Game characters are probably under-valued due to the glut of character-based platformers in the 16-bit era. Remember Rocky Rodent? There’s a reason you don’t. Now we have fully-realized 3-D worlds and of course, characters need to populate them. The Art of Game Characters tries to make sense of it all, explaining the basic process, interviewing those who have created them, and showcasing both rendered and hand-drawn art to show off the process.
It does all of this in less than 200 pages, covering the various character design philosophies. Author Leo Hartas does a fantastic job with words, accompanying each picture with surprisingly well-written, descriptive text. It could have carried you with the art, but the text is more informative than you would expect. Co-authors occasionally pick up to explain things more in-depth, and do so without alienating the audience, who may not have any experience actually crafting characters like this.
The interviews with certain developers provide most of the disappointment. There are times when this all seems far too promotional, particularly the book’s final segment on Advent Rising. It leaves a bad taste when you finally close this paperback, especially since some of the games featured are not yet released. There are also no discussions with the true masters of character design, like Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario) and Toru Iwatani (Pac-Man).
In fact, there’s a complete lack of 2-D classic character art anywhere. This can hardly be considered a complete work without a picture of a 2-D Mario. The various artist’s quick renderings and sketches are the only things not in 3-D. There’s no attempt to explain how design evolved to this point, other than a few brief sentences. That would have given the book a better rounded feel, regardless of how the game industry has embraced 3-D.
The book is split into various sections focusing on the various character types like villains, women, anti-heroes, and so on. That makes it easy to quickly flip to a section that interests you if you don’t feel the need to read it all. It’s laid out beautifully in full color on heavy stock which reinforces the art.
The interviews that are here provide plenty of information and complement the author’s text nicely, even if they do plug their games too often. There is also some work from games that have been cancelled including B.C., which really hammers home the sense of how much can be done, only to remain unused. There’s a short section later that gives a rough overview of how a 3-D character is created, explaining the process of texturing and animation. It needs to be in here, just not towards the back. A section like this should come in far earlier.
While it may seem like this a book more interested in flash then substance due to the lack of 2-D gaming, the text confirms there is a deep knowledge of this process at work. You can read the entire book in under a day, but you’ll continually pull it off the shelf just to look at some of the art. This isn’t a book for those looking to learn how to make these characters work inside a video game; it’s not meant to be. It’s one for inspiration, eye candy, and an informative look at the process from the beginning. It does this well; just maybe not in the form you would want it.