Giving Wings to the Great Owl - Part I

Giving Wings to the Great Owl - Part I


Renan Riso and Ian Mandarini

Character Design
Published Date
August 1, 2023

Creating a character for a videogame can be a challenging and tiresome process. There are many ways to start the process of character design, but here is what we did for one of the main characters in Sonatina: The Great Owl.

Where did the idea come from?

The idea for The Great Owl in Sonatina came from several aspects of the game that needed to co-occur. These include recurring themes of darkness and light, dreams and nightmares, and perfectionism. Additionally, the team wanted to include deities with significant religious, cultural, and governmental power in the world of Sonatina to make it feel more believable and give the background for the story of Tina, the protagonist, to have more depth.

With this in mind, the idea of having a Great Owl (symbolizing light and the divine) and a Great Serpent (symbolizing darkness and evil) came to be. Owls and serpents have great symbolism in several cultures, with owls representing wisdom, intelligence, guidance, and protection, and serpents representing sin, betrayal, medicine, rebirth, and transformation. Owls eating serpents in nature made it a natural fit to have two opposing characters that heavily influence the world of Sonatina.

One idea that stuck with the team was having a main questline where Tina must collect three dream pieces that open the exit gate back to the real world. The character of The Great Owl was born as a giant owl that acts as a deity in the Dreamlands. Wise and intelligent, the owl guides Tina in her quest to return home and antagonizes its arch-enemy, The Great Snake (to be explored in the future). The Great Owl is also responsible for telling Tina that she needs to find the three Dream Pieces to escape.

To give The Great Owl a distinct landmark in the game, the team initially considered creating a giant church, library or observatory for the owl to inhabit. Eventually, we decided to merge these ideas into one to create The Great Church of The Great Owl, a sacred space that houses all the knowledge of the realm. This church could easily be both a place of faith and learning, similar to the Catholic Church in Western history.

Thus, the idea of The Great Owl character was solidified. It became one of the most significant characters in the game as it was the "owner" of its own level, The Great Church, and would give the main quest to the protagonist.

The first time Tina meets The Great Owl would be an important moment in the game. We refer to this moment in the game as "the meeting with The Great Owl", which mimics the "encounter with the divine being" trope found in several other stories.

We didn’t design her immediately

While we were working on other parts of the game, it would take some time for us to delve deeper into her design.

There was a moment when we needed to have a cover art for the game to use in our marketing attempts, which led us to draw a temporary version of The Great Owl. This version is featured on our first cover art, but it is considered a draft.

Eventually, we started working on the city that would surround the Great Church of The Great Owl. If this fictional religion was important, there would surely be signs of it everywhere, especially as you got closer to the Great Church.

But how could we design intricate religious motifs if we didn't even have the full design of its main deity fleshed out? We even tried to design some elements without the owl, but it was starting to feel like we were postponing something important that needed to be addressed now.

Brainstorming activity

At that point, we had several ideas for what The Great Owl could be and look like. To consolidate these ideas, we conducted a brainstorming session to come up with the core characteristics for our character design. Each team member presented their pre-conceived ideas about the character in an organized way, and we merged everything together to identify similarities and differences in our ideas for The Great Owl.

Here is a brainstorming technique we used for character design, but we believe it can be applied to various processes that involve team-wide brainstorming and communication:

  1. Define the objective and establish the purpose of the activity. For us, it was to map the characteristics we wanted for our character, The Great Owl.
  2. Choose a platform to execute the activity. We used Miro, an online whiteboard tool that allows online and real-time collaboration. However, this can be done in person using post-its or in many other tools.
  3. Distribute post-its (different colors optional) for each participant and set a time limit for the activity. We found that 10 minutes worked for us.
  4. The activity starts! Time starts counting and each participant writes their ideas on the post-its.
  5. Time is up! We discuss the ideas and identify common points. For that, each person took rounds to introduce one new post-it.
  6. Group the post-its into categories. We used white rectangles to write down commonalities between groups of post-its. Reach a consensus on the character concept that best fits the project.
  7. Document the final decisions made.

Our results for The Great Owl

Here are the characteristics that we were able to come up with for our character through the use of this brainstorming session:

  • Wise;
  • Pure;
  • Authority;
  • Inflexible;
  • Judge;
  • Staff; scales of justice;
  • Divinity, but not magical as in sorcery;
  • Serious;
  • Giant;
  • Anthropomorphic;
  • Strict mother, but who knows what is best for you;
  • Mature appearance; motherly; 40-50 years old; elegant;
  • Duality between welcoming and authority/imposing;
  • More welcoming than cold;
  • Has children;
  • Servants; followers; church; minions; faithful; pope; Vatican;
  • The owl hides a secret; mysterious; manipulative;
  • Veil that does not cover the face; symbol of purity and virginity; honor and dignity of women;
  • Normal eyes when happy; red eyes when angry; white eyes when in contact with the divine or using her powers;
  • Multiple eyes = wisdom; third eye (jagan) = ultimate wisdom; nirvana; mysticism;
  • Cape; mantle; church clothes; noble clothes;
  • Prominent eyebrows;
  • Face should inspire the masks of their religion followers;
  • Owls are usually considered cute, except for their claws and beak;
  • Multiple wings = angel; more wings = the more divine; large wings;
  • Arms and wings are separate (helps with the idea of an anthropomorphic animal);

Final thoughts on the activity

The activity we conducted significantly aided in better defining key concepts and alleviated the arduousness of the process. By sharing and discussing the distinct characteristics listed by each team member, we were able to identify the essential elements that should be incorporated into The Great Owl design. This collaboration and exchange of ideas contributed to a more assertive and cohesive outcome.

The experience of conducting a group activity to create the concept of the owl character was highly enriching. We used the Miro platform, where each team member had the opportunity to express their perceptions about owl characteristics within a 10-minute timeframe. The goal was to obtain different perspectives and thus arrive at a shared concept that fit seamlessly into the Sonatina story. We will repeat this activity for future brainstorming sessions.

Through this activity, we were able to explore a creative and collaborative approach, enabling each team member to contribute significantly to the creation of the character concept. Moreover, the use of the Miro platform facilitated idea sharing, teamwork, and organized visualization of different perspectives. In the end, we reached a consensus on the owl character concept that aligned with the Sonatina story, and this achievement was made possible thanks to the conducted group activity.

What’s next?

With the characteristics defined, the next step is to create sketches for different concept designs. Stay tuned for the next parts of this series about The Great Owl!