Chris Rogers here; I head up the character art team here at HBS and with launch right around the corner I get to pull back the curtain a bit and show you some of the character customization options in Shadowrun Returns.
At the start of development, we knew we had to capture that independent and rebellious Shadowrunner spirit. From the hard-boiled, coolant-for-blood samurai, to the wild-child decker putting the punk back into cyberpunk, to the young shaman with an old soul in the newly Awakened world, Shadowrun is full of unique, memorable characters that simply don’t exist anywhere else. In order to bring those characters to life we decided to embrace that individuality and specificity, creating each piece of character art with a strong viewpoint and identity in order to give you the tools you need to create your own unique denizen of the Sixth World. If you’re reading this dev diary you probably know the basics: in Shadowrun Returns you can choose to play as a male or female human, elf, dwarf, ork, or troll. The two visual elements that really define your character in the game are a painted portrait and a 3D in-game model. The portrait captures the inner life, detail, and subtlety of the character while the model distills all that down to one instant and bold impression in the game.
I’m a big believer in the alchemy of art, that the right elements can combine and reinforce each other, suddenly creating something new. And character creation in Shadowrun Returns involves some serious alchemy between your character’s portrait and your model. Continuing our “best of both worlds” approach of melding 2D and 3D we have leveraged the strengths of both elements to help you create your character. Its not a one-to-one… we have a limited number of 3D assets to match with the much more diverse portraits, but the results tend to feel very natural even when the portrait and the 3D model aren’t a perfect match . The subtlety of the painted portrait communicates attitude and expression. In the isometric world, where you need to be able to take in the entire tactical situation at a glance, the 3D model synthesizes all that personality down into a simplified silhouette that you can instantly “read”.
Character Portraits: Up Close and Personal
It is in the portrait that you will see a lot of detail and psychological depth in your character. As of this writing, there are nearly 200 player portrait options in Shadowrun Returns. When our portrait artist, David Nash, started painting we put a special emphasis on the inner life of each character. To give you some idea of what I mean by that, here are some early portrait notes I pulled from an old e-mail, “Male elf, the handsome grifter. He’s the double-crosser, the guy who is always one step ahead of his enemies with a trick and a quick one-liner. He can move easily from the highest society to lowest gangs and seems to know everyone… He will shake your hand and promise you an honest deal even as he is stealing the watch off your wrist.” And one more example, “Human female, the brutal survivor, she was orphaned at a young age and has survived on the streets by making the hard decisions that others would flinch from. There is nothing -nothing- soft about her.”
Dave then took those notes and created a portrait laden with all that subtext, investing the portrait with an inner life that continues to inform play throughout the game, as you can see in the examples below.
That psychological diversity compliments all the physical diversity in your portrait options. In addition to covering the basics of the ten possible gender and metahuman combinations, the portraits cover a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and etiquettes. Animator and character artist Hollie Mengert has curated the portrait set, putting some final touches on each and adding a number of variants- including cool piercings, arcane tattoos, painful scars, and cutting-edge cybereyes (though your portrait’s cybereyes are cosmetic and not tied to gameplay). Many of those variants are meant to support more magic focused or tech-centric characters, and some are simply opportunities Hollie saw to add something cool to the game and give you one more option that might spark your imagination.
The In-Game Model: Your Runner in Action
Complementing your portrait is the in-game model, which has to succeed in a completely different way. In the game environment details can get lost, or, worse, make the character look muddy and hard to understand visually. In Shadowrun Returns your character will have access to over 30 different gear sets (we’re still putting the final touches on the last few so we don’t have a final number yet), and we have designed each to immediately communicate an idea about your character in the isometric environment. Mike did a great job in Update 48 explaining how we get our (pretty small) characters to pop visually in the game environment. Check it out if you are interested! Here I want to talk about how those gear sets influence the look and feel of your character during legwork and combat.
At the beginning of the development process we were thinking of gear sets as exactly that: sets of gear that a character might wear. We realized pretty quickly, however, that that wasn’t quite the right way to think about it. Given the zoomed-out isometric camera the gear sets weren’t something a character might wear, the gear sets were characters. I reworked some of the concepts, looking for that big visual punch. We found that once we started concentrating on distilling the clothes and gear down to the very essence of an idea, that defiant Shadowrun individuality really started to show up in game. It became pretty clear that we were on the right track when we started spontaneously referring to each set with nicknames like “Street Monk” or “Slick Mage” and everyone understood each other. All those names are just our internal shorthand; the gearsets aren’t tied to your archetype and you will be able outfit your character as you see fit from the in-game vendors.
In-house we have been calling that instant impression of the character the “iso read”. There’s that one dominant area of each character that captures your imagination and communicates a bold idea simply, but the execution is anything but simple: too much detail and your character collapses into a pile of chattering pixels, too little detail and your character looks like a little tiny doll in a diorama. Maury Weiss and Fiona Turner have done an amazing job balancing the level of detail, value, and color in order to make sure that your character stays grounded in the reality of the game.
In the example above you can see how a gear set moves from concept to model – note how some details become emphasized or subdued in order to get the character to read in game. The idea behind the concept was to update the wandering fighting monk from Asian cinema. Here he still has his prayer beads and incense scars, and he’s swapped out his robes for some updated fighting leathers with a little flair. The cuffs are the primary read, with the most detail, followed by the prayer beads. Other details fade into the overall read – there’s a lot to see there, but it’s subdued in service of the whole. Once the concept is approved the 3D team begins work, keeping a careful eye on maintaining detail while avoiding chatter. Notice, for example, the number of prayer beads were reduced and scaled up. The final texture is painted based on the design rules mentioned in Mike’s update (such as using darker color values lower on the character, leading to brighter colors on the chest, shoulders, and arms). The final result is that in the game you have a character that still communicates attitude and function even when they occupy only a very small amount screen space.
Finally, for you samurai out there: a number of those gear sets are sleeveless so you can show off your cyberarm – once you save up enough nuyen to get one done, that is.
Putting it all Together: Alchemy
And this is the result when you combine the portrait and model on the character creation screen. Once you choose a gender and metatype, you will be able to select a portrait. We have assigned each portrait a corresponding skin color, hairstyle, beard, hair color, and (where applicable) set of horns so as you scroll through the portraits your model will update to match your selection. But let’s say you want a little more control over the look of your character… no problem! you can unlock the model and the portrait and toggle through a variable (say hair color or style) for the model by hand. In addition to working up lots of cool visual effects for the game, technical artist Steven Rynders has collaborated with AJ Bolden on the engineering side in order to make sure the system handles all the different elements.
Before I sign off I want to mention how exciting it is, once you’ve made your own character, to hire three more runners, each with their own identity (like the samurai, decker, and shaman I mentioned at the start of the post). During those runs your “character” is really the entire party. A few weeks ago we asked you, the Backers, to help us with some names and descriptions of Shadowrunners, adding one more layer of depth to your group of runners. It’s a blast right now to sneak into a tenement with runners like Daytona, Macabre, and Jack Nine, trailing drones and ready to call in spirits at the first sign of trouble.
So that’s a quick look at the visual aspects of your character, and we haven’t even touched on the more design-oriented aspects of character customization like karma spends and implants. Ultimately, of course, your character won’t come alive until the game releases, when you’re out there on the rainy streets of Seattle 2054 – asking questions that powerful people don’t want asked, hiring runners, bribing, cajoling, and, of course, fighting your way to the answers.
Until then we are here furiously tuning things and polishing everything up in anticipation of launch!
PS: If you’re going to be at Gencon, be sure to sign up for our events. Mitch and Jordan will be doing a panel discussion, we’re offering two hands-on Editor workshops and a Hack-a-thon. Hope to see you there!