How Not to Design a Video Game Character
He’s balding, with a scraggly fringe of long, dirty hair around the back of his head. His wifebeater is filthy, covered a dark liquid that might be blood. In fact, it’s almost certainly blood, since he appears to be bleeding from his mouth. He’s prone to violent outbursts of random, hateful gibberish, and he hangs around with an equally unsavory bearded man with some truly impressive facial scars.
Is he a homeless man? A deranged vagrant? A shell-shocked veteran? No, he’s the protagonist of Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days!
The stars of the Kane and Lynch franchise are two of the least likeable characters to ever headline their own game. Not only are they violent, unsympathetic criminals, they’re also just ugly. Physically ugly. Unpleasant to look at. But honestly, ugly video game characters really aren’t that uncommon.
Take Mario. If you saw him in real life, it’s doubtful you’d consider him traditionally handsome. He’s fat and short, and let’s face it – he probably stinks. Any chubby little man who jumps around that much must get pretty sweaty.
It seems like everywhere you look these days, you see an ugly, ugly video game character. Look at Max Payne, who has actually transitioned from one kind of ugly to a whole new kind of ugly. He used to look like he just smelled a fart. Now he’s fat and bald and dirty, and looks like… well, he looks like he should be hanging out with Kane and Lynch.
Marcus Fenix has a face like an old catcher’s mitt. Rufus from Street Fighter IV is not only morbidly obese, but also has fashion sense of a blind man whose stylist played a terrible, terrible joke on him. The upcoming Bulletstorm stars Grayson Hunt, a character who looks like a reject from a 1990s Rob Liefield comic.
When did creating such visually garish characters become popular? You could argue that video game characters have always looked goofy, but at least it’s easy to pinpoint why ugliness became the status quo. Ugliness is easier on video game artists than beauty, at least as far as characters are concerned.
Marcus Fenix looks distinct because you remember his cracked, scarred skin and his frat-boy soul-patch. When is the last time you saw a really handsome video game protagonist that stuck with you? The most successful good-looking characters are based on real people, like the Apprentice in The Force Unleashed or the cast of Heavy Rain. When developers try to make good-looking characters from scratch, they wind up with bland nobodies like Nick Kang. Who? He was the star of True Crime: Streets of LA. Remember him? Didn’t think so?
So ugliness may be easier than beauty. But that doesn’t mean video game characters have to look like panhandlers or imprisoned sex offenders. How is that possible, you ask? Why, just follow this simple guide!
1. No Male Pattern Baldness. We understand that hair is still hard to pull off convincingly. But for God’s sake, no one wants to play as a character that looks like Jeremy Piven. (Offenders: Kane AND Lynch, Max Payne) 2. No Ridiculous Scars. We get it. Scars mean you’re tough. But not as tough as the guy who put that huge scratch on your face. (Offenders: Marcus Fenix, Geralt from The Witcher, Kane again) 3. No Hair Metal Fashion Sense. Unless you’re in Brutal Legend. (Offenders: Grayson Hunt, 50% of the characters from the Final Fantasy franchise) 4. No Fatties. Video games are supposed to be escapism. If I wanted to see a fat guy, I’d look in the mirror. (Mario, Rufus, King Hippo, Karnov, E. Honda, etc.)
Obviously we’re having a bit of fun at the expense of some well-known video game characters, but we’re serious about our point. You can look badass without falling back on well-worn clichés. Just ask Kratos. You can make distinctive characters by making smart style choices – go play Team Fortress 2 for proof. Making your protagonist look like a deranged hobo isn’t the only way to make your video game character stand out.
Jeremy M. Zoss is a veteran of the gaming industry. He’s written for Game Informer, OXM, G4 and many more. He’s also worked in games PR, but don’t hold that against him.