One of the ideas I’ve had in mind while developing Rack N Ruin is to build a main character whose picture is as representational of the game as the actual title. To be more specific, I want the visual image of Rack to be more synonymous with the game than the logo or title. This method of building a character is nothing new and in fact is quite common.
I think the simplest and most popular example of this concept is Mario. If someone says the word Mario, the vast majority of people will envision a short mustached plumber in red overalls. Using character visuals to create brand recognition is one of the things Nintendo does better then almost any other company likely second only to Disney. The advantages of this method are immediately apparent, with both Disney and Nintendo reaping the rewards decades later.
In my experience, Japanese developers tend to execute on this idea better than western developers. Think about all the characters that Konami, Nintendo, Capcom, and Square Enix have built over the years vs all of Western Developed games. Its a sea of thirty something white males with an occasionally recognizable name that is hard to put a face on. Even if we can put a face on a these western characters it is far easier to spot their similarities than differences. If I asked someone to draw me a picture of Commander Shepard the results would vary greatly from person to person, but if I asked for Mickey Mouse, or Ryu I would get a pretty consistent result.
Indies are another group that don’t explore this concept very often. Its not unheard of, but often times indie games lack a face to sell their product. We have some stars like Super Meat Boy, Quote, Isaac (go Edmund) and then the list kind of goes cold for me. What I do see is a lot of recognizable faces but no name to match them. What are the names of the protagonists from Guacamelee, Bit Trip Runner, Don’t Starve, or Limbo? I would know the game if I saw these characters but not the character’s name. The reason is simple, designing a character to fit a specific game can limit the character to that game alone and in a way limits our emotional connection. When you design a character not as a variable in an equation but as an whole and complete being, doors open that you never knew existed. We can play a game like Mario Kart without having the whole thing feel out of place–Halo Kart not so much. After all who wasn’t excited to summon Cloud in Final Fantasy Tactics?
On the other hand there are draw backs to having such an intense focus on a single character. It can limit the scope of your story telling to just what that character represents, or what ideas that character can easily express. Also It can take away the openness of player choice that dominates many Western RPGs. Once you decide to make a distinguishable character the face of your game, the moods and themes that character evokes will dominate everything they appear in. This is the reason many western developers shy away from iconic characters and instead rely on character customization, or one that closest matches their largest demographic (usually 20-30 year old white males).
Through that very lens let’s examine Rack: a comical sadist and the star of the upcoming game Rack n Ruin. Every game or project surrounding Rack will both star him and include an over the top, sadistic tone. Rack is in many ways an experiment due to the nature of his design and personality. It can be risky to have such a polarized character as the face of your game considering how exposed he will be. Rack’s face will be the icon, on the cover, in the trailers, the loading screens, on the steam page, and in the marketing material. As always the success of this game will depend on how people react to Rack’s design.
In closing if you are making a game and you’d like a way to help make it stick in people’s heads, carefully consider what type of character best serves your game. What would portal be without Glados?