As video gaming continues to evolve as a contemporary medium for storytelling, the design of characters within video games is becoming more sophisticated too.
If you’re looking to start designing characters for your own game, or you’re just looking to see what makes your favourite character so compelling, we’ve gathered info on the design process for you to delve into.
What is character design in video games?
Child of destiny, turnip farmer, or both? From the world-saving protagonist, to background NPCs you can’t interact with; all characters in your game need some design consideration. Whether they’re a customisable blank slate or an established character, your protagonist(s) affect how the player is able to engage with your game and help to facilitate the roleplaying experience present in most games.
But this isn’t limited to protagonists. Playable party members, antagonists, and NPCs great and small all play their part in the overall narrative and feel of your game. Obviously the scale of your game will determine how much you need to invest in character design, but even relatively simplistic classic arcade games had memorable characters; hedgehogs, monkeys, plumbers etc.
More than meets the 👁️ While defining the physical attributes of your character are part of the character design process, there are other aspects to designing a character, such as writing their backstory, deciding their personality, and how they fit into your game both mechanically and narratively.
What are the best character designs in video gaming?
Top video game characters designs
One person’s Spyro is another’s Crash Bandicoot… It’s so hard to pin down the best designed game characters since it’s such a personal thing. Many lists out there only represent the opinions of individuals or companies.
Jioforme published a study that combines franchise sales, internet trends, and game popularity to come up with an index for ranking the best characters out there. Here’s their top 10:
- Link (Legend of Zelda)
- Donkey Kong
- Master Chief (Halo)
- Cloud (Final Fantasy VII)
- Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher)
- Ezio Auditore da Florence (Assassin’s Creed)
If you find yourself disagreeing, it’s not surprising (we do too!). Since characters speak to different people differently, it’s impossible to say objectively what makes up a good design. We can see that popular games contain popular characters, but it’s a bit chicken-and-egg. Still there’s some design principles we suggest below that can make a difference.
What makes a decent character design?
They’re consistent and believable. Self-betrayal is a common theme in drama when a character is their own worst enemy. Perhaps even worse than this is a character designer who betrays their character by not staying true to the design they give them. It can really hurt a game if characters are given behaviours that don’t fit how they’ve been established, to make advancing the story easier for example. Taking a bit of extra effort to make sure the story can play out without jeopardising the integrity of your characters can make all the difference.
They’re motivated. Games are about the player acting to progress the story. For the character they’re controlling to have a reason to do this, they need suitable motivation. You can’t expect a player to invest emotionally in your game if you don’t give their character a sense of purpose. It doesn’t have to the pursuit of justice, but it does need to be
They’re sympathetic. This doesn’t have to mean we feel sorry for them, or even that we like them. A sympathetic character is simply one who we can understand why they do what they do. We might not always agree with their actions, but if we can see how a character’s actions make sense given their circumstances then we can sympathise.
Different types of character designs
Characters designs by archetype
You need a mould before you can break it. While you want to make your characters as unique as possible, there’s nothing wrong with drawing from an archetypal character. In fact, starting with a classic character stereotype and then subverting it can be a way to show self-awareness and be a little thought-provoking.
There are lots of examples of character archetypes, many of which aren’t unique to gaming, but which still crop up fairly often. A few choice examples include:
- Brooding hero – Squall from Final Fantasy VIII
- Gentle giant – Dragonite from Pokémon
- Thug with a heart of gold – Dante from Devil May Cry
- Heroic mime (mute hero) – Gordon Freeman from Half Life
- Tomboy princess – Princess Zelda (Sheik) from the Legend of Zelda
TV Tropes has a great list of many of the common video game character cliches for inspiration.
Characters designs by role
Does a bad guy have to be a bad guy? The role a character plays in a game will affect their design. Not all stories have to follow a classic hero/villain dynamic, but there will still be characters within a player’s control and those who challenge the player and stand in the way of story progression.
- Protagonists – a protagonist is usually relatable and sympathetic, and someone the player can identify with. That doesn’t mean they have to be heroic or faultless. In fact, flawed characters are much more relatable since we’re all flawed too. While most protagonists are synonymous with victory, since you’ll succeed in beating the game as them, it doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed a happy ending. Ultimately it’s up to you how to create a persona a player will want to take up and complete your story as, regardless of the final outcome.
- Antagonists – they can be detestable or sympathetic, and they can be established early on or a character can grow into the role over the course of the game. There’s no right way to design an antagonist, even if there are common elements among most of them. The only real consideration is why do they oppose the protagonist(s) and what do they do to challenge them.
- Party members – often protagonists themselves, party members will have many of the same traits but with a few distinctions. As a follower to a main protagonist, their story arc will be less tied to the main storyline of your game. They are typically less likely to be leaders or at least they will always accept their supporting role, even if they do so grudgingly. They also tend to be less customisable and have less flexibility in their story arc compared to a main character.
- Other NPCs – once the key players are in place, it’s time to fill your world up with other characters. Not all of them will interact with the player, and most that do will have limited interaction, but they all need designing to some extent. While individually most NPCs will have a small impact on the design and feel of a game, they all add up when put in the game together. The more prominent NPCs will play bigger parts in your story and deserve as much attention as the protagonists and antagonists.
Using a template for designing your characters
They contain multitudes. There’s a lot of individual steps and considerations that can go into the creation of a character. Since you don’t want to miss any, and it’s tough coming up with them all yourself from scratch, it makes sense to consider using a template, even just as a jumping-off point.
Some templates we’ve found for you to try:
- ReedsyBlog’s template – very granular with lots of suggested aspects to consider. Use as-is or pick and choose what to include if you like.
- Paul Alex Grey has another in-depth list of design considerations for free
- Or if you want to choose from a range of templates, Twinkl is a paid teaching-aid service that can help
A tutorial on how to design game characters
Conduct research 🔬 If even if you’re got loads of great ideas and you’re sure of what direction you want to take your character, it’s still worth doing a bit of research. Look at how characters playing the same role have been designed and figure out how to improve on them. Also make sure to think about the intended audience of your game and who might appeal to them.
Body and soul. There’s 2 main processes for designing a character, which we’ve given steps on how to carry out below. Writing them and designing their physical attributes – what we’re calling ‘building’.
Writing your character
- Role – before you even start thinking about who they are, you need to know why they are. Why are they in the world you’re building and what relevance do they have to the story you’re telling?
- Arc – this is the character’s personal story. It will usually relate strongly to the overall story of the game (especially for the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s)) but at the same time can be a distinct and self-contained narrative within the wider story you’re telling.
- Personality – it might be tempting to jump straight to the drawing board, but it’s better to figure out who your character is and use that to inform what they look like instead of drawing someone and trying to justify their appearance. Their personality will be closely linked to their backstory and role in the game, along with relationships, skill sets and basically everything else on this list.
- Backstory – this is important for a number of different reasons. It ties in with personality and relationships if any exist prior to the start of your game’s story. But, most importantly it gives your character their source of motivation. Even if motivation to act in your game is built during the course of your story, more fundamental aspects of motivation are informed by backstory, like seeking revenge or justice, honouring family and their expectations, resolving trauma etc.
- Relationships – again this is linked to personality and backstory. How they think, feel, and behave will stem from their backstory and support their role in your story. Relationships can be pre-existing or develop as characters meet. They are typically fluid and can develop into romances, devolve into betrayals, spark rivalries, and persist into a games epilogue.
- Tone of voice – while you don’t need every single line of dialogue ready when you design your character, it helps to know how they communicate. The way they express themselves needs to be a true representation of who they are; consistent with their personality and reflective of their personal growth during their arc.
- Traits/skillset/characteristics – informed by personality and backstory, but also practically related to their role in the story. What a character is and isn’t able to do (their strengths and weaknesses) will be linked to gameplay mechanics and story progression.
Building your character
- Concept art – once you’ve written your character and figured out who they are, you’re ready to paint a picture of what they look like. Think about how their appearance may typify or subvert their personality and role. Consider the following:
- Voice acting/dialogue – while the mute protagonist is a staple of the genre, most video game characters have some dialogue, even if it’s not voiced. Alongside visuals, the dialogue you give your character will go a long way in helping to define who they are and how the player perceives them.
- Modelling/animating – this is where you bring them to life. Once you’ve bottomed out the different aspects of your character’s looks and profile, you can start figuring out how they move. As with all other aspects of your character, ideally movement needs to be specific to them and reflective of their design.
Turning it up to 11 – iterating. As you go through the character design process, and especially once you’ve reached your finished character design, you need to review it and improve it. You won’t be able to get it right the first time and ‘one and done’ doesn’t cut it. Not only does this allow you to continuously build on your design, it can help it evolve with your story and game as you develop them.
Who’s job is it to design video game characters?
Pen and pencil. Game designers and writers usually work together to design characters. This is because the story and character designs go hand-in-hand and inform each other. As with most projects, even if one person takes on the main responsibility of a task like character design, the best results come from collaboration and input from people with a variety of skills and backgrounds. That being said, it’s usually game designers who take the lead.