The Art of Character Design
What makes a great video game character? Does the backstory inform the look or does the look inform the backstory? Whether drawing up AAA protagonists or indie background NPCs, MoGi Group’s art team has a deep well of experience when it comes to creating memorable and eye-catching video game characters.
Video games are, first and foremost, a visual medium. Art style and graphics resonate every bit as much with players as gameplay mechanics. When it comes to a video game’s artwork, there is probably no element more crucial to a memorable visual aesthetic than the design of the characters who populate the game’s world. But what makes an exciting video game character?
Show, Don’t Tell
There’s no better place to start than your character’s backstory. Though this is often the job of a game writer to create, having solid communication and feedback loops between writer and artist can have a huge positive impact on the art design process.
Knowing how a character looks, how they dress, how they wear their hair, and how they carry themselves can all help inspire a realistic, rich creation. A thorough understanding of who your character is and where they come from – not to mention where they’re going! – can help your art team fill out the little personal touches in your character’s design that really help bring them to life onscreen and make them more than just a cardboard cut-out.
As with anything in art, the key is often to start with broad strokes in order to help set out the composite shapes of your new hero or villain. When setting out to design the next Lara Croft or Crash Bandicoot, starting vague works on two levels.
The first is the obvious one – creating the outline that will make your player instantly recognisable from all others, specifically in this case, their silhouette. Think back to some of the most famous characters in the history of video games – almost all of them are instantly recognisable by their silhouette alone. Pac Man, the first video game character ever drawn, was only ever a vague pixelated shape on a screen!
Vagueness, of course, also works on a conceptual level. Before you sit down to work out all the ins and outs of your character, consider who they are in terms of their broad archetype. Are they heroic? Are they a roguish trickster or a con artist? While these archetypes will be fleshed out into something more three dimensional over the course of the game writing process, they are still useful jumping off points and pinning them down early will help immensely with the next step…
Strike a Pose
Anybody who’s scrolled through a character selection screen knows how important character poses are to effectively communicating what that character is all about. A whacky mad scientist is going to strike quite a different pose to a Soviet sleeper agent femme fatale. And while not every game will require character poses, nor will character poses always be appropriate, the lessons to be learned from how best to employ poses to get your character’s personality across can still be applied to a character’s design more generally. How your character holds themselves, how they walk, the hand gestures they make, their stature, the little ticks and idiosyncrasies that make up their presence on the screen can all play a huge part in defining what sets this character apart from everyone else on the screen.
This, once again, can benefit from strong communication and collaboration between creative teams when designing a character’s archetype. In turn, the work on archetyping and character default poses done at this stage can be hugely informative for animation teams when shaping a character’s movement, actions, and reactions onscreen.
The Devil in the Details
It’s the little things that really make a character stand out in the mind of players. When looking for the minor details that flesh out a character, once again a character’s backstory is an invaluable source of inspiration. Just as a character’s actions and motivations in a game are driven by their backstory and personality, so too can these elements be used to help add telling details to your character’s appearance.
For example, a character who is defined in part by their disorganisation and untidiness might not take the time to straighten their tie properly or tuck in their shirt, while an interstellar gun for hire may wear a single glove on her dominant hand to better grip her sidearm. Minor details like these not only help to give subtle clues to your character’s history and personality, they go a long way in creating a more ‘real’ presence onscreen. The greater detail you can show onscreen, the more depth and thought you can put into creating a character, the more value players will take from interacting with or controlling them in the game.
These basic principles, of course, apply across the spectrum of the weird and wonderful collection of characters that make up the video game pantheon. It doesn’t matter if you’re drawing a grizzled Royal Marine Commando operating in some of the deadliest regions on the planet, a talking wolf racing across the arctic tundra to rescue her friend, or a small yellow circle zooming across a screen trying to eat as many white dots as possible before the ghosts get him. Understanding your character, their personal backstories and style choices, is integral to creating a memorable, enduring video game icon that will run away with your players’ imaginations for generations!