Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rex Does Kongai: Rockers Five – Feel the Flavor

Welcome back to the posts that sometimes end.

When last we'd left things, we were in a rush but still managed to carve out some solid values for the six Rock Stars of our proposed expansion set's first group. Leaving them with fully fleshed out bars and stats but still far from what I'd consider finished. Or balanced.

But, today, rather than focusing on polishing those last remaining blemishes that mean the difference between a good card and one that's bad, I thought we could turn away from the elegant purity of these characters' bars and venture into more ephemeral territory. Dealing not with the mechanical and gameplay issues that actually matter but, instead, with concept and presentation.

How a card looks, though, how it should feel, and the concept behind it, I'd argue, are just as important as how it plays. The right flavor can make or break a character on the rocky shoals of the gameplaying public's reception. Not only that but the right aesthetic concept can help to guide a character's design – if you know what a card is that can help you find what it can do. It's just that when it comes to the cosmetic package that you'll wrap your characters in there's no easy answers.

You can't point to a formula to tell if your character's history is an effective one. You can't crunch the numbers and find out if their motivation is sufficient. You have to go out on a limb here and trust yourself and those creative instincts that you have buried deep inside.

Because what we're talking about is flavor. Not how a card tests or plays, not how its numbers and values interact with the game's mechanics and its code's systems. But how that card tastes. For lack of a better word, it's the feelings that each card evokes and the impressions they create. And this flavor is an inherently subjective thing. One person's cool-looking, shades wearing, cigar chomping, leather-wearing ass-kicker is another's horrendously trite and overused cliché.

But well crafted and executed with a deft touch, the flavor that your card carries with it can be that last little touch that turns them from an interesting collection of ideas into a living, breathing character that people will really want to play. It's what transforms a bar of defensive skills and light healing into a paladin. It's what turns a character with a few Bleeds sprinkled around into a vicious knife-wielding killer. Flavor creates personality. And personality is what people connect with, at least on a superficial level. Just as humans are hardwired to see faces, recognizing familiar patterns everywhere we look, anthropomorphizing even the most alien and inanimate objects, our emotive response are conditioned to respond as well to something that feels human. To something that has a look, a feel, and, above all, a story.

So, that's what we're going to do today. Tell these character's stories. Talk about what I'd imagine they'd look like if they were ever made into cards. Eventually, if we were actually making these things, we'd want to have every art asset covered, somehow. From borders to icons and even a guide for the skills to be animated. But we won't be going that far today. And we won't be going into too much depth either (You can stop breathing that sigh of relief now. Thanks.).

I like to write, as you may have well noticed. And I fancy myself to have some middling talent along those lines. So, I could come up with detailed tales, intricate tellings about each character that amount to short stories. And, uh, I probably have. But since the real point of flavor is not to be a creative writing exercise but to help define each card, I find it works best to keep things brief and to the point. So, rather than churn out paragraph after paragraph of purple prose, I try to keep things to the bare essentials. My descriptions and backstories read more like laundry lists than finished products. But, more importantly, they read quickly.

But, first, let's take a look at the art. We'll go through each character and talk about how we'd like them to be portrayed. If I had the time and the courage to subject you all to my terrible sketchings, I could work up some character studies. But, really, this is the sort of thing best left to the imagination. And to the hand of a skilled professional. So, the first question is what kind of art style in which to see these Rock Stars appear.

The original cards were all designed by Udon. The expansion set was split between them and another art house. And then you look at card games like M:TG where dozens of artists have, over the years, created their own distinctive looks. Some people might think that clashing styles might be to the game's detriment but, really, I think the variety can be useful. If all the cards look the same then the game has its own look. But if each group had been crafted by a different hand, then each has a readily identifiable look all of its own. It helps to create an indentity, a personality, and that's not a bad thing.

Here, though, I think I'd be happy with the “house style”. Characters out of a comic book or a manual for a Capcom game would work for the Rockers, I'd think. They're a group of cartoony, outsized characters. They can, they should, look a little bit more than human, with rippling muscles and clothing that's fit for a stage show. The one worry I have about Udon is that the Rock Stars are kinda-sorta-maybe-not really based on actual musical personalities. They're thinly veiled allusions to rockers like Elvis or Pat Benatar. And I'm not sure they wouldn't benefit from being visual caricatures as well. And I'm not really sure the Udon style could pull that off (Although, at least, unlike a lot of other comic booky artists they can at least draw two girls with different faces.).

With that in mind, then, let's have at it:


It should be rather obvious but, you know, just in case you missed it, the Big Bopper is based not on his namesake but, really, on Elvis. And that's the look we'd want to achieve here. Fat Elvis. The one from the Vegas showrooms. A creature of tracksuits and sequins. The Bopper should be a large man. Tall and heavy-set with a big potbelly and a jolly nature. He wears his dark hair in an outrageous pompadour – if all else fails he could use it as a club to batter his opponents. He's wearing his performance clothes, some kind of coveralls that have been caught in an unfortunate accident with a Bedazzler. With a high, wide collar. The Bopper glows, his many sequins sparkling as is he's been caught by the stagelight. Maybe he's wearing sunglasses, maybe he's not. But we can see that his eyes are also sparkling – he's a good natured, charismatic guy with a killer smile. He's holding his guitar out and giving his hips a little shimmy as he gives his opponent a sly look or the playing a charming wink. For a guitar, I'm thinking an old acoustic model. Or at least an early electric model made up to look like the old wide-bodied wooden models.

The reference point here is Bowie. David Bowie. Maybe some other British rockers like Townsend and Daltry and Waters and more. But, really, the idea is someone from the glam rock era and, to me, that's got to be Bowie. In any case, he's a thin, elongated man. Long, sandy blond hair and an lengthy face with a patrician's cast. He's not just European, he's upper-class nobby European. His eyes closed, he's lost in contemplation. Searching for the song. He may or may not be wearing mascara but he definitely has a liberal dose of glittery powdering. Surrounded by sparkles and starlight, bathed an eerie glow, cloaked in his own personal aura. He's dressed in a spacesuit without a helmet. Or what would be a spacesuit if gold lame and sequins were protection from the dark void of space. It's something out of a prop department, an old diver's suit covered with metallic spray paint. He leans back in his own private revelry, his head tossed back, his fingers working along the frets of his guitar as he builds his cosmic soundscape. For his guitar, I want a keytar. One of those futuristic, electric ones with a keyboard built right into it.

What we're going for here is Gene Simmons from KISS or Oderus Urungus from GWAR. But the frontman for one of those crazy rocks that dresses up in greasepaint and papier mache. Votan is a muscular man, a real carrot body, in a costume designer's idea of armor. It's garish, coated in gore and spikes and bits of pointed or rusting metal. His face is heavily made up into something monstrous. A wicked looking leather eye-patch covers one side of his face. He's a medieval nightmare, a rock age demon, ripped from the pages of a fantasy magazine, so horribly over the top, so unbelievably extreme, that he's crossed over from shock territory into schlock. His mouth is open, his tongue is hanging out, and he's drooling blood. He's crouched over, tucking his guitar into his stomach as he jams. His guitar should be shaped like a giant battle-axe. Its double-sided blades forming the body with the strings running up the shaft of its handle.

The original inspiration here is a grunge rocker like Eddie Vedder or Kurt Colbain. Someone scruffy and plaid. But, really, I think an average, plain look like Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer of Weezer, is going to work best. That's because Rocker #4 is an emo-lad. Someone nondescript and not looking too out of the ordinary. But, also, someone stuck in the late 90s, wearing slacks and a gas station attendant's shirt. A closely cropped head of hair and, maybe, Roy Orbison glasses. His hair is dark and wetted down with oil or product or just plain water, it sags on the top of his head like an overwatered plant and runs down his head like an oil spill. His eyes are covered with thick, heavily applied mascara. It, too, is starting to run down his face, looking like so many dark tears. He stands with his head sunk into his chest, looking down and concentrating on the song he's playing. For a guitar here, I'd think a simple electric affair. Nothing too fancy.

Izzy is called the Headbanger's Doll and that's exactly the look I want. A cross between a hard rocking, hard working woman like Pat Benatar and a strung out, worn out drug fiend like Courtney Love. She'll be a punkish rocker girl, looking like she just stepped out of an 80s hair band and decided to join a Sex Pistols cover band. Dressed in clothes that are leather and slick but also with little frilly, girly touches like bows and lace. Maybe something like a witchy theme to pay homage to her namesake. I'm thinking her clothes should be in tones of blank and pink. She'd have a pair of thigh-high stockings horizontally striped in those colors with big, shit-kicking black combat boots. Hot pants laced up in the front. And a grungy t-shirt slipping off of one of her shoulder's – with a crude version of the Rocker's icon drawn on it, badly, with permanent marker. She'll have long bushy hair with a streak of hot pink, an obvious dye-job. Black lipstick. A face studded with jewelry. She's leaning forward. Screaming even as she's strumming her guitar. Sweat and spotlights cling to her. She's someone in motion, burning energy and burning up the tune. Her guitar should be an electric affair, something that looks sleek and slick and, above all, fast – like the notes it plays are set on fire because they're moving so fast.

The idea here is that the Juke Box Hero is, well, someone who just bought his first six-string guitar and has stars in his eyes. He's going to be a star one day. But, until then, he been stuck toiling in obscurity on the garage band circuit. At least, he was, until his big break came in the form of a magical guitar and the chance to fight a few dozen madmen. So, unlike the other Rockers who are based on established musicians, he's the everyman. Could be anyone. An average teenager. A scrawny kid with a surfer's build and a mop of unruly, golen hair that partially obscures his face. In simple clothes, a t-shirt, shorts or jeans, and over-sized sneakers with the laces half undone. Generic, nondescript, and unadorned. His guitar has to have six strings. It should also be covered with stickers, like smilely faces or the Rocker's icon, and other bits of hopeless personalization - Tommy's guitar plays him, not the other way around.

There we are, then, that's how I think these cards should look. And, if asked, that's the kind of notes I'd be sending off to the artists. But knowing how a card looks is just one half of the equation. The other half is knowing the character's background.

Although it's only paper-thin, in the best traditions of fighting games everywhere, Kongai has at least some semblance of a plot. A reason for all these varied characters to get together and beat on one another. Instead of, you know, solving world hunger. And, more than that, there's a reason for subsets of those characters to have banded together in groups of five. These are what I call the backstories. The steps that have created a character and led them to the point where they're about to deal battle. A short synopsis of their life lessons and motivations for getting involved.

Again, we're not trying for art here, just for something quick that works. And where I think it's useful to start is not by diving into each card individually but stepping back to consider the overall scheme first. If we have a general story for the group then we can slot each individual character into it, somehow. But if we start off and go character by character we're going to be pulling in several different directions at once and wind up with a confusing mess.

So, what, then, is the story of the Rockers? I think we can tie them into the general plot of this set very well by associating them with another group. The Rockers, after all, are a group of musicians gifted with incredible powers of rock from many different ages. If you'll recall, they're also this set's good group, the protagonists in the eventual storyline who are fighting against the many evils in the other groups – whether it's the maddening insanity of the Psychos, the “man was not meant to know!” creepiness of the Necros, or the criminal pragmatism of the Gangsters. This implies they've banded together, somehow, to fight those forces of evil. That they're not just a super-group but a super-team. But, being inspired by different persons from musical history, it's hard to see how they came together – what's a 50s rocker like the Bopper doing with emo-lad, and all that?

But the Necros give us the perfect out. The Rock Stars aren't just inspired by those different moments in history they're literally pulled out of it. Not because of time travel but because the Necromancers have raised them from the dead. Part, no doubt, of their nefarious schemes to ultimately cheat their own deaths, but the Rockers are rock legends who've been brought back to life by some dark magics (Well, except for Juke Box, who's more like the Chosen One, the fulfillment of some ancient prophesy. But we'll get to that.). More zombies created in the Necros' experiments, more pawns in their grand plan (What those plans are, exactly, I have no idea. But we'll get to that when we get to the Necs).

But the Rockers weren't going to just go along with those plans. They rebelled, somehow, and decided to fight back against their would-be-masters. They're too extreme, they're too independent, too suffused with the spirit of rock to be so easily tamed. And, now, they're out not just to escape but to foil the Necros. And this is where we can bring Juke Box in. Because he'll have found a magic guitar and used its powers to free the zombified Rockers who were struggling to break out of the Necros control. Restoring them to a true life and, then, becoming the figure around which they've rallied. Maybe not their leader – the Rockers don't truck with leaders – but at least the one who's inspiring them to fight on as darkness falls.

Like I said, it's not exactly Faulkner. But it'll do for now. Let's move on, then, and use this general plotline to inform each Rocker's backstory:

The Bopper was the one who almost made it. He was a rising star, about to make it the big time. His fans, they called him the Sultan of the Sock Hop, his records were starting to move, and his name was starting to get renowned, but he'd yet to have that one smash hit that would truly cement his fame. So, he bid his time, learning his craft, and staged show after show, bringing the house down with his latest song. But, somehow, his success could never translate to the recording studio or the radio stations and he remained the greatest rocker that no one had ever heard about. It all changed one day, and the big man was about to have his big break. Ritchie Valence range him up one day, said hello, and asked if he'd like to go on tour with him and Holly and Richardson. He leapt at the chance and joined them on their plane for that fateful day when the music died. Their plane had crashed and Alvis would Bop no more. The world mourned the rocker who was almost king.

The Glamerous One was the consummate showman. An innovator. An explorer of sights and sounds that thrilled the crowds and wowed the other performers. He was an experimental artist, never afraid of pushing back the boundaries and opening up new doors. The shows he staged were legendary. Events that dazzled the mind even as his songs tickled the ears. They were fantastic, they were detailed, they were involved. They were expensive. The record companies complained but the Celestial Showman refused to listen. They threatened to pull the plug, and Neil just added a second encore where a working model of the solar system would descend from the rafters and he'd ride a comet around the stage. The executives cut off his funding but he just plunged right ahead, using his own funds to bring his vision to life and cutting corners where he could. But Neil shouldn't have skimped when it came to the electricians. The night of his latest show, his greatest show, would also be his last. Because that night there was a driving thunderstorm that threatened to scuttle the whole event. The stage was flooded and the power threatening to go out as the winds whipped and the rains fell. Unwilling to let his fans go without his music for long, the Glammer was determined to go onstage. So he brushed past an uncooperative stagehand and plugged in his guitar. And discovered that faulty wiring and water don't mix nearly as well as a soundboard.

Votan was the one cut down in his prime. One-Eye played to sold-out crowds of devoted fans. He led his band, the Thunderers, through their costumed antics and thrilled the rabid crowds with their pyrotechnic displays. The critics sniffed at their theatrics but the fans ate it up. They played to packed arenas around the world. Driven to top themselves with ever more fantastic gimmicks. But on their latest whirlwind tour, it all took a turn for the worse. Someone should have paid more attention to the props, as Votan found out when one of the swords in one of their staged battles turned out to be a little more real than he'd expected. As he slumped to the stage, as the crowds roared, and the rest of the band continued to play, thinking it was all part of the show, he thought to himself, “At least I gave them something to remember.”

Eddie was the tortured genius. In his time, he was the musician's musician. The artist's artist. The singer, the songwriter, and the guitar player from whom everyone else took their cue. He churned out hit after hit, drafting the tunes that became the soundtrack for a generation. He influenced a dozen other bands and inspired a hundred other poorer imitations. He was young. He was successful. He was famous. And he was miserable. All he wanted was to play and let his feelings out through his music. The money, the talk shows, he didn't want any of it, and he couldn't deal with the acclaim. So, unable to cope with success, he took his own life. And, as a legend cut short, he became half as more famous again.

Izzy was the candle that burned too bright. She was a star. A smash success who'd just turned a string of hit records into an even more lucrative recording contract. She'd ditched the band that had been holding her back and had gone solo. She was on a meteoric rise. Headed straight for the top. And she was determined to enjoy it. She lived for fast cars and faster times. Partying hard and rocking harder. Always looking for the next big rush and an even bigger thrill. It all came to a screeching halt when she wrapped her latest expensive hotrod around a concrete divider. The police said she was doing at least 90 when it happened. She lived fast, she died young, but at least she left a beautiful corpse.

Tommy was a dreamer. He dreamed of success. He dreamed of fame. He dreamed that one day, he'd make it beyond his garage band and the tiny clubs at which it played. But, mostly, he dreamed about the music. The songs that he'd play when he was a little older, when he'd had a little more practice. The golden ones where the sound ripped out of him, the notes hanging in the air like some sparkling gem before fading away. He knew he could play the songs that he heard in his dreams. He could feel them, deep down inside, locked in a place where he couldn't get at them. He knew, one day, he'd be a star. Until then, he struggled away. He was already better than his friends, already the best guitar player he knew, but he worked, he practiced, to improve even more because he just wasn't good enough yet to play the songs the way he knew they should be played. And he would, one day. Then, while he was shopping for some new amplifiers, he found an old-fashioned six-string guitar in a dusty old shop. He picked it up and felt the strings move underneath his hand. They hummed along with the music in his head. He adjusted the strap and began to play. And the sound poured out, more pure, more untamed than ever before. Molten and white-hot, the music coursed with the spirit of rock made raw. Tommy was a dreamer. And his dream had just come alive.

And there we are. With bars and art and more, the Rock Stars are shaping up into a real set of cards. I'm not sure where we'll be going in the next installment since I have a few more things I'd like to wrap up before I move along. But we should be starting the next group up some time soon.

1 comment:

markkrris said...

very interesting. Anything related to digestion is a pretty personal topic. If you're interested in more info based on mass response to this, check out this emo boys page