For years, Jack and I have been referring to the main character of Where Shadows Slumber by euphemisms such as “the main character”, “the protagonist”, and “little lantern dude”. Now that the game’s story is coming together, we have finally given him a name! In this blog post, we’re going to do a deep dive into how we gradually got to this point in the character design process.
Meet Obe (oh-bee)
In Where Shadows Slumber, you guide Obe on his journey using magical shadows that emanate from a mysterious lantern. But the lantern is not the only thing that’s full of mystery. Who is Obe? Why has he come to this strange land? And is that a yarmulke?
We can’t give too much of the story away at this time. You’ll have to play the game when it comes out next year to find out the full story. Suffice it to say, Obe is an elderly man at the end of his life on a quest to set things right. (We would have called the game Old Man’s Journey, but someone beat us to the punch.) Obe didn’t ask for his lantern, but he would be lost without it.
The artwork above is the final rendering of how the character will appear in-game. Once I rig his cloth chasuble to work properly, I’ll post some videos of him in action. Before I do that, let’s take a journey through time to see how we got to this point.
You Inspire Me!
From the beginning, Jack and I knew that we would need a character that the Player could guide through the world. Something about our game’s shadow mechanics made us feel that it had to take place in a dark, mysterious landscape. We couldn’t go “full abstract” and make the main character a capsule or something. (Though, that would have made my job as an artist much easier!) We needed to show the shadows interacting with real objects in a real place, which meant the protagonist needed to be an actual humanoid. Moreover, the protagonist either needed to emit light or carry some kind of light source with them. We decided a lantern would look cool, and started exploring characters in popular culture that would inspire our character’s design.
Jack suggested Thresh from the online game League of Legends. A sinister character, Thresh uses a lantern and a hooked chain to grab his enemies and pull them to their doom. He traps people’s souls in his lantern and tortures them for all eternity.
This was a bit too evil for an indie puzzle game. Thresh looks like a take on the grim reaper, and his lantern isn’t even in the forefront of his design. But still, it was an inspiration! If you ever get creeped out by Obe, that’s because of the Thresh-y part of his design.
Then I suggested to Jack the design of Tonberry, a strange little green character from the Final Fantasy series. This enemy is apparently quite rare and super dangerous, despite its innocent appearance. Though it has many abilities across multiple Final Fantasy games, the recurring theme is that he slowly advances toward a party member until he is close enough. Then, he stabs them with his knife, delivering an instant kill.
I’m not sure why every character with a lantern in video games is a psycho murderer. That’s a little weird, don’t you think? Surely Where Shadows Slumber will change that perception!
What we enjoyed about Tonberry’s design was the simple, monk-like burlap robes and a nondescript lantern. His disarming appearance was also a huge inspiration for Obe. Now, Obe doesn’t carry a weapon around and he also isn’t a lizard, but his design was heavily influenced by this character.
The Drawing Board
With a few key characters in mind, I set about drawing lots of pictures of what the game’s protagonist could look like. I began by deconstructing Thresh and Tonberry and distilling them into “mobile” versions. Remember, our game takes place on a small screen, so the character’s key elements must be clearly visible from far away.
What would chibi-Thresh look like? What elements can be stripped away and still retain the design? What elements are not necessary for a peaceful puzzle game?
Simple designs for the character. Bottom Left: an unused design for a horrifying shadow creature that only appears in darkness and eats the souls of its victims.
The character’s robe became a central part of the design here, acting like Thresh’s gathering shadows and unearthly aura.
As you can see from the drawings, I tried to straddle the line between “cute and disarming” and “somehow a little sinister”. It was important to us that the Player trust the character in the beginning of the game, and then question their motives a little later on. Also pictured above, you can see the beginnings of some other character designs that would use our humanoid model. From an early stage we knew that if there were other humanoids in this universe, they would look like the main character – just slightly altered.
First Character: Rayman-like
While this was happening, Jack and I were working on the very first iteration of Where Shadows Slumber. It was still just called “Light / Shadow Game” and we needed a character. Based on my drawings – but too scared to actually try using Unity Cloth – I created a simple character in 3DS Max.
Check out the character in action in the video above. He has a little cone shaped lantern, nubby little arms and legs, a fake robe and hood, one rhombus-shaped eye (!), and fingers. While this design is still near and dear to me, it had a lot of flaws.
One Eye Messes With Depth Perception: So apparently when a character only has one eye, it’s super difficult to tell where they are looking or when their head is turning. As humans, we’re much more used to the human face. We subconsciously compare both eyes to each other and make a judgment call about the way the head is turned based on that. A single eye made it difficult to animate the character properly.
Rayman Limbs Mess With Shadows: I love Rayman limbs. By this, I mean “floating hands and feet that aren’t attached to the torso in a visible way”. I think it’s an underused design. However, as much as I love it, it doesn’t work in a game where characters need to cast shadows and have silhouettes that make sense. We had to cut it.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
For the next draft of our character model, I took the chibi style to heart and tried to think of a purpose for the character’s robes. It’s not enough to say “he’s wearing robes because he’s traveling and it’s a cloak”. I wanted to give them some kind of a purpose or possible religious significance. Now the character looks more like a cardinal or some kind of priest. This fits with his nondescript age of “old” and allows the Player to begin projecting their beliefs onto the character.
This model ended up being really close to the final design, but it just wasn’t there yet. Troubles with rigging the arms, face, and clothing meant that I needed to take one more shot at it. Still, we’re getting there! This character model appears in our Demo. Check out how the character looks in the Demo’s finale cutscene:
What were we saying about all lantern characters being really violent? Oh well… I guess some stereotypes really are true!
Welcome Home, Obe
Designing a character for this long almost feels like searching for a missing person. There are a lot of promising leads, but none of them pan out until finally you happen to stumble across what you’re looking for.
I feel that our main character has finally come home. He has a personality and feels like someone I can’t control anymore. It’s a strange feeling, but I take it as a sign that he will bring joy and intrigue to players around the world that want to unravel his mysterious story.
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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s character artwork. Have a question about Obe that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.
Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.