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Designing Characters With Soul | Project Feline Devlog

Updated: Jun 29




Hello, Raymond here! For the last little while, I've had my hands full with polishing Gabi's movement, revamping the combat, improving the art direction and engineering various systems and tools to develop content for the game (and making devlogs to cover all those things). I still need a bit more time to finish cooking all that. But, in the meantime, we're going to be covering a topic that I'm very passionate about that I haven't talked about in a long time, and that is the characters world and story of Project Feline.


Why do stories and characters matter?


While it isn't mandatory for video games to have stories, I've often resorted to gaming as a means of escapism, and it's through world building and characters and stories that my favorite games feel like more than the sum of their programming. That experience is magical, and it's something I've always wanted to pass on to other people.


What draws me the most to my favorite stories are their characters that star in them, and some of my favorite ones have had really cool designs that have been very fun to control. However, one gripe I've always had was that beneath the surface, they felt very one-dimensional and more like cardboard cutouts that had to constantly stay on-brand rather than real characters that you could get to know that had once desires and vulnerabilities. So it's been a goal of mine for a while to create characters of my own that have what I've always wanted to see, where they have strong and eye catching designs, but also have a bit of soul in there, a bit of vulnerability.


So how would one go about doing this? Designing characters with heart and telling a good story with them? Well, for me it starts with ideation and knowing what you want to say.


Early story and character concepts


Long time viewers of my channel may recall one of my very first dev vlogs, where I shared some of my early story ideas. Mind you, this was very early in development before I even had a working prototype. This initial idea went something along the lines of Gaby having an older sister that would gift her a parkour suit. At the commencement of the story, her sister would get abducted by the government, prompting Gabi's quest to rescue her.


This was the very first idea I had. When I published the episode sharing this initial idea, I received positive feedback from the small group following the game at the time. Some said it was reminiscent of the plot of the 2008 video game, Mirror's Edge. I had played only a little of Mirror's Edge at that time, but since then I've finished the game and story, and realized that my story idea was essentially the same and, seeing it executed, that I didn't end up enjoying it.


I'm sorry Mirror's edge fans, the game was gorgeous but I didn't feel engaged by the story or attached to the characters.


When I came up with my idea for Gabi's sister, it was my intention that if she had to rescue a character she was attached to, then the audience would be equally emotionally invested. But in Mirror's Edge, I found myself apathetic towards Faith's mission to save her sister because we, the players, are only introduced to this character once for a brief cutscene, and we only her again at the end of the game. It's also clear that the rest of the cast Faith interacts with (Celeste, Merc, etc.) all have prior history that we, the players, aren't privy to. This created emotional distance between me and the cast, and I felt more like an interloper behind glass than an active, engaged participant in the plot. I didn't want my story and characters to have the same problem.


In books or movies, you could get around this by giving the characters more screen time and building up that relationship, but this is a video game. When I boot up Project Feline, I don't want to be treated to a two minute expository cutscene explaining the relationships between the characters. I just want to jump in and play as soon as possible. But at the same time, I want to reward players that want that deeper connection to the world and characters in a way that is welcoming and not alienating.


With that in mind, I quickly decided to scrap the sister idea, to throw that character in the bin and come up with a new cast of characters with which Gabi had no prior relationship. That way, Gabi and the player would always be on the same page.


Gabi's new family


I came up with these new characters some time ago, I've posted some concept art online in a few places, but it's only occurred to me now that I haven't talked about them in detail on my devlog. Allow me to formally introduce you to Gabi's new companions!


Calder is the big cuddly polar bear. He arrived on the human world under mysterious circumstances. He lives alone on his boat. He's very insular, he keeps to himself, he's very risk-averse, but he's very wise and can usually see things coming before others can. I felt like he would make a good mentor figure for Gabi on her adventure.


Gabi's other companion is Felix, a young, wide-eyed boy orphaned from a very young age. He had to quickly learn the value of grit and hard work to make his own way. Unlike Calder, who is very distant and cautious and averse to people. Felix is very nosy and naïve. While he's a very hard worker, he's very lonely and has longed for someone to call a friend.


Where do I get the inspiration for these characters? The truth is I've stolen almost all of my ideas from my childhood sketchbooks.


Taking inspiration from my childhood ideas


Growing up, I spent just about all of my time in these. I didn't like playing sports and I didn't have many friends. The only skill I had was drawing and using the computer. It was through drawing and creating that I was able to escape into my own imaginary world with my own characters and stories, and it was always my hope that one day I could bring it to life for real and share that world with someone else. This is why I started making games in the first place, and it was from this world I created in my sketchbooks where Gabi was originally from.


I know her current design has deviated a bit from this, but I got attached to her pretty quickly and over the years she grew up with me in a sense. She's gotten taller, she's gotten a bit bulkier, and her personality has developed a bit more as well. She used to be very timid and shy, much like I was at the time. But throughout the development of the game, she's become a lot more confident and playful and rambunctious and I've tried my best to bring that through in the changes to her design.


But Gabi was just one of many characters from the sketchbooks.


Nailing the look of the new cast


Calder's design was repurposed from one of my childhood characters based on a teddy bear (which I still own, he's awesome). But to cast him in Project Feline, he needed a makeover. Instead of giving him the build of a stubby teddy, I rebuilt him into a large, physical BEAST.


His original name was Bill, and I needed to pick a new name that better fit the vibe of the game. If it wasn't obvious, I'm not the best at coming up with names (shocking from the guy that named his game Project Feline). For a lack of a better idea, I tried to imagine how the name would look visually when spelled out, and what font it would it would look the best in. I wanted his name to look great in Eurostile Extended Bold, a font I use often and have used for the current Project Feline logo. My favorite letters from this font are C, A and R, so I tried to come up with a name with these letters that fit his personality. The name "Calder" came up—a Scottish name that means "rough waters".


Later, I found another character to cast in the game—or rather the character found of me.


I was sitting at my desk one day listening to "Mirror" by Porter Robertson on repeat, and inspiration just struck. I got up my graphics tablet and started manically sketching, and Felix came out—a young, fair-haired boy with a baggy hoodie. I instantly knew that he had to be a character for the game.


I settled on his design very quickly, drawing only two variants of his hair styles and color schemes. So far, he's been the character I've had the most fun designing. When I sketcehd Felix and Gabi together, I imagined he would meet her early in the story and immediately attach to her like a little brother. And I really loved it. It intuitively felt like the right idea, and that was how Felix came to be.


Choosing the right colors


Some time after designing these initial concepts, I deliberated on their color schemes. A lot of my childhood characters didn't have color because I hated coloring in with penicls. With digital tools like Photoshop, I have a much easier time now. I wanted to be thoughtful with my color choices because I believe the colors you choose for a character are just as important as their shape, their hairstyle, or their costume. Some characters I really admire have color schemes that are so thoughtful and iconic that you could recognize them just from the palette.


I first revisited Gabi's color scheme. I picked her colors very early in development, and I hadn't put much thought into them at the time. After looking at them every day for so long, I felt her skin tone was a little bit too pale and her costume lacked saturation and I feel she just didn't stand out enough. I also wanted to give her a scheme that considered the other two characters, and would make them look good together as an ensemble.


So, I tried an all pink costume, I tried green, but the one that resonated with me the most was this pink and blue palette. I got this idea for these colors from a photo I took of a sunset, and I don't know what it is, but whatever. I get stuck on colors. I find that naturally occurring colors are a pretty safe bet because they just naturally look good.


When doing Felix's colors, I quickly settled on a yellow and green palette. But just to make sure, I tried some other palettes as well, I experimented with teal and light blue and reds. I tend to use the color blue a lot, and I did try a blue variant with him, but with Gabi next to him I felt like I was overusing the blue. So I stuck with the green, yellow and brown sunflower palette.


Calder's colors were harder to decide on. I first picked this Arctic palette with teal, blue and white, but I found that it looked a little too similar to Gabi's color scheme. I eventually settled on this red, cream, brown and gold palette.


One thing I have also picked up on with character design is to make each character stand out and look unique, it's desirable if they each have their own distinctive shape. Good silhouettes and posing can help players recognize characters just from a glance. I made Calder very big and rectangular, Felix very small and circular, and Gabi somewhere in the middle and size, but very triangular with her ear and her haircut.


I had a lot of fun designing these characters. I felt a lot more confident in this cast than the Gabi's sister idea I left behind.


To anyone who was attached to the old Gabi sister concept, I'm sorry. Rest in peace, Gabi's sister.


In retrospect, I do feel a bit stupid that I shared those ideas so prematurely. I underestimated how much can change throughout the development of a game.


Setting the right limitations


To be clear, I'm not looking to make a story-heavy game. I don't want to have constant dialog throughout the levels, but rather I want little moments in-between each level to reward players for progressing through the game.


I also don't have the funding to do something big, like cinematic cutscenes or voice acting, but two things I can do very well are drawing character stills and writing text. I know these might not sound like a lot, but I believe a good story doesn't need high production values to stand out, and that as long as you have something sincere to say, then it'll connect with people. In fact, I've seen far too many games lately hide behind big=budget cut scenes and voice acting to cover up a bad story. So through leveraging my own skills in drawing and writing, I want to tell a story and project line that cohesively ties the characters and environments together to create an experience that feels more than the sum of its parts.


In the last few months, I've implemented systems in the game that will allow me to accomplish this. And while the presentation is very primitive, just a text box with a portrait next to it, it's just simple enough to accomplish my goals and to maintain very easily.


As a one-man developer, I have plenty on my plate as it is so I needed the dialog system to be simple. The entire system is integrated into one Excel spreadsheet where all of the dialog lines are kept. If I ever need to iterate on a line, or update all the portraits for a certain character, I can do that all in the spreadsheet and it'll update the whole game.


Storytelling with intention


As for the story in my game, I'm not going to go into specifics. There's still a lot I'm working out. But what I can tell you is the attitude and approach I'm taking with it.


I want the central conflict of the story to leverage the strengths of the cast, and for Gabi to have a personal stake in the events that unfol. With the cast of characters I have now, I can see a common thread with all of them, and that is that each character is misplaced.


Caulder is a talking polar bear. He's not of our world, and he's stranded here alone. Felix is of our world and, while he looks like a normal boy, he's a lonely orphan with no parental figures or friends looking out for him. He desperately needs someone to look up to as he grows up. Gabi is a child of both worlds, she wouldn't fully fit in Calder's world, nor Felix's, as a half-cat half-girl. Because of what she is, she possesses unique abilities that no one else has. That sets her apart, but also alienates her. Maybe there's some part of her deep down that resents what she is, but there is nothing she can do to change that.


I, for one, am curious to find out how she'll handle that, and with Calder and Felix, find a place to belong in a world where she's the only of her kind.


I've been picking away at it in the background. I've gone through 12 different revisions so far. It is demanding to put an effort into a story and not be tempted to stick with the first random idea that comes to mind, while also balancing that idea with gameplay. My priority will always be gameplay first, but the thing I respect about my favorite games is when they put in that extra effort to not just entertain players, but enchant them.


Conclusion


So that's all I got for this vlog. If you enjoy escapism, why don't you escape on down to Steam and wishlist Project Feline?


Leave me a comment about some of your favorite characters and stories from the games you've played. Or better yet, if you've ever tried to write your own story and characters from your own childhood worlds, I'd be very curious to hear about how it went.


Thank you for following my development journey and I'll see you next time.


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