As games evolve into an increasingly complex and sophisticated medium, game characters are also experiencing a considerable metamorphosis. Just a few years ago, a game character had to be simple enough so that it could be represented clearly under very severe artistic limitations. Essentially, game characters were just icons, amorphous blobs, or tiny men rendered from a handful of pixels. But steady technological progress has slowly opened up possibilities for more believable and realistic characters. The question now is, how does a game developer leverage all of these additional technical resources to create more compelling characters?
This article attempts to set out the elements of design that need to be addressed in order to create a memorable and powerful game character.
The greatest genre for characterization has always been the adventure game. Early Infogrames classics like Planetfall and LucasArts' later adventures (such as Full Throttle) showed how effective "game actors" could be, meaning characters that used spoken dialogue and were portrayed with emotional personalities. Now these game actors are moving into new cross-genre 3D games, and it is here that they really thrive. In fact, they may be becoming a little too successful; we're beginning to see games sold purely on the strength of these characters. Worse still, it seems that characters today are inserted into games that simply don't require them, perhaps because it is now seen as a marketing necessity.
The single most important rule in character design is "the game comes first." The type of game you're developing will determine most of your character-creation decisions. A character is just a tiny element of any game, and in many cases, it is a superfluous element. If a game works without a character, it shouldn't have one. The rules of elegance apply - look for the clearest, simplest way to represent an idea.
You can split games broadly into two groups: those with a first-person point of view (POV), and those with a third-person POV. Although that difference between them may seem slight, it is absolutely fundamental, as the psychology of the two POVs is drastically different.
A first-person game invites players to immerse themselves in the game, to play as though they themselves are in the game experiencing the events firsthand. On the other hand, the third-person game makes a distinction between the player and the on-screen character; they are separate entities. In a third-person game, the player is controlling a character rather than becoming the character.
This difference utterly splits character design into two entities that I will refer to as the "Avatar" and the "Actor." The Avatar is simply a visual representation of the player's presence within the game world. The Actor is a character distinct from the player, with its own personality, characteristics, and, to some extent, mind (Figure 1).
Figure 1. There is a fundamental difference between a first-person character and a third-person character.
For example, let's look atLara Croft vs. Duke Nukem. Although some projection always occurs in games, when you play Tomb Raider, it is Lara who gets eaten by the tyrannosaurus rex and goes around shooting animals, not you. When you play Duke Nukem though, even though Duke shows a personality, it's you who gets killed and you who goes around shooting things. Many games muddy this distinction and they lose a great deal of impact on players as a result.
First-Person POV: The Avatar.
A first-person game should make it as easy as possible for players to believe that it's actually themselves in the game. The main character (the Avatar) must not interfere with the player's illusion of immersion. This means the Avatar shouldn't do anything with a mind of its own, for example it shouldn't go around talking, and the game should never take control away from the player under any circumstances. From a design point of view, the Avatar is a cipher, an empty vessel waiting to be filled and given purpose by the player.
There are two basic routes that you can go down when designing an Avatar. Either you create a deliberately insubstantial character, or better still, you allow players to create their own. This second method is even more valid when it comes to multiplayer games.
In a first-person perspective, many of the techniques of storytelling and characterization common to other mediums can't be used, simply because you don't really know what the main character, being completely controlled by the player, is going to do.
Third-Person POV: The Actor.
The third-person POV allows far greater freedom to tell what is a more traditional story form. Because the character (the Actor) on the screen is a separate entity and dissociated from the player, it's not too disturbing when the Actor acts of its own accord in certain situations. Even though this on-screen entity is controlled directly by the player, it is distinct from the player's personality, allowing the designer to imbue the Actor with a personality of its own and occasionally control how it behaves. This extra element of control over the game makes it possible to use some of the less intrusive storytelling and mood-enhancing devices that have evolved in film.
Making an Actor
From a design point of view, game characters can be sorted in order of design detail:
Avatar. These characters require visual design only.
Actor. Full character design, but with a necessarily one-dimensional personality so that the player can flesh out its motivations. The trick is to strike a balance between establishing the actor's personality without letting that personality disturb the player.
Non-player characters (NPCs). These require full character design.
We all use very powerful subconscious mechanisms to judge people visually, whether we realize it or not. When you meet someone, the amount of information you gather from them using your eyes is incredible. You take into consideration their shape, height, sex, race, physical attractiveness, hair, clothing, makeup, cleanliness, facial hair, age, weight, stance, facial expressions, body language, movements, and so on. You perceive a vast amount of information almost instantly and without really trying. Your brain then begins to make assumptions about that person using built-in pattern-recognition techniques, most often based on your personal set of stereotypes. In contrast to these visual cues we pick up on, the slow linear stream of spoken information is incredibly small. After a while, our opinions may be reformed based on a person's personality, but for a long time it is still filtered through our preconceptions based on our first impressions. So to create a really good character, you have to control all of the visual clues that people use to judge each other and establish a clear, unified message to make players interested in - and ultimately like - your character.
Style and Exaggeration
In the early 1930s, Disney animators were struggling to bring the same depth of acting skills to their cartoon characters that actors were achieving in live-action films. Cartoons are a deliberately simplified representation of reality, stripped of the incredibly complex subtleties we are accustomed to in the real world. These animators realized that they could never portray the same subtleties through animation, since the medium was too broad by nature. Instead, they exaggerated all the subtle body language and emotional expressions made by actors until they became almost a pantomime of good acting. Through exaggeration, cartoons are able to elicit very powerful emotional responses from an audience, because cartoon acting is a concentrated version of live acting.
Computer games are much more akin to cartoons than films. Games aren't very good at imitating reality, because elegance requires them to be visually limited. They can't mimic the incredibly complex world we live in. If such detail could be achieved, most games would consist of overly complex, messy, and irrelevant details. Similar to cartoons, games use simplified representations of real-world ideas, stripped of the massively complicated rules found in reality. Therefore, to make the greatest impact, we have to caricature; we must amplify the aspects we want players to focus on. This is the route to making games a more powerful medium.
The Three Linked Elements
In a character-based game, there are three intrinsically linked elements: environment, game play, and character (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Much of a character's design is determined by the decisions made about a game's environment and game play.
A powerful character must be well adapted to its environment. Good characters typically have some element about them that makes them especially suited to their world. Take Indiana Jones, for example. Indiana hangs around all day in tombs and ancient sites that are filled with dangerous traps and angry natives. He is a tough, strong person, but more importantly he is an archaeologist, and this is what makes him so well suited to his environment. From a character creator's point of view, you would probably come at this in reverse: the character is an archaeologist, so therefore his environment will be tombs and ancient sites.
While the link between character and environment is true for non-interactive media as well as games, game developers must also consider an even more important factor: game play. Game play affects how an environment works. There is a link between what the player can do and what the environment contains. Game-play decisions are also dictated by a character's special abilities, so game play and character design are linked, too. Look at the character Bob in Shiny's Messiah. This little angelic character goes around and possesses people, and this attribute has massive game play significance, dictating exactly how his environment has to be populated and designed. Thus, as you change the attributes of any one of these three elements, the other two elements are affected as well.
Simply stated, the character design process cannot be isolated from the game design process. Many elements of a game character are completely decided by game play and environment.
The visual design of a character can be split broadly into two aspects: physiological form and the clothes worn (if any). Physiological differences between one human and another are fairly slight; there is some variation in skin tone, size, hair, build, and weight. Gender is the only major variance, and apart from that I'm afraid all humans look alike to me. Clothing, however, varies greatly in color, shape, purpose, and significance. That is why costume design is so important.
There has been a sudden surge of female main characters recently, which is good since it redresses the gender imbalance in our predominantly male industry. The choice of a character's gender is critical, and not simply from a marketing perspective. (I won't talk about any aspect of character design from a marketing point of view since I don't think it is wise to approach any aspect of design from that angle. If you design a character to be liked by players, marketing opportunities will follow of their own accord.)
A character must have dignity. Any design that objectifies the character (that is, encourages you to think of it as an object rather than a living being) will prevent players from empathizing with it and relating to it. Creating this living essence is the trick to making people like a character. Far too many female characters have been put into games simply as tokens, usually as sexy bodies for use by marketing departments. This is something to avoid.
Male and female players react to the gender of a lead character in different ways. Players usually want to protect a good character of the opposite sex, so drawing on a person's primeval and innate response to the opposite sex is a powerful tool. If the character is attractive, believable, and commands respect, players will grow fond of it. On the other hand, someone playing a good character of the same sex usually grows to admire the character and its characteristics [Can we differentiate this response better from that of opposite-sex characters?]. If the character has been designed well, the character can even develop into a role model for some players. Whatever the gender of the character, the fundamental rule for getting people to respond positively to the character is that the character must be likeable and admirable.
The Halo Effect
Some great psychology experiments have been conducted about the "halo effect," the results of which can apply to character design. Briefly, the halo effect postulates that we treat attractive people better than we do ugly people. Not only that, but we often make all sorts of subconscious assumptions based on looks. Good-looking people, according to Brigham (see References at the end of this article), are often assumed by strangers to have other positive traits such as being "poised, independent, sociable, interesting, exciting, and sexually warm." On the other hand, unattractive people are apparently seen by strangers as more "deviant," according to Jones and his colleagues.
I've heard arguments that game developers should not create a cast of highly attractive characters, either because it provides unrealistic role models for children or because some equate creating sexy characters with sexism. I don't consider it sexist to represent males and females in an equally distorted way, but action comics have been criticized for years because they portray exaggerated strength and sexiness in characters. Note, however, that as a medium comics command one of the largest groups of enduring and instantly recognizable characters.
Thus I would assert that character designers should do everything in their power to make characters as attractive as possible. A person's first impression of a character will almost certainly come not from what they do, think, or say, but what they look like. If the character makes a good first visual impression, players will likely stay focused on it, allowing you to further entice them with the character's personality.
Keeping a consistent costume throughout a game is the best way to help imprint the character in a person's mind, so costume changes should be avoided as much as possible until the character's visual design has become fully established. Once established, though, giving a character some costume changes will increase its believability.
Let's look at Indiana Jones again, as he appeared in films. Indiana wears his costume with some variations; sometimes without the jacket, sometimes without the hat, and in certain brief scenes he wears a completely different outfit. All in all though, Indiana keeps a strong sense of consistency which contributes to a solid, consistent image in our imagination.
The simpler a costume design is, the easier it is for a person to recognize and remember it (Figure 3). Complex, muddy, drab, and over-rendered clothing results in confusing, muddled characters. Try exaggerating essential elements of your character until you can strip it down to its essence, the simplest representation that gets across the meaning you are trying to represent.
Figure 3. The character shown left has been heavily overworked. The excessive detail and overuse of colors has left it muddy and confused. In contrast, the character on the right illustrates a cleaner design.
Color schemes should be kept bold and within a limited palette. That way the colors begin to symbolize a character, just as blue, gray, and a dash of yellow invoke Batman (Figure 4)
Figure 4. Batman's color scheme is so strong that even with the added confusion of the film versions introducing black, you still can recognize him.
It's always a good idea to try to put elements into a design that help symbolize the character's essence. Obvious examples of this technique include Hermes' winged feet or the web designs on Spiderman's costume. You can also leverage the subtler associations people make about clothing and accessories to provide more clues about the character: glasses for intelligence, cardigan sweaters for massive sexual magnetism, or whatever.
Once you have a good, strikingly designed character, the next step is to work on conveying its personality. Again, the extent to which you need to portray personality depends on whether the character is an Avatar or an Actor.
I can't overstate the importance of body language when creating images of any character. Not only do people make dozens of snap assumptions based on a person's physical appearance and apparel, they also make strong judgements based on the way people carry themselves and their physical presence.
Just the way people stand reveals enough information for others to read all sorts of traits about them. The trick is to be aware of this, know what messages you want to give, and provide those cues clearly (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Even with all other visual clues stripped away, a person's pose can send very clear messages about a character.
Far too many characters are portrayed in static poses designed to look "hard." Unfortunately, the quintessential hard look is the emotionless, squinty-eyed, Charles Bronson-style stance. This does not allow people to "read" a character at all, but it works with Bronson and Clint Eastwood because that's the point of the "Man with No Name" tough guy -- he's supposed to be unreadable. So many characters imitate this look that they all fade into an obscure morass of similarity. Instead, create some attitude through poses that provide clues about the character's personality.
Poses are especially important for the static artwork typically used on game boxes and by marketing people. Dynamic poses are far more interesting, striking, and memorable than static ones. If a character is meant to be an action character, then for goodness's sake show them in motion.
Consider then taking the final step and exaggerating a character's pose to the point that it actually begins to signify the character. If you create a set of strong, distinctive poses for your character, people will recognize these poses even when seen in silhouette or from a great distance. Spiderman is an excellent example of a character that has a great array of extremely strong, immediately identifiable poses (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Spiderman's poses are so strong that you can recognize him from them alone.
Motion, The Fourth Dimension
Just as with visual design and poses, it's incredibly important to consider how a character moves, and design around that aspect.
The most important step is making a character move in a convincing way. That means showing weight, balance, and inertia. Unless you pay particular attention to the solidness that a character demonstrates while interacting with its environment, people will never accept it as anything but a group of weightless polygons. Every time a foot slides or a character snaps between animations, the illusion of life is totally shattered. Since computer game characters constantly repeat their animations, it is worth the extra time to make movement animation as flawless as possible.
Apply the concept of unique poses to the actual motion of a character. The way people walk suggests vast amounts of information about them, such as how they feel about themselves and their surroundings. If a character's movements are a consistent, exaggerated representation of their inner selves, you can build up its personality while it moves about its environment. (As a side note, there is a vast difference between realism and believability -- I feel you can always get a stronger, more universal emotional response from high-quality hand animation than you ever can from motion capture.)
The key that Disney animators ultimately found to creating the illusion of life was showing their characters thinking. Making a character aware of its environment has an incredible impact on its believability. If your character examines its surroundings and the other characters in it, it automatically appears to be thinking about what it's looking at. Awareness doesn't just end with where a character looks, it extends to its reactions to its environment. A character can give emotional responses to what it sees, such as surprise, fear, happiness, and so on.
One aspect of awareness that reinforces a character's believability is how aware other characters are of your main character. Besides just awareness of presence, emotional responses by NPCs toward the main character add immeasurably to its substance and believability. Note, however, that the player will be affected by how NPCs react to the main character. Unless you want to lower a player's opinion of the main character, NPCs should generally react positively towards it.
What's Your Story?
I like to work out some sort of background history for a character, even if it only helps to flesh things out in my own head. Don't go too far when creating the history, though -- it's risky to give a main character loads of hidden motivations that might conflict with the player's, and the character could react in ways that make the player feel uncomfortable. At the end of the day, a game character shouldn't have anything more than superficial personality traits since, whatever the POV, the player needs to retain as much control as possible. A bit of background just helps solidify the character design process so that it can be consistent.
If a character is going to speak, the benefits of having a decent voice artist are immeasurable. We glean a host of information from each other's voices that has nothing to do with the nature or content of the words spoken. We listen to the timbre, the accent, and the range of a voice to make basic assumptions. More importantly though, we listen to the rich subtle inflections that hint at whether a person is sarcastic, sincere, intelligent, or has a sense of humor. Only highly skilled actors can evoke all of this hidden information as they deliver their lines. If anything is lacking in the voice acting, then you can't inject personality into a character even if all its other design elements are spot-on.
So much about character design is subjective. I mean, what is attractive? On that point alone you could argue for hours. But one very important thing remains to be stated. Any of the points I've discussed can, and probably should be turned on their heads if you want to create new and exciting characters. Guidelines such as these are just guidelines: ingenuity, humor, and originality require rules to be broken.
For Further Info
Thomas, Frank and Ollie Johnson. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. New York: Hyperion Press, 1995.