Designing Zara: Creating a Character Steeped in Personality
Welcome to Streamline Media Group’s ongoing blog series where we interview a Streamliner from one of SMG’s business divisions. Recently, Streamline Games, a business division of Streamline Media Group, soft-launched their newest game, Nightstream, in Malaysia.
Streamline Games is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the heart of Southeast Asia. For the initial launch, it was important for the team to represent Malaysia and its cultural identity – including the different faces of Malaysia.
We spoke with Lynette Wong from Streamline Games about her work on Nightstream, how the design of one of Nightstream’s more prominent characters, Zara, came to be, and what the reception to her has been like.
Can you introduce yourself and your role on Nightstream?
I’m Lynette Wong, a 2D artist in Streamline Games. I concept characters and am a story writer on Nightstream.
What is Nightstream?
Nightstream is a runner mobile game set in the world of Persepolis. It’s a game like Temple Run and Subway Surfer, but the difference being you’re not running on your feet, instead, you’re on a hoverboard with full freeform movement.
Can you tell us about Zara? How would you describe her and her personality?
Zara is an uprising musician who is haunted by the death of her younger brother. She’s the sort of person who seeks justice. She’ll do everything in her power to protect her family and friends. She has a serious, cool and collected front, but to anyone who’s close to her, she’s a total goof. Oh, and she’s also a part-time barista.
How long did it take to finalize Zara’s design, from concept to finished design?
It took about a couple of weeks, maybe a month. Design wise it was me, with inputs from the art director. Story-wise, there was at least seven to eight of us.
What rules and guidelines did you have in place for designing Zara?
From the get-go because of religious reasons, her design had to be modest. But at the same time, it had to evoke a fresh, modernized, sci-fi feel fitting into the world of Nightstream. Since she had to cover up most of her body with clothing, I took some inspiration from Nike Pro’s hijab campaign. I tried to be sensible about the amount of clothing she wore since our characters wear active wear. I couldn’t pile clothing on her since she’d be riding a hoverboard and basically be moving a lot.
We had to make sure the back was also interesting since the player would mainly be viewing the character from the back most of the time.
“Audiences feel more connected to characters when they have flaws. Otherwise, she’d just be a fantasy with no characteristics. There aren’t many characters in current media that look like Zara.”
What was your workflow for designing Zara?
In the beginning, we didn’t know if our character was going to be male or female. Once we decided on her gender we started working on her backstory. It’s important to know who she is first to be able to successfully translate that into the design. Once we had that down, I did a ton of research on real-life fashion and active wear. I came up with a couple of designs, and our art director, Renier, picked the one he liked most. Initially, I tried to mix batik into her capelet, but it ended up being too distracting design wise. But If we had gone with batik, it would’ve been a nightmare to draw it into every single panel of our comics. After refining the design further, I started on color combinations, and finally, we settled on the default color scheme you see in the game.
[Editor’s note: batik is a technique of dying cloth that results in elaborate patterns and designs. It’s especially popular in Indonesia and parts of Malaysia.]
Around the time I was designing her face, I was watching Netflix’s Punisher in my downtime. I really liked watching Dinah Madani, played by Amber Rose Revah. I felt that some of her personality matched Zara’s. I wasn’t so much inspired but influenced. I was also looking at Overwatch, to study what makes their characters so popular from a design standpoint.
What do you think makes Zara appealing?
She’s relatable; she has flaws. One of those being headstrong and stubborn. Audiences feel more connected to characters when they have flaws. Otherwise, she’d just be a fantasy with no characteristics. There aren’t many characters in current media that look like Zara, especially role models to look up to. Many western kids have a variety of superheroes they look up to. There aren’t many (if any) for young Malaysian girls to look up to, and even though Zara isn’t a superhero, I hope that she inspires Malaysian youth.
How do you define good character design?
There are many factors that play into this. Research is one good reason for good character design, that and of course, readability. When I talked about Zara’s background that also played into her character design. Her personality must show in her design. Her silhouette should also be unique from the other Nightstream characters. It should set her apart as an individual. I think I accomplished that by sticking to a lot of the rules we placed for Zara. A good character design makes for a memorable character.
What were some of the design challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge about Zara was mainly getting the dress code of a Muslim woman down. Since I’m not part of the religion I had to do a lot of research and collaborated with people from the faith to nail down a modest and modern outfit for her. Checking in with people often served as a sanity check, they’ll often tell me if something wasn’t modest.
What has the reception and feedback been to Zara’s design?
From what we see when we attend events, people like her. It’s something new that they’ve never seen before. It’s not every day that you see a hijabista as the main character of a video game. We’ve had tons of people taking pictures and selfies with the life-size standee of Zara.
[Editor’s note: hijabista is local slang, a combination of the words hijab, a traditional head covering for female Muslims, and fashionista, a follower of fashion. Think hipster with a hajib – after all, Zara is a part-time barista and musician.]
What aspect of Zara’s design are you the proudest of?
I don’t have really have a favorite design aspect about her, she was just fun to create. The idea that she culturally represents a lot of people in Southeast Asia takes the cake.