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Moving to specifics a bit, the character of Kai in Heavenly Sword is unconventional and eccentric -- a lot of that is conveyed through her animation and character design as well as her dialogue. Can you talk about that interplay?
RP: Kai's visuals came first and then it was all about breathing life and motion into her avatar. We wanted her to be quite feline and playful in her movements as a contrast to the heavy brutality going on around her and her subsequent detachment from it all. That's also a sense that she may be cavorting with, or even speaking directly to, something that can only be seen by her.
It's always tricky when you're dealing with a younger character (although Kai's mental state is a fair bit younger than her physical state) that they don't become annoying. There's a fine line between cute and weird and just plain irritating. I think it actually helped us that we didn't use a child actor to play her. Given that she's actually pretty violent, it could have been... complicated.
Kai was probably the most challenging role in the game and consequently I spent quite a while talking to Lydia Basksh (the actress who both voiced and acted Kai) about the character, her past and her journey during the game.
Lydia was able to capture Kai's layers brilliantly; her resilience, determination to hold onto lost innocence and her sheer devotion to her adopted sister, Nariko. I've always maintained that in some ways Heavenly Sword is a love story. It's just not a love story about a boy and girl, but one about sibling love.
And can you talk about the storytelling functions of characters that are left-of center in game stories?
RP: What I think worked well for Heavenly Sword was that from a narrative point of view, we didn't waste characters. We had a small cast but they were all tightly wound into each other's lives. One of the themes of the game was about the sometimes screwed-up nature of familial relationships. Initially it was demonstrated through Nariko's relationship with Shen, as both daughter/father and student/teacher, and her bond with Kai.
It's then reflected and distorted in Bohan's volatile (and equally problematic) relationship with his son Roach and the childish machinations of his generals, Whiptail and Flying Fox. In Whiptail's case she is instrumental in sending the relationship between Nariko and Shen spinning out of control, tearing the two characters apart, whilst Flying Fox is a predominant player in Kai's story.
I think NPCs (although Kai was a lot more than that) can be vitally important for highlighting story themes and important traits in both protagonists and antagonists. They really are the narrative pillars of a game world.
You talk about having a small but relevant cast in Heavenly Sword. Ken Levine spoke about chopping out many NPCs in BioShock and consolidating the roles of several into one character. But many games have sprawling casts of NPCs -- many disposable or essentially interchangeable. What do you think about approaching the issue of character in games?
RP: It's a difficult one. Primarily because the function an NPC provides can vary from game to game, genre to genre. Nevertheless, good characters linger. Players latch onto them much more than developers perhaps realize, and therefore much more attention needs to be paid to their creation.
In all honesty I haven't been able to do everything I wanted with every single character I've worked on. You don't always get that kind of freedom as a contractor, and quite often you still have to fight tooth and nail for it when you're on the inside. However, the ones I think that have been most successful (in terms of player feedback) have had strong themes resonating right through to their personality traits and quirks. Almost to the extent of being somewhat larger than life -- there's not always room for much character subtlety in the game-space.
In the case of Heavenly Sword, I think that allowing the player to actually participate in several of the characters' emotional journeys helped create that elusive player-to-character bond. Too often characters can become, as you say, interchangeable and nothing more than talking parts of the level design.
Really, the solution is to properly anchor your characters in the game world and elevate them from whatever role they may be performing as a gameplay signpost or walking tutorial etc. Be it to illustrate a facet of the world, a relationship dynamic, a mirror on the protagonist or whatever. Your characters are the pillars of your story, so make each one count.