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Portraying the Playable: The Effects of Character Design

By: Morgan McNichols


 

Georges Braque once said, “There is only one thing valuable in art: the thing you cannot explain.” And, while that may be true to some extent, some might respectfully disagree. One of the most undermined treasures of life as an artist is our reasoning behind what we make; what we paint, draw, mold, and craft—but it would be a mistake to not ask us, “Why?”

Behind every video game is art, and behind every piece of artwork is a science, and there’s nothing better than explaining why your playable comfort character—who has committed several felonies, treason, and maybe even war crimes—is so flawed, yet somehow so forgivable. Or maybe they are so honest and emotional that they are relatable in every way, or maybe they remind you so much of yourself that you say, “He’s just like me… For real.”

That being said, characters from movies and T.V. shows can be lovable in the same way, but it is almost out of line—dare I say, blasphemous—to compare it to the raw experience of playing as the character. Although, that begs the question: why are we so drawn in? What makes us choose the video games that we do? It’s not something that goes unanswered, as every self-proclaimed gamer has at least one thing in common: a character that they like.



Not Just a Wi-Fi Connection


As you may know, you can never have a story without a character, and within that story, they are brought to life. However, much like in reality, the one part we notice about someone before all else is their outward appearance. Sometimes, we overlook who someone is because we are so drawn to their form. Whether they are the most stunning creature to walk the earth, or the most mundane average-joe, we are initially observing their looks… But what do you see? Does she wear shorts and a t-shirt, or is she decked out in every shade of pink with cute, glittery accessories? Is he wearing a silky knitted sweater made by his grandmother, or is he wearing a leather jacket with silver chains hooked to his jeans? Are they dressed in an androgynous, masculine, or feminine style?

When imagining these characteristics, it’s important to note your first impression, which comes at the start of every character design: can you tell who they are by their appearance? This basic step of characterization is crucial, as the presentation of your character must also cater towards your selected audience to conjure the emotional connection that gamers tend to look for. An early example of this is one of the most iconic and memorable video game characters of all time: Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy 7, a hit fantasy role-playing game released in 1997.


(Early Depiction of Cloud Strife, Tetsuya Nomura © 1997)


As you might expect, Cloud’s character design is readable and detailed. The triangles and sharp edges that make up his shape are critical in creating an initial impression of a threatening and intense character, as opposed to rounder or circular angles, which typically suggest a more favorable and gentle character (Nieminen, 2017). However, despite his triangular appearance, his expression softens the blow of an otherwise more villainous character, separating him from the role of an antagonist. Instead of looking malicious, he seems defiant or rebellious. His less than extravagant clothing also furthers this notion, implying the background of a fighter or mercenary.

By being able to carefully analyze Cloud Strife’s design, we can also draw out a personality to some extent. Dark clothes, chains and metals, baggy pants, a relaxed pose, and a cold, standoffish expression: he is frigid and tough with the personality of an icy outsider, having little to no tolerance for anything that gets in his way. Furthermore, as you delve deeper into the story of Cloud Strife, he becomes more relatable, specifically to people who feel misunderstood and ostracized from the society they were brought up in. By playing him in-game, whether in the remake or original, players can experience these struggles through the eyes of a character who they feel gets them on a more personal level: someone who represents internal struggles such as grief, hardships expressing emotion, or conflict with oneself. 

However, some may argue that Cloud is unlikeable. A handful of fans claim that he is emo, unfriendly, emotionless, and the like. Though they aren’t exactly wrong, those “unlikeable” traits are purposeful and mainly derived from his backstory. In fact, Cloud is an ideal example of a well-rounded character, as the audience would have a difficult time relating to a character with no flaws, since a believable, realistic character must have imperfect traits in order to assist an emotional connection.

In a virtual interview with Georgia Adamson, a character artist Mediatonic, when asked why she thinks some people prefer characters who are more realistic and have outward flaws that may even leave them unlikeable in some aspects, she says:  “I personally find myself drawn to characters with more flaws as I find them more relatable. For example, when I read comic books as a child, I thought superman was boring because he was too good. I liked Batman because he had so many more problems.” As a closing, in regards to designing characters this way, she also adds, “Good character artists [and] designers will automatically seek the flaws in their characters[.] Nobody likes perfect, it's boring! I feel like you should train yourself into this becoming an automatic process, not one you think about too hard, but one you instinctively build into your designs.”



Character Creation, With a Side of 

Gender-Swapping


During the initial shockwave release of award-winning game Elden Ring, like many other internet dwellers, many people saw a heavy surge of content featuring the gameplay, cutscenes, and lore, but most of all: character creation. And while most of the content made at the time were Let’s Plays, the smaller clips such as TikToks and Instagram Reels featured players creating their own hyper-realistic characters, in which the same event kept popping up over and over again: men creating characters that looked like their wives or girlfriends. Typically, said female partner would be filming the video, fawning and giggling over the fact, but then it dawned on me: why do men, specifically, play video games as female characters?

This brings us onto the next part of how character design affects players. Generally, one may think that men sometimes play as female characters, especially in long-running games, to be able to observe and direct their ideal type of woman in a fantasy setting. Which, in of itself is not wrong, as many fangirls of Chinese R.P.Gs would be lying if they said they weren’t extra excited after the first Lost Soul Aside teaser because of how the male lead looked. But how does this tie into the emotional effects of a character design?

In 2022, one male Final Fantasy 14 and Lord of The Rings: Online player, FibroJedi, explains in a forum blog post on why he creates and plays female characters. He goes into detail by first saying that he is not trying to create a digital version of himself, whether creating a female or a male character. By the same token, he also says that when playing games with customizable characters, he creates his own story for them alongside the actual gameplay story, comparing it to female authors writing male leads and male authors writing female leads, then further pointing out that despite being the opposite sex of who they are writing, they are not questioned in a way that a gamer playing the opposite sex would be. However, his reasoning for playing females takes on a more unique perspective: that he feels he relates to women more often than he does men. Interestingly, he also says this while talking about the more widely-shared idea of escapism, but through playing a character of the opposite sex: “I can avoid my own male-influenced weaknesses and failings, for example. I don’t deny I have those issues[,] but it’s easier to ignore them for a few hours in a game.” (FibroJedi, 2022).

Although the case of FibriJedi may be a more unique angle into understanding why men play female characters in video games, some could argue that it’s not uncommon, either. This example goes to show that the gender of a playable character can greatly affect the behavior and actions of the player controlling them, which does not disclude the original idea that some men play female characters less for the emotional aspect, but more for the physical. More specifically, rather than men playing female characters for the notion of relating more to them as a collective or just believing in strong female roles, there is most certainly a larger audience for catering towards attractiveness and aesthetics. However, this leads to analyzing the other side of the same coin: women creating and playing as men in video games, in which the reason for such a development is unsurprisingly interlinked with the concept of men playing as women in video games for visual pleasure only.

In chapter three of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, he discusses the overarching challenges of womanhood and women living in a man’s world, comparing men and women as the surveyor and the surveyed. He explains, “To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space.” (Berger, 1972). Up until recently, playing or making video games was seen as a predominantly male hobby or career choice, subsequently leading to the massive event of Gamergate: a culture war and harassment campaign targeted towards women and feminist concepts in video games (such as strong female leads, unsexualized female characters, realistic depictions of girlhood, etc.), creating the overall idea that women weren’t allowed to be anything but what male gamers wanted to see in certain gaming experiences because it is such a rich form of escapism and interactable fantasy.

Following the holy mess of Gamergate, women often report their experiences of playing as a woman in video games, describing it along the lines of annoying or troublesome. Although, while this is not always the case, one bad experience can sour the playability of a game as a whole, which is also one of the reasons it might be rare to find a girl playing games like online first-person shooters, because once your team knows you’re a woman, the only thing being said in voice-chat is for her to get back in the kitchen and make a sandwich, being asked how it feels to be fatherless, or being called unsavory names. In another virtual interview, Liz Edwards, a character artist at Respawn Entertainment and the studio behind Apex Legends, gives her perspective on playing video games as a woman based on what she has experienced:  “I do think the heavy objectification of women in games and the boys club vibes of video games have led men to have a sense of entitlement over gaming as a hobby. But misogyny goes way deeper than video games—it's a societal thing. That said, I'm optimistic that if games themselves continue to be more inclusive and more welcoming to women, this boys club atmosphere will end.” 

If women are lucky, they will be ignored or at the bare minimum: treated like any other player. Being harassed is typically the main reason why women play as male characters and usually choose not to participate in team voice-chat. Although their reason could be similar to FibroJedi’s incentive for playing female characters, such as relating more to them as a whole, it’s likely that the majority of gamers with experiences like these would argue that women playing as male characters because they relate to them more than their own gender is extraordinarily less common than men playing as female characters for that reason. 

As a gamer, I asked my fellow gamers if they like to—or why they tend to—genderswap when playing games. Surprisingly, not only do some people gender swap because of visuals and relatability, but because some who identify as in-between male and female are able to take advantage of such customizable options. One friend, J, explains the reasoning on creating her genderfluid character in Dungeons and Dragons, a popular fantasy roleplaying game that can be played online or in person: “Overall, I would say more than anything[,] games are a very easy and safe way for me to play around with my thoughts and feelings on gender[.] The reason I created [my character] in the first place was to see how I would feel being referred to as they/them as well as she/her mainly[,] and I kinda discovered that I liked that and it felt comfy [with] who I really was.” Another response from a different friend, S, would be what you would typically expect, but arguably understandable if you’re a male gamer: “If I'm going to play Skyrim for 300+ hours, I'm not staring at a [dude] the whole time.” Adding a more serious response, he also says, “ [I] mostly play the other gender to see if anything is different[.] If I really like a game, I'll play it a second time to see the decisions I didn't make the first time round[.] It's a good excuse to pick the other gender and make the game a little more refreshing on the second run.” 

All of this goes to show that even a fraction of a character’s design, such as their gender, can instigate a motive to play that specific character, whether that’s positive or negative. Although very different motives from J and S, both are acceptable reasons, because playing video games is generally a personal experience even when playing with other people. That’s not to say that the causes and effects behind some choices aren’t an issue, specifically when people only play certain characters to objectify them—feminine or masculine—or make them solely for the purpose of fulfilling an obscure or even violent fantasy. Even when most, if not all gaming experiences are personal, the objectification or misuse of video game characters can easily leak into the real world, with the aforementioned event of Gamergate being only one example. That being said, gender is one of the most effective and direct characteristics of a video game character that can lead players to act on certain behaviors, whether that’s playing the character as if they were yourself, or posting on social media to complain about how they were not made physically attractive enough for you to play the game at all.



First Impressions of Expressions


When thinking about playing any Dark Souls games, for some people it can feel like they’ve woken up from a nightmare in a cold sweat. There are others who share the same sentiment, and others who do not, but the biggest difference between these two groups is their gender and personality. For the purpose of simplicity, these types of games will be referred to as Tough, Flexible, or Soft. Moreover, a large chunk of girl gamers tend to agree with the dreadful thought of Dark Souls and prefer Soft games like Animal Crossing, The Sims, Stardew Valley, etc., with others preferring more Flexible games like Genshin Impact or Persona 5. Flexible games are what I would call more ambiguous or customizable, adding other examples such as Baldurs Gate 3 or Final Fantasy XIV where you can create your own characters or name the preset main character and play at your own pace, with most of them being less linear and open world. On the other hand, a vast majority of guy gamers prefer more Tough games, like Doom, Resident Evil, or Call of Duty. That’s not to say girls can’t like Tough games or guys can’t like Soft games, but the fact is that the lead design greatly affects player demographics. Although gameplay is generally the biggest factor, the main character, their environment, and their story within that gameplay are what makes the game enticing and playable.

To further this, it should be noted that most people tend to judge video games by their covers. Whether it’s a physical copy or featured on the front page of Steam, if it doesn’t look like something the viewer would play, they ignore it—and if you say that you haven’t done the same, then you are definitely lying. However, just like our first impressions of people are typically their appearance, it’s only human nature to look at the design of a game and say it’s not your taste, and that’s the end of it. But when you do see or pick up a game and become intrigued, you’re most likely paying attention to the front cover: the main character, specifically.

Let’s take a good look at the front cover of Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening.



(Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening, © 2005, Playstation 2, Capcom: Japan)


What is your first impression of this image? If you were to pick it up from the shelf at GameStop, would you look further into it or put it back? For Devil May Cry 3, the first thing we see is the main character, Dante. He holds his sword on his back like it weighs nothing, and with a smug expression upon his face, he poses in a nonchalant, almost arrogant manner. The edges of his character are also sharp and defined, influencing the idea of someone who is important and brazen; someone who stands out. Though, what’s more is his lack of a companion, as he is the only character on the cover; however, one might argue that his sword, the Rebellion, is his companion, yet simultaneously represents his independence. Because Dante is the face and obvious male lead of the game, this early impression would draw in players who relate to or admire video game protagonists with the same kind of attitude, similar to certain players who relate to Cloud Strife because of his reputation as a black sheep. Additionally, even if the colors aren’t exactly extravagant or bright, only being red, black, grey, and white, they paint the picture of an otherwise brooding, dare I say, Tough game. Think about it—if Dante was wearing shining pink sequins with the background including a glittering castle, it wouldn’t draw in the same audience at first glance. That being said, someone who’s favorite game is Nekopara: Catboy’s Paradise would most likely put this game back on the shelf and look elsewhere, as unfortunately, Dante is not dateable and does not have cat ears.

A contrasting example might be the more recent indie game Little Witch in the Woods, where we can assume that the audience for Devil May Cry 3 might not be interested in a cutesy experience where you play as a witch to help your new villager friends rebuild their town from the ground up.



(Little Witch in the Woods, © 2022, Console/PC, SUNNY SIDE UP: South Korea)


The first thing that might catch your eye is the main character, Ellie: the complete opposite of what Dante on the cover of Devil May Cry 3 represents for his own game. Her lines and edges are smoother, almost thicker and bolder and still expressing the importance of her character, but in a completely different way than Dante. In other words, they are both protagonists of their own game, but on total opposite ends of the spectrum due to their design and personal expression. Unlike Dante’s dark, moonlit tones to accentuate his dominance and toil within the game, Ellie is surrounded by bright colors that make her bubbly and rambunctious personality pop: the green, red, and brown shades all communicate a homey, nature-like feeling, along with the rounded edges and soft brush strokes, overall insinuating the concept of a Soft game. This would likely attract players who sometimes value a cutesy and relaxing experience and relate to silly, girly characters. Not only that, but looking closer, we can spot an added detail of companionship! Virgil, her talking hat, seems to be irritably guiding her as shown by his expression, but still conveying the idea of a close friendship or comradery; that she is loved in some way, and is not a lone wolf in her adventures.

However, even if Dante and Ellie are both heavily contrasting characters, they are still the mascot and emphasis of their own games. Not only are they the mascot, but they are the most important part as first impressions, with their job being to display the overall intention and story of the game. For example, imagine looking at a game with the front cover being only a screenshot of the in-game environment. It would be interesting, sure—but would it really be appealing or thought-provoking? In fact, having a character on the cover of a game box or front page is so popular that there’s even names for certain cliches. Take for instance “gun guy”, with examples being the covers of Doom, Watch Dogs, Splinter Cell, Battlefield 4, and nearly every Call of Duty game. Another instance of this would be the “portrait” cliche, where it’s just a closeup of the main character’s face, with such examples being Silent Hill 3, Super Meat Boy, Plants VS. Zombies—for goodness sake, even Hell’s Kitchen: The Game with Gordon Ramsay’s face plastered on the front and his eyes staring straight into the windows of your soul. The list of cases goes on forever, but should probably stop here as to not keep you reading for several more hours.

You may not have noticed it before, but the main character(s) and their design will forever be the first impression of a game. This isn’t just so developers can show off who you’ll be playing, but the general aim of the game will always be portrayed by the face on the front. From there, you can analyze them quickly, recognizing their round or sharp angles, their color palette, their expression, pose, presence or lack there of companionship, and more, going as far to identify their personality throughout all of these seemingly minor traits, but traits that make up the entire game and your motivation to play it nonetheless.



Conclusion


Overall, the effects of character design can influence players and observers in a variety of ways, such as strengthening relatability through their story or appearance, representing or changing the meaning of realism and fantasy, fostering an emotional connection, influencing the choice of gender identity, provoking developments of player actions in and outside of the game, arousing positive or negative first impressions, and more. 

There is so much to creating and molding video game characters that this article can’t possibly mention every step or important element, as the process is complex and subjective, depending on players and developers alike. But if you’re going to take away anything from this article, it’s this: that your favorite character isn’t just your favorite because of the way they are, but because the person who designed them knows how to make you feel that way.



 

Sources


  1. Berger, J. (1972). 3. In Ways of Seeing (p. 46). Penguin.

  2. Nieminen, M. (2017). PSYCHOLOGY IN CHARACTER DESIGN Creation of a Character Design Tool [Bachelor's Thesis, South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences]. https://www.theseus.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/126784/MarikaNieminen_Thesis.pdf

  3. Downs, E., Smith, S.L. Keeping Abreast of Hypersexuality: A Video Game Character Content Analysis. Sex Roles 62, 721–733 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-009-9637-1

  4. (FibroJedi [@FibroJedi]. (2019, May 6). Why Do Men Play Female Characters in MMOs? Why Do I and Does it Really Matter? [Story]. Retrieved November 1, 2023, from https://fibrojedi.me.uk/gaming/why-do-men-play-female-characters-in-mmos/

  5. Gerson, J. (2016, June 5). 'Gender-swapping' gamers: Why some men prefer to play with female avatars — and vice versa. National Post, 1. https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/gender-swapping-gamers-why-some-men-prefer-to-play-with-female-avatars-and-vice-versa#:~:text=Ask%20a%20man%20who%20plays,well%20be%20a%20shapely%20one


Interviews


  1. Adamson, Georgia. Interview. Conducted by Morgan McNichols. October 26 2023.

  2. Anonymous, J. Interview. Conducted by Morgan McNichols. October 22 2023.

  3. Anonymous, S. Interview. Conducted by Morgan McNichols. October 17 2 2023.

  4. Edwards, Liz. Interview. Conducted by Morgan McNichols. November 2 2023.







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