MARTIN BRADSTREET - In our game, Chiaro and The Elixir of Life, you begin by building a steam-powered penguin called Boka. As you build Boka, you get used to how you can interact with the magical world of Neverain in virtual reality. But more importantly, you solidify a bond that will continue through the game. The player creates Boka, and yet Boka is also his guide through the experience.
But Boka was not always Boka. In fact, Boka’s creation didn’t follow our typical production timeline for characters, which usually looks something like this:
Since we hadn’t even begun the production of Chiaro when I began working on the steam-powered penguin that would eventually become Boka, there was a much much longer period of pre-production, at first only in my spare time. In fact, after a long hiatus from 3d art, I begin working on Boka as a way of getting back into the swing of things.
I’m not sure where the inspiration came from to make a steam-powered penguin, but I can tell you that I’ve always travelled with a small Pingu toy, perhaps in an attempt to recreate the ‘traveling gnome’ from the 2001 Jean-Pierre Jeunet film Amelie, a movie I love.
Having a bunch of travel shots of Pingu really makes him come alive for me (“How did he get there! He must have a lot of spirit”). In the end, it seems like my Pingu usually ends up eating ramen somewhere, but at this stage he has been with me to many places, Russia, Tokyo, India, Australia, New York, South America…
When Jay and I talked about building a VR game together, we didn’t really discuss what period it would be set in. We talked about broader things, e.g. that we would probably want to do something story-driven. We watched the movie The Boy and The Beast together in Austin as part of Fantastic Fest, and thought maybe we could do something with a master / apprentice relationship in VR.
What time frame to set the game in was never really a conversation--we just knew we wanted to do fantasy. It didn’t seem like there would be electricity in our world. First I made a 3d toy steam engine for some practice and then I went pretty far down the rabbit hole. I’d been getting super into I-Wei Huang’s work with what he calls ‘The Crabfu Steamworks’, and started becoming obsessed with understanding the mechanical operation of different machines.
At first, I was fixated on the idea that the player should be able to see the inner workings of the machine, to know that this machine could actually move, if built. That lead to this first model.
The idea was he would move a bit like this character Mr. Moo, only without a battery, with a steam-powered drive chain instead. Inside his body, the idea was we would use a Wilesco D14 style toy steam engine, in the style of the I-Wei Huang creations. When this guy was geared up, it actually looked really awesome, the rigging took forever, but the bike chain would spin, the legs would move, etc.
At this stage, the proud part of me that had said ‘Ha, animated characters don’t need to look like blobs anymore! We’ll show them!’ suddenly started saying ‘oh man, I have created a nightmare’. It was really tough to get the character to move in dynamic ways. On top of that, some of the cuteness of the early sketches had been lost. The character didn’t look like he would be that much fun to be around.
By this stage, my initial thirst for knowledge of mechanical devices had been sated, and I understood them a lot better. There was also less of the initial curiosity of learning. And so it was time to move forward in history, to hydraulics.
At this point, I began to think more about the anatomy of mechs, who have less trouble moving around. And I wanted to know how excavators worked. Badly. It was this inspiration that actually lead to simplifying the Boka design. We would move forward in time, retain the idea that the main power source was a boiler, but suggest that perhaps the legs were powered by a hydraulic pump rather than bike chain. It was at this stage I also realized that while showing the inner workings of the character would be awesome, it was both cumbersome from an animation perspective, and not technically performant (the bike chain especially). The feet were also not looking great with the Mr. Moo walking style.
After frustrating my girlfriend for several weeks by dashing off every time we walked past an excavator, yelling “THERE’S ANOTHER ONE LET’S GO TAKE PHOTOS!” (cue her eyeroll, sigh of exasperation), I eventually found inspiration in the toothed bucket of the excavator (the part that breaks up the dirt), as well as the linkages and the hydraulic pistons that are used to provide mobility on the main excavator boom. Thus, Boka got bucket feet. The closest influence turned out to be the Hitachi ZX70 bucket, in case you are wondering about such things.
The Boka to End All Bokas
That lead to a ‘final’ model that looked like this:
The eyes look a little strange because they don’t have the emissive that is set in game, but otherwise I was pretty happy at this point.
We lived with this version of the character for about a year, until a really great character artist on our team, Marc-André Bouchard, said ‘you know, I could just give him a little lick of paint…just a few tweaks on the texturing’. It’s hard to pass on a character that you’ve lived with and laboured on for so long, but at this point I had been impressed enough with Marc-André’s work to know that Boka deserved his special attention.
He actually redid the bake to make it a bit cleaner and add some more details, and redid the texturing.
I also like the little accents he gave on the arms, tool sockets, and legs, which make him snap together a little easier when the player builds him, and also the white undersides of his flippers, which make him a little more penguin-like (We avoided the temptation to have his first words be ‘now don’t you call me a duck!’ in the game). I’d say, in Marc-André’s own words, he got him ‘pretty lookin’ good’.
So that was the saga to bring Boka to life. Of course, without the efforts of Nesrine Ibrahim, our lead animator, the character would never truly have become Boka. She managed to find creative ways to overcome his truckish nature, allowing him to become a truly dynamic character that seems completely alive when throwing a ball or running (not to mention during the longer storytelling scenes).
Getting Boka from a vague concept in my brain to a fully alive machine with personality has been an adventure. Hopefully we’ve been able to imbue this into Boka, as he accompanies the player through their own adventure in Neverain.