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Character Design could make or break your game narrative

The Je Ne Sais Quoi Of Character Design

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Visually, character design should always be meant to tell a story and the story should always belong to the character.

A LITTLE EXPLANATION

Character design is a tango of ideas all accumulated into a single entity in which you’ve successfully communicated a story before any in-game dialogue has even been said. Characters are your story. Therefore it would stand to reason that characters should be the tightest and most polished part of anything you make.

With that introduction you can imagine how seriously I take the whole thing. Whether it's in my own games or other games, I think character design can make or break the narrative people are trying to tell. I think, to start out, I should talk about one of my favorite character designs in all of video games.

Fenris from the infamous Dragon Age 2
Fenris from the infamous Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 has a lot of problems, but its character design is not one of them. Fenris is one of those characters that you can look at and regardless of your impressions of Dragon Age 2, you can reasonably say he has some incredibly cool characteristics. Now I am aware that he is also a walking hot & edgy pretty boy trope, but those sell for a reason, so please indulge me. Also Dragon Age games tend to make their characters all super hot and stuff so they do miss the mark pretty much always. I just like Fenris in particular.

INDULGE ME A LITTLE

Let’s start with his overall design. He’s an elf, he’s small, and he has incredibly hard to miss markings all over his body. Those markings being one of the most interesting quirks of his design, as it’s not a hugely typical design as far as I’m aware, at least for NPCS. Main characters tend to have this kind of thing constantly to denote uniqueness.  However, that brings me to my point, an npc character, one you don’t even have to have in your party, has characteristics of a protagonist.

“I think the one thing I wanted to say is that character design should matter depending on what role they have in the story. The protagonist is like the holder of the story, but isn't the story itself. Characters and story go hand in hand, and don't fully complete the other properly unless the other exists.  Since as soon as you create a protagonist, you created a small little world. And when you populate more and more of that world, you get a deeper and much more SUCCULENT bit of tender story meat to go through“ - Ekstasis

Fenris could very easily be the main character of a JRPG with very little tweaking. The only thing that would change is probably him being an elf and his general size. Although, in my opinion we could use more short male protagonists. A good example of that being Wolf from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. He is visibly shorter than pretty much everyone in the game.

Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro™: Shadows Die Twice

However, back to my point. Protagonists are usually designed to stand out and occasionally used as shorthand for what the game they're in is all about. Therefore, their character design is usually much louder than other characters. Games with deep character customization of course will vary wildly, but a lot of people do try to make their character look interesting even in those games. Also pretty much all characters in JRPGS are loud, which is actually a serious problem with some of them, and that topic alone could make up its own article.

In any case, the way I design characters, from protagonist to deuteragonist to antagonist is to do two things: one is to make every single one of them feel like they could be the main character in their own game (meaning protagonist is already in a good spot, but maybe they have a prequel game where some of their characteristics don’t exist yet) and second, I tone everyone down a bit based on the overall cast. I honestly don’t believe the protagonist should outshine anyone else in the cast, but also should avoid being Kazuto Kirigaya ( HIS DESIGN IS BORING DONT @ ME).

Just because your character’s hair is blue and their outfit looks like Hirohiko Araki decided his outfits weren’t fabulous enough, doesn’t make them interesting. I legitimately believe you can get away with making your protagonist have a natural  hair (or at least not titular blue or white) and still make them interesting. (HOWEVER, there is also a huge problem of AAA making all heroes brunette husky males so balance is required) .

To wrap up this explanation I’m going to throw down a couple characterics that will help your explore design full of genuine  uniqueness.

THE WAY THEY BE

The first one is going to be age. Try making your character above the age of nineteen. Teenagers are fun and all but, I personally like playing adults. (especially if love interest venues are involved). Also, try making your character fifty. You don’t have to keep making scrappy young adults or hot thirty-two year olds (who look 18). This tends to affect women more than men, but old men main characters aren’t super frequent either.

The second  one is race. This isn’t a hot take or a woke statement. Seriously, just, make them anything else other than white. Your character doesn’t have to have a backstory that even correlates with their race (unless absolutely necessary). There are so many ways to mix and match skin tones outside of slightly tanned (and incredibly pale for some reason).

Apex Legends
Apex Legends

The third is gender, now, again, not a hot take or woke statement. There are so many flavors of gender out there that you could literally end up with a non-binary, forty-six year-old war veteran with  Polynesian ancestry and you’ve already got a shit ton to work with.

The fourth and last one is body type. There is literally more than one setting than, skinny-brawn or thick-brawn. Fenris, my earlier example, is skinny as a twig. Not too many main characters are super small in size (by that I mean usually in western games) but people like that exist. The complete opposite is true too. Please make characters bigger than mildly shapely. Bigger people are just as capable of getting around (and this hardly matters in most game settings anyway so realism is a poor excuse). Don’t stick to one size. Make someone whose tiny but makes up for it in skills outside of combat (preferably male, tiny women is overused) and make a big round lady ready to eat nails with her breakfast. There is so much to work with.

I think my overall point here is: character design is easy, but making good lasting designs is hard. People only remember some characters for the game, but not their actual overall design. I remember seeing a post about trying to tell all the brunette hero men apart and legitimately had trouble with it.

ANYWAY, LAST THING

Treat your game like a battle royale, where every character is distinct, and slap them into an actual narrative heavy game. They will most likely need to be toned down however, as battle royales make their character designs incredibly loud on purpose.

So, overall, I think what I’m getting at is: make your characters fun. You’ve literally got endless possibilities to work with (within reason, remember my statement about loudness) and don’t be afraid to scoot outside your comfort zone to do so.

P.S Just ask people of that particular thing if you aren’t sure about something being accurate. It’s that easy when you aren’t sure. Ask someone who's black if the skin tone is too grey. Ask a larger person if the shape is accurate. Ask women how to accurately portray body types when it comes to breasts. Do more. You’ll thank yourself in the long run.

Alright, go have fun with your character design process. Let me see your beautiful baes.

 

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Maven Varner

     NoHua is a freelance pixel artist, writer and the co-game developer of an indie game called Freyr. They've been doing art & writing for over five years and hope to continue to hone their craft within the gaming industry.   NoHua is short for No Humanz Allowed. A moniker that just happens to stick.  

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