the artistry and psychology of gaming


Character Design

Character Design

If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read.  You may also wish to read the previous article.

While the worlds in a video game make the experience, it is the character design that often greets you first, usually on the box art.  For video games in general, most go with one of two choices: gritty or anime.  It’s mostly the Western RPGs and First-Person Shooters that go with the gritty, masculine characters caked in dirt with a 3-day scruff going on (grow a beard or shave, already; that’s not as attractive as you think it is), and in the case of the former, there’s typically a lot of leather involved.  JRPGs, on the other hand, tend to go with the over-the-top cutesy anime look.  It’s like two opposing forces trying their hardest to make their own side into a ridiculous hyperbole to distance themselves from each other.  Since we’re dealing with JRPGs, I’ll be talking more about the anime look.  Now, while I’m not the biggest fan of anime, I don’t blindly hate it.  In fact, the Valis series uses anime-style graphics, and I think they’re gorgeous; I rented Valis 4 as a kid mostly because of how pretty I thought the heroine, Lena, to be.  The problem is that most modern anime-style graphics look the same to me.  There are tons of different styles of animation; a little diversity would be appreciated, and would make the art direction look a bit more deliberate.  Not only that, but does every game coming out of Japan have to look like anime?  Remember when video games looked like, you know, video games?  I do; I guess I’m old.

Boobs and butts are lovely, but I’m getting a little tired of every JRPG having the same look.

Were I to give out an award for best character design in an RPG, it would go to Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai.  Don’t let the Japanese name fool you; the visuals lean a bit more toward a Western style.  I’ve already discussed the character design in a review I wrote for this site, and it still rings true.  It was the unique character design that made me want to play the game in the first place.  The characters are very endearing, but not overly saccharine, and still unique; they resemble something out of a book of fairy tales.  However, they weren’t exactly childish, so it was possible to take the game serious in its darker moments.  If you have characters that look like cute little children, it’s very difficult to take them seriously when they display emotion, much like the end of a goofy comedy when they try to provoke a tear from your eye; it just doesn’t work.  Characters like those in Ancient Magic are more visually diverse, allowing them a much wider range of believable emotions.  This made the game a great deal more emotionally resonant, even to me, and I don’t exactly experience emotions the same way most people do.  There were genuinely funny lines that were used in moderation, there were moments in which you as a player feel like a criminal, and times when you just want to give your character a hug.  All of this hinges on something as simple as character portraits.

Arcana is more of a Dungeon Crawler, but enough of an RPG that it is relevant.  The game plays it totally straight; you won’t find a lot of humor or goofy moments, because it is a very serious game.  I know that many feel comic relief to be a necessity, but I think a completely serious story is good to have every now and again; in fact, I tend to prefer them.  It fits the character designs rather well, too; they look like noble warriors in a Fantasy-themed RPG without looking like they belong in a Boris Vallejo painting.  Of course, I enjoy the artwork of Mr. Vallejo, but what’s important here is not only that there’s a balance between the two visual styles, but also that something unique has been created; it is that creativity that makes the game special, and that should be the goal, because that is what makes a game memorable.

I particularly like Darwin and Teefa’s portraits.

Speaking of First-Person Dungeon Crawlers, there is a game with character design so wondeful, that I absolutely fell in love with it: Shining in the Darkness.  It has this sort of warm storybook look to it, but in the same respect, it’s unique; it has this undeniable charm that is distinctly Sega.  Most people think of Sega – particularly during the days of the Genesis/Mega Drive – and either picture something gritty, or Sonic the Hedgehog, but there’s an underrepresented visual demographic that they used in few of their games.  This, on the other hand, has a style that might be a little kiddy, but fits the game perfectly.  As with its future installments, the Shining Force series, there are a lot of different anthropomorphic species, making the supporting cast visually diverse, and even the humans look nice.  As much as I loved the game, it took the Strategy route in future installments, under the new banner of Shining Force.

Anyone who has ever visited my Backloggery page knows that I am a big fan of the character design in Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom.  The overworld sprites greatly resemble a Produce game, most notably The 7th Saga and Brain Lord.  What really makes them shine is the character portraits.  Like Arcana, but to a greater degree, they look like badass Fantasy characters, even though there’s a hint of Science Fiction to its overall style, though much less than its predecessors.  I didn’t play the game until long after the Genesis/Mega Drive had died as a system, but I was still very impressed with them, the warrior version of Kara more than any other.  These characters are not just unique to games in general, but even within their own series, and while that takes a big risk with the fans, it can sometimes make something spectacular.

This is only one of four possible final parties.

Perhaps the most unique character design I’ve seen is in Chrono Cross.  They didn’t go for quality; they went for sheer quantity, with a staggering forty-five playable characters.  They could have gone entirely with human characters, but they decided to have some fun and go for diversity.  You have a harlequin, a dragon pup, a skeletal clown, and an anthropomorphic lumberjack mushroom, just to name a few.  Aside from the sheer insanity, you have interesting characters like a stout housewife who can fold enemies up like laundry and press them flat; a noble looking, stalwart old man with a dark coat covered in dragon bones; and a gorgeous, silver-haired shrine maiden, who’s very skilled with a blade.  The range in ages of the characters go from small child to wizened old man, and whether you like your characters serious or goofy, there’s enough to please everyone.  So, don’t be fooled by Serge’s “plucky young hero” look, complete with generic red bandana and spiky hair; the characters in this game are incredibly inspired and multifarious.

I didn't think characters like this were even allowed to exist anymore.

I didn’t think characters like this were even allowed to exist anymore.

Speaking of unique, Squaresoft has created a bit of a paradox in that respect.  There’s no denying their popularity – no matter how many people hate what they’ve become – but their character design has become the face of modern JRPGs, at least to those not acclimated to the climate.  When most people think of JRPGs, they imagine Cloud Strife’s spiky blonde hair, maybe with some guy liner, lots of extra zippers, and other things that have become attributed to Squenix.  The thing is, though, that if this were truly the common look of JRPGs, you’d see it in most of them, but the truth is that the anime look is the true common denominator.  While Final Fantasy 7 undoubtedly set in motion a chain of events leading to the current look that is used in nearly every Squenix game, which I find to be pretentious, its cast is quite visually diverse.  You have humans of all shapes and sizes (and colors; Barrett might not be the first African-American RPG character, but he’s among the earliest), a canine, and even a stuffed animal.  As Final Fantasy 6 took the cute little sprites of its predecessor and made them taller and more mature looking, so 7 brought them into the third dimension.  It was Final Fantasy 8, however, that made them truly spectacular.  The characters looked like real people (for the time), which was a great departure from its predecessor.  In 7, you still had the same problem as on the NES; sometimes, the graphics were vague and you couldn’t tell exactly what it was that you were seeing.  In 8, almost everything was clean and clear, and the character models no longer had the “Popeye” look.  It’s a bit of a shame that Final Fantasy 9’s character design was less consistent with this and decided to be all over the place.  Worse still, is where they’ve landed today.

Meet the most punchable face in gaming.

Squaresoft did have some atypical characters back on the SNES, however.  Rudra no Hihou had visuals that somewhat resembled those of Final Fantasy 6, but very much their own, at least in character design.  Tell me if this sounds like anything you’ve seen in a Squaresoft game before: the main character of the first available scenario has thick armor, hair resembling that of David Bowie in the film, Labyrinth, and a patch over his eye because it’s missing.  He’s not exactly the pretty archetype you’re used to seeing.  There are other characters that join various teams from different species, such as giants and merfolk.  It was a very ambitious goal to not only have five different sentient species in a game’s world, but to also include them all in great enough numbers that they have several visual designs, much like you’d have to do to create a human society in a game.  I’d say they did a great job of pulling it off, too, as there are many characters from each of those species that have their own individual personalities; they aren’t treated like racial stereotypes, and I was very impressed by that.  Sure, the story is focused upon humans and how they’re so much better than everything else, but I defy you to find me a work of Fantasy or Science Fiction that does otherwise; they’re not very common.

Mega Man X Command Mission pulled off what is deceptively tricky character design.  You might be thinking that a Mega Man game couldn’t possibly be difficult to achieve in such terms, but making human models into androids, while still making them look like both is a difficult balance.  You don’t want them looking too human or you’ll have people forgetting that they’re machines, but you also don’t want them running around looking like children in cardboard boxes with metallic spray paint.  They did well with it, though, and created some very interesting designs.  X himself has been completely redesigned, but a lot of returning characters have been represented quite well in a new context.  Zero still looks the same, and his empowered state is the fan favorite Black Zero.  They’ve created some great new things, as well; one of the most incredibly badass things I’ve ever seen in a video game is Zero’s hidden form, Absolute Zero.

Just try to tell me that’s not one of the most badass characters you’ve ever seen.

Other RPGs have had similar success with visual diversity among characters.  The Breath of Fire series has given you a diverse cast of characters from the very first installment.  Some look like humans with a little something extra, like wings or a tail, whereas others are full-on anthropomorphs; frogs, monkeys, dogs, wolves, and even fish among them.  The Lennus series did much the same thing, giving five races to each of the two hemispheres of the titular planet.  Like everything else with the series, though, they look rather alien.  It supported the choice to use mercenaries rather than dedicated party members quite well, since it gave you the opportunity to spend time with many unique looking characters from each of the races.  They even created an eleventh race, known as the Lubott, who are hybrids of other races, which means that the developers even thought enough about their creation that they could imagine how crossbreeding would look.  It really goes a long way to build a world and its lore to put so much time and effort into something so seemingly subtle.

Behold, the ultimate mercenary: a 50-year old hybrid. There’s more diversity in this one character than in the last 10 games Squenix put out.

The anime approach isn’t all bad, as I’ve said; there are a few RPGs that have taken that approach to character design, but it was their willingness to do something unique with it that made it work.  Suikoden 2 was a visual departure from its grittier predecessor, and I find its softer character portraits to be very visually pleasing.  Their skin, for the most part, is fairer, giving an almost Shakespearean look to them, which I found to be unique, and very appropriate to its Fantasy theme.  It gave the game a more European visual style overall, which was an interesting contrast to the more Asian overtones of the original Suikoden.  What makes this relevant is that they take place in different parts of Suikoden’s world, which is a parallel to our own, making it vicariously reflect the diversity of our own world.  It’s one of those instances in which something as seemingly superficial as visual style can carry something so much deeper than just being pleasant to see.

Another atypical incarnation of the anime archetype is Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzonoha vs. the Soulless Army.  The environments are standard for a Shin Megami Tensei game, but the character designs, specifically what they’re wearing, is what makes the game really stand out.  Character designs, particularly facial features, in the series and its many spinoffs have their own distinct style, but in the Raidou Kuzonoha games, everyone dresses in clothes typical of the 1920s in the United States.  They take place during that period in Japanese history when Western culture was becoming more popular, and as such, the main character wears a police uniform that reflects this style of wardrobe.  What makes this even more unique is the demographic of people resisting this cultural influx; you have people in vests and derbies walking around with people in kimonos.  To think that this strange cultural dynamic was actually a part of history just makes the experience that much more immersive; demonic activity aside, it’s an educational look at a part of history unknown to many, especially here in the West.

Character design can be very important to the overall visual style of a game.  It needs to stand out, and works best when woven into the overall style of the game, both visual and otherwise.  After all, you’re going to spend the entire game playing as and interacting with the different people of the world; they might as well be worth seeing.  Of course, it’s not just your party and the multifarious NPCs with whom you’ll be interacting; monster design can make the difference between a boring encounter and an exciting battle, and we’ll get into that next.


Works Cited:

Game Title (Alternate title: Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date.

7th Saga (Elnard; Japan). Produce, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/23/1993.
Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai. Hot B, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/23/1993.
Arcana (Card Master: Rimusaria no Fuuin; Japan). Hal, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/27/1992.
Brain Lord. Produce, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 01/28/1994.
Breath of Fire (Breath of Fire: Ryuu no Senshi; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/03/1993.
Breath of Fire 2 (Breath of Fire 2: Shimei no Ko; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/2/1994.
Breath of Fire 3. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 09/11/1997.
Breath of Fire 4. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 04/27/2000.
Chrono Cross. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 11/18/1999.
Final Fantasy 6. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/02/1994.
Final Fantasy 7. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 01/31/1997.
Final Fantasy 8. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 02/11/1999.
Final Fantasy 9. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/07/2000.
Paladin’s Quest (Lennus: Kodai Kikai no Kioku; Japan). Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 11/13/1992.
Lennus 2: Fuuin no Shito. Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/26/1996.
Mega Man X Command Mission. Capcom, Sony Playstation 2, 07/29/2004.
Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom (Toki no Keishousha: Phantasy Star 3; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 04/20/1990.
Rudra no Hihou. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/05/1996.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army (Devil Summoner: Kuzunoha Raidou tai Chouriki Heidan; Japan). Atlus, Sony Playstation 2, 03/02/2006.
Shining Force (Shining Force: Kamigami no Isan; Japan). Camelot Software Planning, Sega Genesis, 03/19/1992.
Shining in the Darkness (Shining and the Darkness; Japan).  Climax Entertainment, Sega Genesis, 03/28/1991.
Suikoden (Genso Suikoden). Konami, Sony Playstation, 12/15/1995.
Suikoden 2 (Genso Suikoden 2). Konami, Sony Playstation, 12/17/1998.

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