Game Philosophy: Character Design

I’m ready for my close-up!

Here’s another:


Today’s topic:
Character Design

So the topic of character design usually devolves into two lines of thoughts:
– Look how pretty/cool my character looks.
– Look how my character’s looks fits with their personality.

But I would like to start from the very beginning of character design, as many casual observers or new artists tend to forget the pure basic of character design, the very reason for why it’s important.

Character Design, at it’s pure core, is about making a character distinctive.

In the end, as ridiculous as it is, this:

is a thousand times better in terms of character design, than this:

Because no matter how much detail you put into your character’s costumes, how many different pieces of armor or shoulderpads or functional holsters for your huge-ass guns, it has no meaning if you can only barely tell the characters apart from a distance.

Of course, this is not to say that you can’t mix details with good character design, far from it, but it needs harmony. It needs to have a structure.

Take for example, Hotsuma from Shinobi, a game I once put on a list of underrated games:

There may be a bunch of details to his costume, the steel guards on his legs, the three circles on each of his knees, the amount of Kunais on his arms (seriously, that can’t be comfortable…), but in the end the details blend together into a greyish black, which makes that GIANT RED SCARF that much more noticable.

Details are fine, but they shouldn’t drown out your character with it. There should be a simple piece of the costume that catches your eye.

Don’t quote me on this, but I remember I once read that the character designer designed Hotsuma’s look specifically to be appealing to the eye when you look at him from the back, rather than from the front, because seeing how the game is a 3D Action Platformer, you will be seeing his back more than his front.

Either way, it definitely shows, because unlike most heroic characters who have their logo on their chest at the front…

Hotsuma has his on his back, holding the sheath for his cursed sword.

Not only that, but something I always found very distinctive about Hotsuma’s looks is how… androgynous he looks.

Unlike the typical male character in games, he stands very straight up instead of hunching down. His arms and legs are very thin and oddly his chest piece (though not so much in the first picture, possibly because it was drawn by a different artist) seems at times to be large enough to give something of a silhouette of breasts.

Couple that with the 4 eyes on his mask, and you’ve got something alien about him.

And that’s not even mentioning the scarf, which can actually be mistaken for long red Rapunzel-like hair if he moves fast enough.

The cynical people out there may say he outright fails as a Ninja in terms of being invisible, and I’ll be honest that it actually annoys me a bit too, but on the other hand, in terms of Character Design, this character is distinctive, looks cool and also has a design that’s functional in his gameplay.

The game’s sequel, Nightshade, introduces another character called Hibana:

She too has all the things that Hotsuma has in terms of character design (bar the Androgynous part, because sadly it seems character designers are generally afraid to put ambiguity in a character’s gender if it’s a woman, wonder why…) and yes, she too has long flowy things behind her. (Also, fun fact, her Japanese Voice Actress is Bayonetta’s. Seems she likes to voice badass women with sex appeal.)

Not only that, she’s wears friggin white, because THAT’s the colours ninjas use, right?

But again, she looks distinctive, she looks cool and you’re not gonna lose her out of your sight in the game.

Especially since all the characters she interacts with wear colours that immediately differentiates them from her.

This is not to say that it’s just the colours of their costumes that made them distinctive, it’s also their silhouettes. You’re not easily going to confuse Hibana with Kurohagane (first picture). Those big horns on it’s head kinda gives that away.

Nor will you confuse her for Hisui (second picture) because of her dress and hair. Also that big umbrella she uses as a weapon is also a dead giveaway.

Lack of differences in character designs is also part of why I think there should be more female main characters in stories.

Usually they’re just the token female character of a group of 5 people or something, and being the only girl is her only defining character.


A big part of the problem with character designs is the fact that the character designer only draws different aspects of muscular men, the only distinction between them being their costumes.

Adding enough women in there would immediately help it, because adding multiple different kinds of women with different body types would not only add variety in the cast, but would also give the audiences more distinctions to remember the whole group.

If you have 6 men, 2 of them having blond hair, 3 of them having black hair and 1 of them having red hair, chances are the redhead is the only one that immediately sticks in your head.

But have 3 men and 3 women, 2 men who have black hair, one man who has red hair, 2 women who are blond and 1 woman who has black hair, you will have an easier time picking them out, even if two women and two men have the same hair colour.

This is not me as a feminist saying this in support of better portrayal of female characters, this is me as an artist giving a solution to a problem.

Different races would help too, of course.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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