Heroes Must Die

Heroic Games

Heroes Must Die by Heroic Games combines an indie video game RPG and an interactive theater production.

Character, Story, and Art Part 2: People Make Plot

In Part 1 of this blog series I showed the evolution of a protagonist from concept through assets, how character influenced art and how story needs created the designs. Now I want to give a little bit of the plot away and show the amazing art for the major factions in the world.

Pro tip for good writing: everything should come from your characters. Their conflicting personalities drive humor and narrative, and the plot in turn should be what affects them and makes them grow. So when outlining the Heroes Must Die story at a broad level, I wanted to have a clear sense of the different groups of people in the world and how they would influence the story.

Most hero stories are driven by the villain. Something threatens the land, so a hero must rise to stop it. Star Wars opens memorably with the Imperial Star Destroyer chasing the rebel ship, and that iconic shot of Vader entering through the smoke to hunt down Leia. It's not only an action-packed opener, it immediately sets up a story with a clear path. The Empire is evil and in power, they need to be stopped, and there is a rebellion fighting against it. We see its effect on the average person in the world (Threepio and Artoo being our proxies) and we long for a hero to stop them.

The story in Heroes Must Die is driven by our villain, Lord Murder, a tyrant quite open about his status. He has maintained control by being a student of hero myth. He knows when they appear and how they work and is able to snuff them out before they threaten. A villain like this has a very specific visual need for his forces, which I dubbed Legion. Since they are the dominating force, they should be well equipped. They are part of an empire, so they should have a uniform look. And since they are bad guys who will be getting killed a lot, they needed their faces covered (another genius move in Star Wars design. The Stormtrooper helms are perfectly menacing and remove any humanity). I gave Evan those ideas, and he gave me this:

You'd wear an armored codpiece too if you could.

You'd wear an armored codpiece too if you could.

I liked the full plate armor and the dramatic helm. There were some comic elements (The Lord Murder 'M' logo, the codpiece) but it was a little too comic. So Evan refined when he made the sprite for the game.

You know what they say bout men with big helmets.

The helmet and shield make the armor read so well, the skinny legs are a little funny but also provide a really nice balance to the sprite. The spear and shield work great for rank-and-file soldiers, and the wings were some dramatic flair inspired by the actual history of Evan's and my Polish ancestors. 

I don't want to get into the details of combat just yet, but to set up the art I will share that there are four main enemy types with different abilities and stats: Normal, Heavy, Ranged, and Caster types. So Evan made concepts for all of those. They needed to be consistent within the Legion visual motif, but also had to instantly read as what type they were so you knew how to deal with them in combat. So he created the following concepts.

They all maintain the segmented plate mail, faces hidden by full helms, and high quality weapons, but each has its own flair. The Heavy's pants are inspired by German mercenary Landsknecht,  the crossbowmen by English archer helms, and the mage made to be creepier by being both androgynous and halfway between alive and undead looking. They each have their own style but each look at home in Lord Murder's army. Here they are in game.

I've also uploaded full atlases to the game sprites gallery for those who want a behind-the-scenes glimpse at all their in-game combat animations.

Now, it's not enough for all these guys to look cool and consistent. You need to know what the hell they are in the heat of battle. Since different enemy types have different attacks and defenses, to stay alive in combat you need to know in a flash what each can do. The distinction is clear. I love how Evan kept them thematically similar while making them instantly recognizable. They each cut a unique silhouette, and their most prominent features (helm and weapon) are all very distinct.

So our story has a large, well organized, well trained army, and we have the art to match it. You can see how the needs of the plot directly influenced the concepts of the characters, and how their designs reflect both their background in the world and their function in the design. 

Much like Star Wars, our Empire needs some Rebels to fight against them. Since we have established that Legion is a powerhouse and Lord Murder in complete control, the resistance needed to be their opposite - scattered, ill-equipped, a ragtag group of misfits. But since this is a visual medium, and design needs dictate consistency between them so you can recognize in battle, they still had to look part of a complete whole.

I named the resistance the Warborn, since they were regular people metaphorically reborn in battle and forged in the fires of war (I have to say metaphorically since, ya know, this is fantasy and anything can be literal thanks to magic). They were guerrilla fighters since they don't have the resources to take on Legion in a full-scale battle. They needed lighter armor, they needed to look less uniform and not as well equipped. These are bandits and militiamen and normal dudes and ladies who picked up the cause. So with this in mind Trent came up with some concepts:

War can be stylin'

War can be stylin'

And the Oscar for Most Bangin' 'Do goes to...

And the Oscar for Most Bangin' 'Do goes to...

The piecemeal leather armor works perfect for a fledgling rebellion, the autumn color palette sets them apart from Legion and also makes sense for a hit-and-run fighting style. We can see their faces, they are much more human and diverse. And I frankly don't know where Trent comes up with those hairstyles, but if you can be a genius of video game character hairstyles, he is the world's pre-eminent scholar, to be sure.

The challenge was translating them into sprites, where again, the type of combatant had to be recognizable, and all these great details had to be reduced to pixels. 

It's a great look, but I worried that it would be hard to keep the tough mix of consistency and variety needed. They had to look similar enough so they would work as a cohesive army in later scenes, but different enough that we understood them as a mishmash of allies come together to defend themselves against Legion. I think it was handled perfectly.


These designs add to the personality, too, which is critical in a dialogue heavy game. When you talk to these people in the world, you get a sense of who they are. Despite the fantasy look there is a very modern sensibility to these characters, which will make it fun to write them with wit, attitude, and an awareness of their world.

Conversely, Legion, while obviously designed with modern methods and talents, have a more classical look, which will work perfect for both serious and intimidating dialogue, and comic video game in jokes. A faceless, walking armor works great both for a badass facing you down and a mook commenting on the sorry state of minions in games.

Down the line I'll introduce our other two factions, but in the meantime I will get some comments from the artists themselves. Enjoy their work here and in the gallery!