Art, Quest, and Narrative teams at Guerrilla detail the process through which an NPC goes from concept to reality.
Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition is out in stores now! In addition to the New Game+ and Photo Mode enhancements that were added to Horizon Zero Dawn after launch, the Complete Edition also includes the expansion pack The Frozen Wilds, which contains a sizeable chunk of new content. That means more ancient mysteries to uncover, more gripping quests to complete, more dangerous machines to defeat and more colorful personalities to meet!
And speaking of colorful personalities that you can interact with in Horizon Zero Dawn: we recently had a chance to ask the team at Guerrilla how their characters go from rough ideas to realistic, fully voiced and animated individuals. To illustrate this process, the various teams in the studio weighed in on the creation of one of the game’s newest faces: the fortune hunter Gildun from the recently released expansion The Frozen Wilds.
Step 1: The quest that determined a quest-giver
“The character of Gildun first emerged from a collaboration between the Quest Team and the Narrative Team,” Principal Game Designer Tim Stobo says. “He was built to fit the quest, rather than the other way around.” The team started by thinking about the type of experience they wanted the player to have: to explore a large, old-world site in a unique way.
Once the site was determined to be an old dam facility, Quest Designer Samantha Schoonen and Writer Dee Warrick worked out a reason for Aloy to visit the dam. “While her motivations changed over multiple iterations, Aloy always met a member of the Oseram tribe there,” Tim recalls. “He was either responsible for the damage caused to the dam, or attempting to fix the damage caused by someone else.”
Thus, the Oseram fortune hunter Gildun was born. “Samantha had mapped out exactly what she wanted the player to do in this space and, in the process, did a lot of research into how modern dams work,” Tim says. “It became clear that multiple pieces of the dam had to have failed or been broken for the quest to make sense.”
Step 2: Fleshing out Gildun’s personality and backstory
In turn, this provided an important clue to Gildun’s personality for the Narrative Team. “The chain of failures in the dam came close to absurd, and I think that was where Gildun really started to emerge as a person,” Lead Writer Ben McCaw explains. “He struck us as someone who might be eternally optimistic, but also rather clumsy, and that unfortunate combination of character traits put him in his predicament at the dam.”
At the same time, the team didn’t want Gildun to come off as just comic relief. “There’s a sadder side to him, something that becomes apparent towards the end of the quest,” Ben says. “The closest analogue I can think of is John Candy’s character in Planes, Trains and Automobiles –upbeat and overly talkative, but with a tragic background.”
Step 3: Conceptualizing the character’s appearance
The Story Team provided an outline of Gildun’s character to the Concept Art Team, who set out to visualize him. “In the main game the Oseram people mostly stuck to warmer climates, so they had no need for thick layers of clothing,” Senior Concept Artist Ilya Golitsyn recalls. “But given the location of Gildun’s quest, we felt that regular Oseram clothing wouldn’t provide enough protection against the elements.”
Luckily, the team didn’t have to search far for inspiration. While going through earlier Oseram clothing concepts for ideas, they found a design that closely matched their requirements for Gildun’s outfit. “From there, it was a matter of updating the design to include fur lining and additional padding,” Ilya says.
Step 4: Translating the concept into a hyper-realistic game character
After the concept art for Gildun was finished, the Character Art Team oversaw its translation into a game character that could fit with the hyper-realistic style of Horizon Zero Dawn. “This process always involves striking a careful balance,” Character Art Director Dan Calvert explains. “On one hand the concept art, which can be slightly exaggerated, needs to be interpreted into a 3D model with realistic proportions and material expression. On the other hand, the 3D model needs to retain and do justice to the core appeal of the concept art.”
Step 5: Preparing the character for animation
A first-pass version of the model consisting of 140,000 polygons was then handed off to the Animation Team for rigging and skinning. “We also did a pass on the procedural setups for Gildun’s clothing and muscles, to allow them to move more realistically” Lead Technical Animator Bart Wijsman says. “We even added procedural bones to dent his scarf based on where he was looking.”
In total, an additional 108 extra joints were added on top of Gildun’s logical skeleton. While the team performed a final optimization pass on Gildun’s body, his face was scanned and rigged in a separate track. Once Gildun was fully assembled and able to move, all that was needed to breathe life into the character was an actor capable of delivering the right performance.
Step 6: Finding an actor to perform the character
“Casting Gildun was a rather laborious process,” Voice Director Jochen Willemsen says. “We went through samples for 80 different voice talents before agreeing on a selection of five that we felt were suitable for the role.” Of those five, actor Donovan Patton’s reading stood out the most. “He understood that the key to Gildun’s likeability was his pathos,” Jochen says. “His performance hit exactly the right tone.”
For Gildun’s most prominent scenes, the Cinematics Team used full-performance motion capture. “We recorded Patton’s body, face and audio in sync to get a very natural-looking performance,” Jochen says. For other scenes, the team recorded Patton’s face and audio first, then used the recording of his voice performance to inform the movements of a separately recorded body double.
“Patton had great chemistry in his scenes with Ashly Burch,” Jochen recalls. “He put so much fervor into the role, our body double had no trouble finding the body language to match.” Remarkably, even though the body double only had a recorded voice performance to work with, his movements ended up being very close to the ones Patton made during the recording. “Just from listening to his delivery, you can tell so much about the character’s physical energy,” Jochen says. “It’s the hallmark of a good performance.”
The result is a unique character that comes across as affable, clumsy and slightly annoying – but also deserving of Aloy’s help and sympathy. Her interactions with Gildun rank as some of the funniest moments in the game, and make an already fun quest even more entertaining.
We hope you enjoyed our dive into the creation of Horizon Zero Dawn’s characters. The game (and the expansion!) are full of interesting individuals like Gildun above, so pick up a copy of Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition if you haven’t played them yet. Also, be sure to follow Guerrilla on Twitter and Facebook for the latest Horizon Zero Dawn news.