The Art of Even the Ocean
Chapter 3: Character Art and Design
Note: major story and visual spoilers abound in this one!
When Sean and I first began working on Even the Ocean in the summer of 2013, its fantasy world was envisioned as something closer to our previous game Anodyne’s: surreal, with jumps in internal logic and a hodgepodge of human, animal, and mythical characters. However, as the story began to take shape — and as my thinking became increasingly preoccupied with power dynamics and social inequities in the midst of personal and national turmoil — I felt an increased desire to be less metaphorical and more specific when it came to depictions of characters. I wanted to depict diverse human characters with regards to race, class, gender, sexuality, and other factors.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing for any one correct way of designing characters or creating “representation”, and I wouldn’t hold up my own work as ideal. I’m just laying out some of my thought processes, and perhaps it will be useful to my future self or others. If you have critiques of anything, particularly as a marginalized person, I’d definitely appreciate hearing them!
The most explored sociopolitical dynamic is probably Aliph’s “model minority” status in Whiteforge City. This was something that Sean and I wanted to depict, both of us being people of East Asian descent with access to education and stability. I veer towards wanting to please everyone, and I wanted to depict the consequences of following the path that powerful people say is the only way. If Aliph and the Whiteforge elite had meaningfully taken to heart the ideas of characters like Yara, Dolores (the disruptive teen from Oscar Basin), and Jane (the elderly naturalist in Karst Pass), perhaps things could have turned out differently. Some people have interpreted the ending as nihilism, but we intended it to read more as: sure, there will be some inevitable end to humanity, but we can alter how and when that end occurs — and in the meantime, it matters how people are allowed to exist. And I wanted to illustrate the deep, bizarre cruelty that the powerful hide from themselves and the people they keep close. What Even the Ocean lacks is the radical imagination and political groundwork to depict a better path.
Stylization and Idealization
Stylizing characters can serve many purposes in a creative work. When I think about traditional character design tips for things like comics, animation, and games, I think about dramatic contrasts… about boiling down a character to their essence, creating a distinctive visual silhouette, and communicating the strong aspects of their personality that set them apart from the other characters. Contrast serves a practical purpose in increasing clarity — allowing audiences to better follow a story — and it can make for interesting situations in which characters butt heads over their differences.
I took this advice to heart, but only partially. I did endeavor to create diverse and interesting characters, but I avoided dramatic visual stylization. Most of the character portraits are based on random photos of people I found on the internet with very little alteration of proportions or shape. I wanted them to feel almost unexpectedly normal. For instance, Jane is not meant to be a platonic ideal of an elderly woman filtered through an appealingly iconic art style, but rather just some specific woman rendered in pixel art.
I think there’s room for both types of imagery: we can create hyper-cute drawings or perfectly lit photographs of ourselves and that can help us re-envision our relationship to our bodies in powerful ways. And we can also appreciate more “normal” imagery, with diffused or inconsistent qualities, to remind us that our bodies and images should not have to be commodities.
Also, a surprising amount of cartooning’s methodology is rooted in and supports racism, sexism, cissexism, ableism, fatphobia, etc. Which is not to say that these things are all impossible to avoid when cartooning, but sometimes I just step back and “yikes” at how deep this all runs. We’re trained to link physical bodies with narrative roles, personalities, and moral profiles to the point where bucking those trends is explicitly seen as shoddy craftsmanship in mainstream media. Which is weird. (It’s a live action and real life thing too, but cartooning makes those values particularly explicit). Even when people are well-intentioned, there’s just such a deep history there, and it bubbles up all the time.
Individuality vs. Locations as Characters
On a somewhat related note, we decided that every character in Even the Ocean would have a name and portrait image, regardless of the size of their role in the game. Some RPGs, especially older ones built with greater limitations, are structured so that each location is more like a character than the individual inhabitants. By exploring a town’s physical space and deciding who to talk to, you engage in a sort of branching conversation with the town as a whole. This is an efficient method that can be used to great effect, and in some ways is less exhausting to the player than interacting with actual dialogue trees.
However, I started thinking about how this relates to modern US society, and how hierarchy exists between the nameless and the named. How do we decide which people are the throwaway NPC’s of our lives? How does that effect the way we treat them? Let me know if you have thoughts on how different games handle this. We just decided to give everyone a name and face to communicate their specific personhood regardless of how important they are to you as a player.
The main recurring characters were designed mostly from my head, and I’d been picturing and sketching them them long before I was at the portrait-drawing stage. However most of the other characters were based on photographs found using google image search, often with the clothing altered and the lighting simplified.
I realized that when I shrunk down the photos and tried to trace them directly into pixel art, the details would get too confusing and messy. So the first step was to make simplified line art based on the photo.
Next, I shrunk down the line art and traced that into pixel art. Color and shading were the final steps, usually taking into consideration the color palette of the area. I tended to soften the lighting in order to let it mentally blend in as part of the interface representing the character more abstractly, rather than how they look in an exact moment.
The small full body character sprites are fairly straightforward, and aside from Aliph, there’s almost no character animation.
I think it would have been nice if there was a less strict division between the recurring characters of Whiteforge City and the functionally one-off characters in the surrounding areas. The rigidity of Even the Ocean’s structure had a lot to do with managing the game’s globetrotting RPG scope as a small team. But that is perhaps a discussion for another time. Analgesic Productions’ next game is planned to be smaller and more focused in scope, and will feature more fantastical creatures as characters — but hopefully not at the expense of being politically intentional and meaningful.