were many decent character creators in sports titles especially when they get to iterate on them. You start to see novel features like allowing player-generated textures for skin and costumes in wrestling games. Animal Crossing and the Mii character creator do okay in giving you a lot of options but they also sort of group them into a binary rather than mixing the options together. As far as diversity goes I would say that Dream Daddy does a pretty great job at representation and was a comparable for us going into this character creator. But a lot of what our character creator became were the features we either weren’t seeing in other character creators, or weren’t implemented with diversity in mind. The fact that our whole team valued diversity and put time and effort into discarding the default of how things have been done for something new and inclusive made a huge difference for the kind of character creator we were able to make.

Hagstrom: I really loved looking at Picrews [Ed. note: avatars made at the character maker website Picrew] for ideas and inspiration! But really, I tried to create something wholly within the unique artistic style of the game.

Are diverse character creators about the player’s desire to see themselves in/as the protagonist of their games? Or is it about exploring and discovering personal identity? Or is it both?

Scott: I think it is both and speaking from my own experience, I often try to make myself in character creators so that I feel like myself in the game world. This allows me to sit authentically in my identity and represent myself to other players as I actually am when multiplayer is involved. In the past, I have also chosen to make women characters who were not like me but were aspirational long before I figured out my gender identity. The custom character space leaves room for that exploration and allowed me to take small steps toward accepting something about myself before completely upending my world by exploring living as a woman in real life.

The, “and…” part is that sometimes it is fun to just make up a persona and have many different options to fit the head cannon you have for your protagonist. Perhaps they are a butch lesbian on a quest for love who shirks their duties seeking out as many side quests as possible, eschewing the main quest line for their heart’s desire. Perhaps you want to connect with your friend or family member who came out as trans and you try to imagine what it might be like to be them and spend some time in their headspace. Maybe you just want to try on a charismatic, confident persona when you spend most of your life as a quiet, non-confrontational little bean. Character creators leave room for the player to collaborate with the developers and generate their own unique story together with the tools they are given. When done well, it can create many hours of replayability as you explore the same content from different lenses, reading subtleties in the narrative interactions that may not be there from a different perspective. Part of what excites me so much about interactive fiction, visual novels, and sims is that you can explore so many stories in the same game.

Hagstrom: It’s definitely both! And not only as an expression of the player themselves but also as an expression of their own desire to take part within the weaving of the game’s story. I often use character creators to not recreate myself within them, but to create a completely new character in itself, and that makes the game experience feel so much more personal and expansive in my own mind.

How has your audience responded to the game’s character designs? How has the design of certain aesthetic elements transformed in response to player feedback?

AS: We have had a pretty warm reception to the amount of diversity and different body types that we have included in the character creator. I always wish that we could add more, but it is wonderful to see folks respond well to the features we thought were important. I think the biggest thing from player feedback is understanding what landed and what needs more work. The players are ultimately the ones who really need to feel comfortable with our choices, so their feedback definitely shapes the choices we make in future games and sometimes future updates, given that there is enough budget for continued development. Games are a little tricky since by the time you can show the community what you are working on, a lot of the decisions have already been made, and the work is complete. Even if it doesn’t seem like we are acting on what players say and feel, we do our best to listen and bring that knowledge into whatever we create next.

Hagstrom: I think people really enjoy the character designs, or at least I hope so, haha! It’s really heartwarming to see people enjoying my art, especially since I devoted a lot of hours to the assets of the character creator. I really thank Allie for allowing me to work on this project, it’s been such a wonderful time.

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