Kapzer's Realm

Characters in Games

Originally written in 2009
Original essay can be found here.

For a long time, characters have played a vital role in the development and promotion of videogames and game franchises. Game narratives, the mythology behind said narrative, and franchises are usually established around the characters of the game [gignews.com, 2000]. These characters, especially the main protagonist is usually found to be a selling point of the game. Characters have changed over time, usually getting more complex as time progresses. Trends have changed with time too, with gaming becoming more mainstream, recognised characters are reiterated and stereotypes are formed. These trends and stereotypes differ between genres also, and certain stereotypes prove to be more iconic than others. One of the prime examples used in this analysis will be Master Chief from the Halo trilogy as this character is an embodiment of successful character design.

Characters have been used in videogames from some of the very first games. Pac Man was the first videogame character ever, and is today recognised by billions of people. The character gave the game an identity, rather than just be an assortment of pixels moving around a screen [gamasutra.com, 2000]. This identity allowed people to be able to relate to the game with a projection of a recognisable being within. Toru Iwatani, creator of Pac Man, says that he got the inspiration from the character from a pizza with a slice missing (pictures above) [timesonline.co.uk, 2005]. He realised that this character could be a unisex identity, and would be able to attract females into gaming from the very beginning. Later, the ghosts in the game gained identities also [timesonline.co.uk, 2005], therefore giving the illusion of a narrative and depth to the game, whereas they were still basically an assortment of pixels. However, with names, these characters could gain labels helping to enforce identity, and an image and that provided a means of being able to market and commercialise the game.

Companies realised that characters in games was the way to go, and they started adapting characters to their own games. A good character improves a game, because the audience feel that they can relate to the one or more of the character’s traits in their own specific way. Whether it is a predetermined character or a customisable one, a part of the user’s persona is always reflected in the game protagonist. The Japanese, as they were for the large part of early gaming, were a step ahead of the West and many more characters begun to pop up. It became much more common within 8 and 16 bit consoles such as the icons of Sonic and Mario (pictures left). A common trait between early game characters is that they were not realistic. Sonic is a blue talking hedgehog and Mario is a fat Italian plumber. These two iconic characters were also not very detailed in terms of exposition, either. They have no background story, and there is little we know about the characters, except for a little about their friends [gamasutra.com, 1999]. However, back then the lack of story would suffice for an audience still relatively new to the idea of characters in games.

As technology has developed and time has passed, realism has become more prominent in character design in many cases. However, there is now a distinct difference between Western character design and Eastern character design. Known for unrealistic characters with little exposition [gamasutra.com, 2009] bar JRPGs where the characters have perhaps

overcomplicated expositions, the East has continued this trend into the modern age. It is said that these characters are designed for an Eastern audience, and not that of a global scale. Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPG) are a prime example of showing the unrealistic design of characters. Characters are reduces to archetypes and even in some cases caricatures – archetypes worked up to the level of stereotypes. Characters are clichéd into roles such as the ‘brooding hero’ (Cloud Strife, pictured), the whiny sidekick, and the exaggerated villain (Sephiroth, pictured) [destructoid.com, 2008]. This is seen in one of the more critically acclaimed titles, Final Fantasy VII. It is evident that Eastern games develop story first, and then characters, whereas the opposite is the case for the West. A good example for the West would be Army of Two, where the entire game is based around the two main characters of Rios and Salem, and the cooperative selling point using these characters provides.

There is a distinct difference in character design from Western companies. The characters from this part of the world are widely regarded as being more human and realistic, and only occasionally conforming to stereotypes, especially in the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre. It is also said that characters designed in the West are intended for a global audience by developing the characters first, and then developing the story around it. The West is well known for a culture with ‘faceless’ heroes, and in which very human characters are used. In recent times, it is more common that the character that the user plays has no distinct personality, but the projections from non playable characters, and the user’s projection of their own personality give the main protagonist a persona, and influence the narrative heavily. An example would be conflict – it is said that characters are facing challenges that affect them, and many others too [gignews.com, 2000].

However, even in Western RPGs the archetypes of heroes and villains are used, but are disguised by giving more options such as in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) where the player’s choices are split into “classes”. However, these are no longer regarded as archetypes, but more as avatars to represent the player’s persona. A good example of this would be World of Warcraft, which now boasts over 10 million users, 62% of the MMO market [wikipedia.org, 2008], proving that archetypes (character creation screen pictured), although disguised, can provide for good character design. This is because users can feel familiar with the class system – players don’t have to deal with too many ‘new’ roles at once. This is how character design differs between genres, with another example being Real Time Strategy (RTS) where character design is concentrated around multiple units, such as in Halo Wars. An example of this would be the flamethrower units, that clearly come across as pyromaniacs through the use of voice acting.

Another example would be the standard marine unit, who come across as the “gung-ho” trigger happy general infantry. This is an archetype found in most if not all RTS games, such as the G.I. from Command and Conquer, and the Space Marine from Dawn of War. Character design can also be geared towards certain audiences, in order to satisfy the customers.

Another iteration of avatars would be avatars in the literal sense. For the Nintendo Wii, users are able to play via a representation of themselves – the Mii. More recently with the New Xbox Experience, Microsoft have introduced avatars that provide the same function, a representation of the user in a visual form. Generally well received, as users enjoy being able to see themselves materialised on the screen. However, this is largely seen to only be done due to the expansion of gaming into the casual area. Therefore, it can be questioned whether this trend of avatars will last. There are reasons both for and against them lasting. In my opinion, the avatars will last because users enjoy seeing a visual representation of themselves, but on the other hand they will be, as they have always been, an unnecessary feature that has only been created to match the trend of gaming. Companies follow these trends in order to keep popularity and ultimately make money, therefore, as long as the casual trend lasts, so will avatars.

It can be said that characters exist in peoples’ heads; not as a commodity but as an idea. Therefore, players need to be able to identify with characters, and are able to do so in two main ways. Firstly is the predefined character whose persona has already been created and has a clearly laid out situation, personality, and aesthetic. Player’s are told the background story to the character and nothing is left for them to question [gamasutra.com, 2000]. A good example of this would be Marcus Fenix (pictured left) from Gears of War – his entire exposition is mentioned and his attitude is projected clearly. The other way is the “blank canvas” character, which is virtually just an empty vessel for your own personality and method of playing to fill [gamasutra.com, 2000]. This is done very well in Halo where a player may project their own persona into the mostly silent protagonist. The latter option is becoming increasingly common with the amount of sandbox games like Far Cry 2 and large scale RPGs such as Fallout 3 and Fable II being released. These RPGs would traditionally force a player to do things in a linear manner and have a character with a distinct look and exposition. Games today are tending towards including much more “blank canvas” elements, especially with characters. However, the former of linear games still succeed in the market. A question about linear games rises from this – would players want to customise main protagonists such as Marcus Fenix? There is a chance that a small minority of gamers would indeed like to customise Fenix’s features, but the majority would be against this. The reason for this is that as a linear game, the exposition and aesthetic of the characters is predetermined, therefore everything that is there was intended to be there in the way that it is in order to have the effect that the game’s developers intended to have upon the player.. Changing this would in turn change the resulting effect upon the player, and could possibly lead to a diminished game experience.

The main protagonist from the Halo trilogy, Master Chief (pictured left), is regarded as one of the most successful modern character designs in games. One of the reasons to the success of the character’s design is that Master Chief is essentially a “blank canvas” character. If Master Chief were to be compared to a film action hero, it can be said that he resembles Clint Eastwood who is described to match the blueprint of the perfect action hero [Connell, 1995]. However, you never get to see Master Chief’s face as he is always wearing his helmet excluding one event at the end of Halo: Combat Evolved where

he takes off his helmet but camera movement does not allow the player to see the face, and another event in a teaser trailer for Halo 3 (pictured, below). It can be argued that the actual identity of Master Chief is in the eye of the player. Another reason for the character’s success would be that the design can be related to real world issues. Master Chief is a bioengineered soldier – this can suggest a supporting view of genetic augmentation. The game shows that the results of such actions can be magnificent and can create a being like Master Chief. This is a popular contemporary ‘myth’ and can be used as a storytelling trope. People can relate to these issues as they exist in real life, and can therefore feel some sort of connection between humanity and the character. Reasons like these are the reasons why game characters can become so successful and iconic that even non-gamers recognise them. This line up of “elite” characters includes the likes of Master Chief.

On the other hand, not all game characters succeed. There are some characters that are destined to fail, each for their own reasons. One example would be Crash Bandicoot (pictured, left), a Western version of the old Eastern iconic game characters like Sonic. The main reason that this character failed was because it was simply too late for a character with no exposition. There is no room in today’s gaming world for characters like Crash, who died out after the 90s [g4tv.com, 2008]. Another failed game character would be Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2 where he was introduced as a new character, but the game was intentionally set up so it made you think you were playing as the series’ true main protagonist, Solid Snake [videogames.suite101.com, 2007]. Tricking the player was widely regarded as a bad idea, especially when they had grown accustomed to Solid Snake from the first instalment in the saga. This is because it could be seen as playing about too much with the brand that players are familiar with. Other examples of this could be Shadow The Hedgehog, and the upcoming Halo 3: ODST. 

Failures of game character design like those mentioned can only make one question the future of character design. It is evident that in the immediate and short term, the East and West will continue to differ in terms of distinct differences with the west concentrating on realistic human characters and the East tending to archetypal figures. The increasing trend of sandbox games and “blank canvas” characters will continue to expand also, allowing a large mix of predetermined characters and customisable characters, as well as the use of avatars. MMORPGs will continue to have avatars instead of playable characters, with the user’s customisation and persona projected into the avatar. More successful and iconic characters such as Master Chief and Gordon Freeman from the Half Life series will be created. Characters that fail such as Crash Bandicoot will also be created, inevitably, as games are not perfect, and are still an expression of art subject to audience tastes and current market situation. This situation will remain in the long term future also, as perfection can never be obtained when it is a medium set to entertain.




Halo: Combat Evolved, 2001, Bungie Studios

Halo 2, 2004, Bungie Studios

Halo 3, 2007, Bungie Studios

Final Fantasy VII, 1997, Square Co.

Company of Heroes, 2007, Relic Entertainment

World of Warcraft, 2004, Blizzard Entertainment

Gears of War, 2006, Epic Games

City of Heroes/Villains, 2004, Cryptic Studios



Archer, John. 1994, Warrior Values, in: Male Violence, Routledge Publishers

Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities, Polity Press



“Mr Pac Man”
August 3, 2005

“Building Character”
June 20, 2000

“Character-Based Game Design”
November, 2000

“Player Character Concepts”
November 8, 1999

“If you love it, change it: JRPGs”
May 23, 2008

World of Warcraft
April, 2008

“Master Chief”
January 20, 2007

“Epic Fail: Game Main Characters”
March 27, 2008

“Five Worst Videogame Heroes”
February 28, 2007

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