Character Physical Types
We'll begin with the basic body types of game characters, and some of the ways that they may be depicted.
Characters in video games fall into three general categories: human or humanoid; nonhumanoid; and hybrids. (A small number of characters appear as disembodied voices or animate objects, but they aren't included here because this section is specifically about visual design.) Humanoid characters have two arms, two legs, and one head, and their bodies and faces are organized like a human's. The more you deviate from this arrangement, the less human a character seems. Truly human characters can have either realistic human proportions or exaggerated ones in a cartoon style, but if you use cartoon proportions, you should use a cartoon drawing style as well. A photorealistic human with exaggerated proportions will read as disturbingly deformed.
Nonhumanoid characters include those shaped like vehicles or machines (often indicated by the presence of metal and wheels), animals, or monsters. In the Star Wars universe, R2-D2 is clearly a machine, albeit one with endearing qualities. R2 has three legs with wheels on the bottom, a variety of mechanical appendages, and
a head, but no real face. The Daleks of Doctor Who are also machines, at least as seen from the outside, for similar reasons. Animals, even imaginary ones, look organic; the presence of wings or more than two legs distinguishes them from humanoids. Skin covered with fur, scales, or feathers further sets them apart. Many video game characters, such as Crash Bandicoot, have animal-like heads but humanoid bodies; they're still classified as humanoids rather than animals. Designers often modify the faces of animal-like humanoids, shortening the muzzle and bringing the eyes to the front, to make them more like humans as well.
Monsters are distinguished by such characteristics as significantly asymmetric bodies, a different facial arrangement (eyes below the nose or jaws that move sideways, for example), and extreme proportions. Many of their qualities are borrowed from orders of animals that humans in some societies find frightening or repulsive: reptiles, insects, and the more bizarre sea creatures. Claws, fangs, oozing slime, and an armorlike exoskeleton all add to a monster's appearance of alienness and danger. The creature from the Alien movies exhibited all of these distinguishing features.
Hybrids include beings such as mermaids or human/machine combinations.
Davros, the creator of the Daleks, has a humanoid torso and head but a mechanical bottom half. The Borg from Star Trek and C-3PO from Star Wars read as humanoids rather than true hybrids, however, because they still follow the rules for humans: two arms, two legs, and one head in the appropriate configuration. Cylons, from the popular Battlestar Galactica series, are hybrid machines/humans. In the latest incarnation of this show, they push the boundaries of how visuals can deceive the viewer as to what is human and what is not.
Relatively few art-driven characters are drawn with ordinary proportions or with photorealistic features. Rather, they are exaggerated in various ways that should be familiar to you from comic books and cartoons. These exaggerations serve as convenient symbols to indicate a character stereotype. Four of the most common are cool, tough, cute, and goofy. A character isn't always limited to one of these qualities, however; he can sometimes shift from one to another as circumstances require.
■ Cool characters never get too upset about anything. The essence of cool is detachment. If something irritates them, it's only for a moment. A rebellious attitude toward authority often accompanies cool. Cool characters often wear sunglasses and their body language is languid; when not doing anything else, they slouch. Frequently clever or wisecracking, cool characters may, depending on the situation, use their wits rather than brute force to overcome an obstacle. Ratchet, from the Ratchet & Clank series, exemplifies the cool character. Though cool characters are often drawn as insouciant when standing still, their game actions (jumping, running) are usually fast and focused.
■ Tough characters exemplify physical aggression. Often male—although Lara Croft would be classed as a tough character—they are frequently drawn with
exaggerated height and bulk. They use large, expansive gestures and tend to talk with their fists. Tough characters are frequently hypersexualized as well (see the next section). Ryu, from the Street Fighter series, is a tough character. Yosemite Sam is a tough character whose small stature leavens his toughness with a comic quality. Animations for tough characters are usually big and abrupt, fast moving and aggressive. Postures that lean forward, implying motion and action even where there is none, are common.
■ Cute characters are drawn with the proportions of human babies or baby animals: large eyes and oversized heads. They have rounded rather than angular bodies, dress in light colors, and have a general demeanor of cheerfulness, although they may exhibit moments of irritation or determination. Mario is the ultimate cute video game character. Animations of cute characters usually allow characters to achieve things that they physically could not accomplish in the real world: jumping wide gaps, climbing long ropes, firing weapons larger than themselves. They usually look innocent and detached.
■ Goofy characters have slightly odd proportions and funny-looking, inefficient walks and other movements. Their behavior is largely comedic. Like cool characters, they are seldom upset by anything for long, but their physical awkwardness means that they are definitely not cool. The Disney character named Goofy is
a perfect example; among video games, Crash Bandicoot is a goofy character. Animations for a goofy character in a game sometimes include the goofiness, as long as it doesn't affect the player's experience of the play. Tripping while running can be humorous, but if the character dies because of the visual joke, the player won't appreciate it. Instead, save the humor for cut-scenes or idle moments where there is no game impact.
These are of course far from all the cartoonlike character types possible; consider the mock-heroism of Dudley Do-Right and George of the Jungle, the twisted evil of the witch in Snow White, and so on. Figure 6.4 shows a variety of cartoonlike characters.
Note that for the most part, these are Western classifications. Art styles vary wildly among different cultures, particularly for characters. Japanese animation often uses large eyes and tiny mouths for characters, but the mouths sometimes swell to huge sizes when they shout, which looks grotesque to Americans. The anime style also sometimes gives cute childlike faces to sexually provocative women, producing—to Western eyes at least—somewhat disturbing results. European cartoon characters often seem ugly and strange to Americans, too. Asterix and Tintin, two exceptions, enjoy huge worldwide success. If you want your game to sell in a number of different countries, study those countries' native cartoon and comic styles closely to make sure you don't violate local expectations.
The design of art-driven characters depends considerably on the target audience.
For example, the adjectives cute and scary mean different things to a 5-year-old and a 25-year-old. Doom-style monsters certainly won't go down well in a Mario-esque adventure.
Conker's Bad Fur Day presented an interesting twist on this rule. Rare, the game's developer, transplanted their cute children's characters into a game for adults (or rather, adolescent boys), full of bad language and vulgar jokes. But it's a one-way transformation; you wouldn't want to insert the jokes into a game genuinely intended for children.
Hypersexualization refers to the practice of exaggerating the sexual attributes of men and women in order to make them more sexually appealing, at least to
teenagers. Male characters get extra-broad chests and shoulders, huge muscles, prominent jaws, and oversized hands and feet. Female characters get enormous breasts, extremely narrow waists, and wide hips. Skimpy clothing lets them display their physical attributes as much as possible, and sexually suggestive poses further drive the point home (as if there were any doubt). Both sexes boast unrealistic height, with heads that seem disproportionately small and with extra-long legs. High heels often further exaggerate women's height.
Kratos, from the God of War games, typifies the hypersexualized male character, as do most of the male characters in fighting games. Lara Croft is the best-known example of a hypersexualized female character among the hundreds populating any number of video games. Comic book superheroes (male and female) are also traditionally hypersexualized, a quality that got comic books into trouble with the U. S. Congress in the 1950s.
Such characters obviously sell well to young men and teenage boys, but by now these images are cliched. So many stereotypical he-men and babes have been created over the years that it's difficult to tell them apart, and any new game that relies on such images runs the risk of being lumped in with all the others. This may actually obscure any technological or game design advances you have made. Finally, hypersexualized characters really appeal only to a puerile audience. They actively discourage older players, who've seen it all before, and female players. Strip clubs are male preserves; a character that looks as if she just stepped out of one sends clear signals that female players are not wanted or welcome. (To give her her due, Lara Croft's hiking boots, backpack, and khaki clothing do set her apart from the common run of women clad in chain mail bikinis or skintight leather.)
In short, avoid hypersexualizing characters just for their titillation value. It limits your market and seldom adds much. You might get away with it if it's intentionally done for laughs; putting Cate Archer into a 1960s retro catsuit worked out well for the designers of No One Lives Forever because of the game's humorous context. But No One Lives Forever was also an excellent game in its own right. Big breasts won't sell a poor game, as the developers of Space Bunnies Must Die! discovered.