Every race in Guild Wars 2 started with a simplified description—a way to describe the essence of the people in a sentence or less. The sylvari description was pared down to just three words: noble, beautiful, plant. In the past, our design iterations would always lean towards one or two of these descriptors, but in the end we really wanted to have a race that would represent all three characteristics clearly. I began to develop an alternate version of the race on my own at night, while preparing for our debut in gamescom 2010 by day.
I knew it was ultimately important to find the right balance between the beauty of the visuals and the mystic plant nature of the lore, but we also wanted to design a race that was unique to the Guild Wars world. So I began researching the perceptions and expectations surrounding the idea of plant people.
Petal to the Mettle
There’s one big root to the design direction of the sylvari that I hold most dear: it all must stem from anatomy. However, researching this design proved to be very tricky. It seemed that most images of plant people fell into one of two categories: painted humans with leaf accessories or outright plant monsters. The elf concept was most prevalent, featuring flora jewelry and clothing. They may have sported leaf coiffures, but they were little more than humans with an affinity for nature.
Next, I entered into dryad territory, where most of the examples paint various leaves or bark textures onto the skin to infuse plant-like detail. For me, this felt like stage makeup and didn’t really bring forth the potential of a plant race.
At the far end of the plant spectrum were all of the ents and forest monsters, composed of many root, leaf, and bulb materials that merge together to create a humanoid form. Overall, this direction is too far as it pulls away from the beautiful humanoid we wanted.
While researching the distance between dryad and plant creature, I found the results were still very separated; most often you’d have a supermodel-beautiful girl with literal winding plant vines and leaves coiling around her. The plant side stayed plant while the human side stayed human, and there was no true marriage of the materials or the anatomy. Strip any of that stuff off the girl and it’s plain to see that she’s just wearing very planty parts. It wasn’t even skin deep.
The sylvari are a race of true plant people. They are described in our lore as a noble, attractive humanoid plant race, so it became clear that what I needed to design first was their concept of anatomy. This definition lead me to first consider wrapping vines and stems to follow human musculature. However, I quickly realized that this was going to have a couple of unwanted effects: one, the body looked too sci-fi, like cyborg body suits; and two, it made them look as if their skin had been peeled off. It was creepy. This extreme concept made it obvious that whatever anatomy I created would have to be attractive and may have to bend the fantasy rules of evolution, if there truly are any such mandates.
The Idea: It Arose by Any Other Name…
The solution was to create an illusion of anatomy. The figure was not formed from a human with leaves on top of it, but rather a human shape made from grown plant parts. This originates from specific growth sockets. The primary growth socket starts at the small of the back, where a tail might grow. Like many fruits and vegetables, there are two ends: the main stem and the opposing divot (which makes a really good belly button). Graceful leaves sprout from the growth socket, curving around and through the body to simulate the desired musculature. I used stems and broad leaves to articulate the carpal tendons and the flesh of the lower arms. Hosta leaves spiral out at the shoulders in a teardrop shape to form the deltoid “muscles,” while branches spring from the clavicles. Scientific anatomy turned out to be creepy, but garden-variety fantasy anatomy was just what was needed.
The really engaging part of the design process was inventing ways to break up the structures to further the illusion. The faces in particular allowed for the most creativity, and I found myself wanting to see just how far I could push the design before it became too removed from beauty. Ideally, the sylvari race will always have a wide range of beauty types, from nearly human to lovely creature, but there is a point beyond which they just no longer resemble player characters.
The sylvari have a unique freedom in anatomy. If you tried to make a human actor into a sylvari, between makeup and prosthetic appliances, you’d probably have a pretty good result. But under the makeup, the human skeletal structure would remain a barrier. The sylvari are not limited by the planes of a human skull; you can shape the jaw with layered vines, or create the illusion of a face by pressing shards of bark together vertically, and splitting the face in two. The brow can simply be a collection of leaves and it is the patterning alone that defines the eyebrow shape, much like the camouflage of a butterfly. Add to this freedom the myriad plant varieties and there are a vast number of options to explore.
Dressing Vine for Any Occasion
As the sylvari body is so entwined with anatomy, I saw no reason to leave out their clothing. Explaining the difference of a plant outfit to folks was a bit of a challenge because there seemed to be some rather deep rooted associations. Here’s the gist… the image below shows a simple sun dress, complete with belt wrap and coordinating necklace. If you asked a random person to envision that as a plant outfit, they will probably change the chain of the necklace to a vine, and augment the dress to include more leaf shapes and texture. But this is merely surface texture and creates only a costume.
To fully describe the anatomy of clothing, you have to let it grow as it would in nature. Many plants have a growth socket where the leaves arc out from a common point of origin, spiraling gracefully. To translate the sun dress into this philosophy, I would pick one main growth point and arc the pieces from there. The necklace can also be naturally translated, but instead of cutting it loose and tying it like a costume, it too receives a growth point and suspends delicately around the neck.
We have some old armor assets that we’re retrofitting to the new design and this will be done by adding stems and some growth points where possible. The design philosophy, in a nutshell, is to follow nature’s rules of growth and employ stems liberally. If the design structure really calls for tighter layering, don’t worry. Treat the pieces as one big stem and work from there. There’s a reason why arms and legs are called “limbs.”
Every Rose Has its Thorn
For those of you wanting a more rugged character, fear not—I’ve cultivated designs for you, too! There has been much debate about tying the seasons into the sylvari character’s storyline. We decided we didn’t want to force an aesthetic on anyone, so we’re leaving the choice open. Currently I’m making sure everyone has summer and winter body skins. The summer skin, as you’ve seen, is very lush and leafy with a lot of different types of plant details making up the anatomy. But what about bark textures and shard edges? For this effect we will have a winter skin available which shows more bramble tendons, dried leaves, bark trunks, and gnarled roots woven throughout the body.
What of spring and autumn? Well, really, if you dye the summer skin yellow-green, orange, or brown, you really have the other two seasons covered. The winter skin can always double as fall skin depending on how you accessorize. More body skins *might* come down the line, but I really wanted to ensure that players who wanted pretty and those who wanted rugged can both have a skin that they can customize as they see fit.
Down the Garden Path
As we move forward with the sylvari design, there will be many more refreshing new shapes and details to choose from. I have more faces planned and there will be more hair designs with branches and flowers. Male and female sylvari will get a full selection of ears, and perhaps some leaf patterns overlaying the skins like tattoos, along with bioluminescent markings.
I’ve put a lot of passion and effort into developing this race, and many folks have given their excellent talents bringing their elements to life. We’ve dug down to the sylvari cultural roots and branched out into a new vision, growing from the seeds of their racial identity. Some thought we were barking mad to redesign a race this far into development, but we had the “stamena” to stick to our ideals and allow it to blossom. For now, let me leaf you with the hope that you’re as excited about the sylvari race as I am!