Behind the Scenes: Writing Characters for SGL
by Lee Adams
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, and in the past I always had the luxury of space. Whether it was writing essays at college or articles for various movie websites, I always had enough room to write whatever I wanted. If there was a word count, there would usually be a tolerance of about 100 words either way.
Writing mission briefings and dialogue for the NPCs in Shadowgun Legends presented a real challenge — I had to squeeze mission goals, plot, character development, and some humour into a very strict word limit.
Word limit? It’s even tighter than that — we go by character limit. For each mission briefing, for example, we only have 212 characters to play with. That usually equates to around 100 words, which means most of the briefings in the game would fit within the tolerance I was used to in the past!
It’s just one of the considerations we have to make when writing for mobile devices — go any longer, and it ends up too small to read on most screens. So we’re always tweaking and tightening the text, wrangling for just a couple of characters to chop to get it under the limit.
Under these conditions, breathing life into each of our NPCs was a really interesting challenge. Without the benefit of cut scenes or voice acting for all the dialogue, I had to find different ways to make each one distinctive. Here’s how I approached it…
“Yo, Poppy Powers is in trouble, man — she just start a tour of her new album ‘Poppy Pops Pop’ when she get snatched by the Torment again! Her label call Pedro and say we want her back at all cost, you know?”
With Pedro, it was love at first sight — I’m a horror guy, so his deformed mug reminded me of the Chatterer from Hellraiser. I got a really positive vibe from his character design and animation. He’s got a lot of good energy, and he was my favourite character to write from the very beginning.
Pedro’s speciality is decoding holograms and selling cosmetic items. Here are my early character notes for the voice-over artists:
Flamboyant, excitable, good-natured. Speaks in Broken English, refers to himself in the third person. Peppers dialogue with words from Esperanto, which is his native tongue. He loves pop culture and appreciates music, especially opera. Likes the ladies. Grew up in the Ghetto of Columbia Hills (Mars), dragged himself up, refers to his past a lot. Religious, but doesn’t bang on about it.
Legends had been in development for a long time before I joined the team, so there were already placeholder texts for most of the NPCs and their mission briefings. At first it was just Slade, S.A.R.A, Pedro, Willow, and Big Red. Hakim and Nitro came later.
The placeholder texts for Pedro included one interesting detail that influenced the early stages of his character development — he was a native Esperanto speaker, and English was his second language.
The more I wrote for Pedro, the less I used Esperanto. I wasn’t happy relying on Google Translate, because it wasn’t like I could easily find a fluent Esperanto speaker to check it! However, I focused more on his broken English as a way of distinguishing his dialogue from the other characters. It was a shorthand way of character building and telling his text apart from Big Red’s, for example.
From the outset, I decided the best way to make the NPCs distinctive was to pick an actor I’d like to play them if there was my perfect animated movie version of Shadowgun Legends.
Luis Guzman in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (Credit: Warner Bros Pictures)
Straight away I knew the best person to play Pedro would be Luis Guzman. He has such a distinctive personality, especially in the supporting roles that made him famous in the ’90s. I listened to a lot of clips of Guzman talking in movies like Boogie Nights and Out of Sight, and especially his scenes with Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way.
After that, I just imagined Guzman speaking whenever I wrote some Pedro dialogue, and I think it worked out really well.
“Hey big shot, you believe in things that go bump in the night? Intel has picked up a weird ‘cold spot’ in the Tunnels, and they don’t think it’s just someone left the freezer open. Go take a look…”
Willow is the Shadowgun’s weaponsmith. From my character notes:
She’s tough, resilient and quick-witted, she enjoys teasing new recruits but underneath she’s sympathetic towards them. Occasional outbursts hint at a violent temper and violent past.
Willow was a nightmare, the hardest character to write for. I still haven’t got a handle on her. I think the problem stems from a disconnect between how the character is designed and animated, and how the boss wanted her written.
Jenette Goldstein as the iconic badass Vasquez in Aliens (credit: 20th Century Fox)
He really wanted her to talk like Vasquez from Aliens. A memorable character, no doubt, but there was a problem — she barely says anything more than a few words long. I read James Cameron’s screenplay to find out how he brought her to life, and almost all of Vasquez’s character is in the descriptions. She only has about seven lines which are usually reactions to something another character says.
Excerpt from James Cameron’s screenplay for Aliens
It was very hard for me to imagine Vasquez having a normal conversation or giving someone a mission because she’s the strong silent type. So Willow’s dialogue ended up rather generic. In the end, I just wrote in the notes for the voice-over artist “Vasquez from Aliens”.
I’m happy to say that without much to go on, the voice artist did a great job bringing a really under-developed character to life!
“Dude, you wanna do me another solid? I got a guy who’s got a guy who’s in the market for some W4FF-13 fuses, just the kind the Destiny used. I’d go myself but my leg is hurtin’ somethin’ awful today…”
Big Red is the Hub’s armourer. From my notes:
Big Red is Gruff, grumbly, a bit of a wheeler-dealer. Always looking for a deal, and whatever it is he’s got a guy who knows a guy. He Always has an excuse for why he can’t do something himself. Nice to people when he wants something. Gets a kick out of violence, especially when directed at the Torment. Married, but gives the sense it’s a pretty loveless union.
One of the first things I wrote for Big Red was the “In the Doghouse” side quest, and a few choices I made there defined how I approached the rest of his character. First, he’s a henpecked husband, trying to make it up to his wife after drunkenly puking in her shoes; and secondly, he weasels out of collecting flowers himself with some poor excuse — on this occasion, his hayfever.
In my imaginary perfect movie of Legends, I cast Wilford Brimley as Big Red. I knew him from The Thing and The Natural, although younger players probably know him more from his videos about “Diabeetus”.
Wilford Brimley in his breakthrough role in The Waltons (Credit: Warner Bros Television Distribution)
Brimley is so good at portraying a gruff character whose curmudgeonly exterior doesn’t quite hide his kind soul. With Brimley’s distinctive voice in mind, I also started dropping the “g’s” in his speech, another bit of shorthand characterization that sets his dialogue apart from the others.
So the biggest lesson my first job in the games industry taught me? Every single character counts, whether it’s a letter, a number or a chunky fella in an oily tanktop!
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we meet some old favourites from the previous Shadowgun games, and some new characters arrive in the Hub…