To celebrate Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition’s recent release, we thought it’d be interesting to offer an insightful deep dive into how the studio creates its in-world characters - from rough ideas to realistic, fully voiced and animated individuals.
During your time exploring, you’ll interact with many colourful personalities, but to example the creative process, the various teams in the studio weighed in on the creation of one of the game’s newest faces: the bumbling 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 Story 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: The story team flesh out Gildun’s backstory
In turn, this provided an important clue to Gildun’s personality for the Story 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: The art team conceptualises the character’s look
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.”
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. Then, with Gildun fully assembled and able to move, all that was needed was for actor Donovan Patton to breathe life into the character.
“For Gildun’s most prominent scenes we used full-performance motion capture,” Senior Producer Jochen Willemsen says. “We recorded Patton’s body, face and audio in sync to get a very natural-looking performance.” 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 body double, who was recorded separately.
“Patton put so much fervor into his performance, the body double had no trouble finding a body language to match,” Jochen recalls. “Even though our body double only had the voice performance to work with, his movements ended up being remarkably close to those Patton used during the recording.”
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.