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- Bleeding Edge
Overwatch’s seventh post-launch hero was a genetically modified hamster that rolls around in a giant hamster ball covered in guns. Not to be outdone, Bleeding Edge‘s first downloadable character will be an intelligent dolphin named Mekko that floats in an aquatic tank outfitted with weapons, metal crab-like legs, and a robotic voice with a Japanese accent. It’s remarkably quirky, even for a game that stars a corpse attached to a robotic snake like a serpent-led reboot of Weekend at Bernie’s. Mekko’s creation may not be as outlandish as the final concept, but the idea has been with the team since the very, very early days of Bleeding Edge.
Those early days were around four-and-a-half years ago, give or take. After developing the criminally underrated DmC Devil May Cry, around six or seven people from Ninja Theory came together to see if they could create a multiplayer game that primarily focused around melee fighting. This title, tentatively called Fighter, obviously needed fighters, but the team tackling this project was too small to be able to draft a large potential roster by themselves. They didn’t even have a concept artist nor much of a real game to work with.
This is when Aaron McElligott, lead artist at Ninja Theory and part of the skunkworks team on Fighter, went to one of Disney Infinity’s concept artists, for some help. This isn’t a huge stretch, given how Ninja Theory was brought on to help with Disney Infinity in February 2014.
A dolphin and a dream
McElligott wasn’t too specific as he told that person (who Ninja Theory couldn’t disclose) that he wanted something like a Japanese mech and let him do his thing. This creation didn’t quite fit the bill and was shelved as a result (only to return later as Cass, the game’s augmented human with cassowary-like legs). His second suggestion ended up being something McElligott wasn’t expecting and thus Mekko was born. Well, almost at least.
“I said [I wanted] maybe something driven by A.I.,” he said. “He then came back with a dolphin in a mech suit and I was like… uh what? But it was amazing. It was a different image. It was such a unique thing and everyone loved it. And you genuinely find a good character when everyone starts jumping on board and no one shuts up.”
Most characters, according to Principal Animator Warwick Mellow, come with a gameplay idea first, with the art team needing to draw up whatever they can to fit that mechanical void in the game. For example, Maeve, Bleeding Edge’s geriatric spellcaster, was one such character who came from Creative Director Rahni Tucker wanting a mage and asking the artists to find a way to realize it. But when you have a dolphin in a mech suit, things are going to work a bit differently.
It almost didn’t work out all as the team didn’t know what to do with Mekko. The aquatic mammal in a death tank didn’t quite have a role so, despite being one of the first concepts, it was shelved and picked back up years later to become the title’s first DLC character.
“We come up with a number of designs and then over time as they get more expressive and you learn what they’re gonna do, you start to realize that it just doesn’t fit this role,” said Mellow. “You know there is something cool there so you just put it on the shelf. And later, like Mekko, which was one of the very first characters we had designed four-and-a-half years ago, you get it back off the shelf. Like you like the character, but you didn’t really know how it was gonna fit.”
Finding a sound with porpoise
While Mekko is an odd-looking concept, it’s also quite the collection of sounds, too, because there’s no one sound people associate with such a character. Aside from the water-rich sounds you might expect, Mekko’s voice took a lot longer to find.
Mekko’s A.I., much like Overwatch’s aforementioned Wrecking Ball, speaks with a stilted robotic voice and has a few aquatic sounds, but it wasn’t as simple as slapping some monotone speech-to-text software on it and calling it a day. Senior Sound Designer Daniele Galante said he specifically tried that, but it didn’t work because of the disconnect between the mundane Alexa voice clashed with the bizarre concept of the character.
So he, along with his audio partner, David García Díaz, went for a different approach. It was something that still was consistent with the “mechanical” keyword he wanted to stick to while also paying homage to Mekko’s Japanese roots. And he did by thinking out of the box or, in this case, tank.
“We wanted the voice acting to represent the quirkiness of this character so we couldn’t use text-to-speech,” admitted Galante. “But then we said an actor alone isn’t enough. And, since it is a Japanese mech, we decided what if he learned to talk through Japanese television and then how to speak English from Japanese television?”
Mekko speaks with a heavy Japanese accent with a robotic filter, which combine to equal a completely unique, yet ultimately fitting, speech pattern and tone. It’s unmistakably something different and that is apparent when you see who it is coming from. And although it makes sense for Mekko by itself, it also works in tandem with the game’s diverse roster from around the globe.
“We gave him a lot of expressivity and a Japanese accent,” said Galante. “It makes him much more cohesive with the rest of the team because they come from all over the world and have their own accents.”
Whether initially bred from a gameplay requirement or an artistic concept, Mekko is just one example of how a character can come to life in Bleeding Edge. It’s an undoubtedly offbeat result, but the method isn’t as equally unusual as it started from a mere idea for an A.I. character and naturally went from there. Granted, most people probably wouldn’t come up with something like Mekko, but it shows the talent Ninja Theory has and how it can put its own twist on a simple process and create something special.