Science fiction and aliens are a great combination as it allows for stories that are not limited by the boundaries of earth and the known world. Aliens can have abilities, technology or beliefs that are absurd for humans without being strange because they are by nature different. For instance, in Star Trek, Farangi are aliens obsessed with profit and Betazoids are naturally born telepathic. Though, what makes a good alien and what is just plain ridiculous? Here I will examine some factors that I feel are important when designing an alien.
Factor 1: Purpose
When creating a character it is important to determine the role they will play and this will be the basis used to shape that character and related species. For instance, in Star Trek, the Klingons were originally design as the primary aggressors against the Federation. Thus they are aggressive, confrontational and were later adapted to have a rigid, armor like body. The Asari were designed to be sexy and formidable. Thus they are an all female species with a bi-sexual nature and sexual representation (you don’t see Salarian woman dancing in Chora’s den). They have natural biotic powers and commando forces which can make fighting them more difficult than conventional forces.
Secondly, can the purpose of the characters be covered by non-aliens? Creating an alien character or group is more “expensive” than using humans. For aliens to be believable you have to create a lot more story, they generally need to have culture, beliefs and values that distinguish them as aliens. With humans there are usually less gaps to fill, unless there is some needed fictional back story to that character. Garus (ME) is a good example of how a character uses their alien back story correctly. Turians are known for their discipline and justice attitudes, but Garus is at odds with this. In ME1 a subplot revolves around his inner struggle to find his place in Turian society and his own more individual personality.
(With the reboot of Star Trek in the” Star Trek: The Next Generation” many things were changed, including the Klingons in order to better fill their role.)
Factor 2: Believable Alien world
The role of characters, tendency of species and presence in story will determine the amount of back story required. For instance, a collaboration species that audience will interact with often, like the federation (group) (Star Trek), may require more information than an invading species, such as the Furon (Destroy all Humans Series (Dah)) or reapers (ME).
The quarian’s require a lot of information for the player to properly understand their place in the story and the reasoning behind their actions. Information on the beliefs (religion), environment and culture is provided to the player. The pilgrimage ritual explains Tali’s presence in the story and establishes a motive and back story for the character to originate from.
The furon and Cryptosporidium provide an alternative example of how to integrate a species into a story. In Doh, the aliens are the invaders and the narrative is centered on Crypto’s interaction with earth and less information is needed on the aliens. Only essentials are provided on the furon, such as motivation for the invasion and their view on humans. Also, as this game is more of a parody, the reason for certain events can expectantly be comical without endangering the flow on the story.
The Reapers and Combine (HL2) play a very different role then the one mentioned above. They play the vague aggressor role. Very little is known about these species, except they are very dangerous and powerful. This species employ fear (and anticipation) due to their unknown nature. What are their strengths, weakness, and objectives (so on)? Over the course of a story they are usually slowly revealed and the objective of the story changes from investigating them to the final climax of defeating them (see ME series story line).
Finally, once you have established certain expectations with in a species, a consistency about it is required. The Klingons are a warrior race with an emphasis on honor; one would not expect the empire to turn into a race full of spies suddenly. However you can change the core nature of a species through a key event. The krogan were originally similar to the Klingon however they suffered the genophage which force the krogan to change their life style and that is reflected in the story.
(In Doh Series extraneous information is left out, such as how the furons can to rely on cloning as opposed to more traditional methods and a true explanation of how their tech works. This series doesn’t need to concern itself with those things, as it does not affect the objective of the games.)
Factor3: Believable Character
Creating a believable character is hard work and would probably require a book to do the subject justice, but for an alien character, I believe it is most important to properly establish that character within the conditions defined by that species. The aliens will be different from humans, thus you want to have that character follow from their routes and behave as expected of that culture otherwise you just have a human in a costume. Tali is portrayed as a shy young female with engineering and combat experience. Her personality traits are enhanced by her alien circumstances. She is shy and closed off which is represented by the full body suit and inability to ever directly see her face. Her engineering experience is due to the needs of her species. Finally, her vulnerability is based on her inexperience with outside world and is represented by her immune deficiency and her people’s sterile environment.
Factor 4: Advantage of humanoid form
The humanoid form has evolved based on the unique needs and circumstances of this planet. The likelihood of finding another species in humanoid form is slim. However, most aliens in media are portrayed as humanoids because it has both a technical and authentic advantage to the story.
Before advance movie technology, live action movies were limited in design, non-humanoid aliens/ monsters were more difficult and expensive to make. Thus, many creatures were humanoid and that was accepted as the norm. In series such as Star Trek and Star Wars, you will notice that the main characters are humanoid and the non humanoids only play a more limited role. When creating a cg character, you are not limited by form; however it becomes more difficult as you produce more complex creatures. When you create a 3d character it needs to be rigged, (bones added), and this is where the animations for the characters derive from. Thus the more forms you have, the more rigging, animations and time is needed. In games, to save memory you can apply the same rigs and animations sets to multiple characters. In the ME series I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the humanoid species have the same or very similar rig.
(Rig of 3d character)
As mentioned above people anticipate aliens to carry a humanoid form. This form allows the audience to relate with the alien on a more personal level and recognize the situation better. I can tell how a humanoid alien feels based on facial expressions and body language I would expect in a human. It is easier to evaluate humanoid opponents based on physical attributes, for instance the ME series aliens.
Krogan- Bulky with a shot gun, thus high hit points and medium range
Turian- scaled hardened skin and rifles, thus higher than average hit points and long ranged.
While the rachni, the non-humanoid race, was more difficult to understand at first and required more adjusting to than other opponents.
Factor 5: Human touch
While you may be thinking of all the ways to make your alien stranger, it is still important to have humanity hidden in your characters. The best way I have seen this executed is by having human ideals or themes portrayed in alien terms. This allows them to be alien, but subconsciously recognizable to the audience. In Star Wars the Jedi are similar to a religious samurai order. They both wield swords (light sabers), have a strong honor code and still preferred the sword over the more popular gun. In Star Trek various issues are addressed, only with a Si fi coat of paint. In Star Trek: TGN “The Measure of a Man,” it tackles the issue of what is considered a sentient life and what rights it has (the right to exist).
Finally, to emphasize facial expression (or an equivalent mechanism for non-humanoids) are important because it allows the audience to connect with character and sometime sympathize with their situation.
The Mass Effect series and Star Trek shows are a great place to see good alien fiction in action. I apologize for missing the last couple of posts, as I have been busy with other matters. As always, thanks for reading and constructive feedback is always welcome.