I finally got around to watching Fullmetal Alchemist a few weeks ago, and that show perfectly exemplifies what I want to talk about this week! The whole world has this European vibe.All the Military personnel wear blue, all the Homunculi wear black, Ishbalans all have dark skin and red eyes, and the resistance troops in Reole has dark skin like the Ishbalans. But Al and Ed are so unlike any of the other reoccurring characters that they really stand out among the rest of the cast. It’s all so brilliant!
Not pictured: me weeping uncontrollably.
Character design is not just about making a cool-looking or well-dressed person. It’s also about making sure the character matches all the other assets. That is, the character needs to look like he or she belongs in the world or with the other characters. It’s why you don’t see astronauts in fantasy settings.
Flying frogs? Sure. Astronauts? No.
One of the easiest ways to gain unity in your designs is to settle on a specific art style or theme. For instance, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Dishonored, and DOTA 2 all have very distinct and versatile art styles that really tie the game and characters together. Even a game like Team Fortress 2, with all it’s different hats and promotional cosmetic items, it still has a set of rules to help the game maintain a unified style.
Having a common theme or element can also help create a sense of unity. Fullmetal alchemist has a European vibe mixed, and Skyrim has the usual fantasy elements with some Norse elements thrown in. Even something as simple as a reoccurring symbol or color can solidify a style. For instance, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the Resistance series both feature a copious amount of yellow to help tie the games’ designs together.
The reoccurring theme is aliens killing people.
But unifying designs can also be a boon for gameplay as well. If quick enemy identification is important, it might be a good idea to design certain enemies or classes similarly. For example, the enemies in Dishonored fall into visually distinct classes. So it’s really easy to see if you are against a Weeper or an Aristocrat, even though each of the characters in a class are not 100% identical. In Far Cry 3, friendly characters wear blue and have blue flags on their vehicles, while the pirates all wear red and decorate hostile areas with red cloth. Even simpler examples are multiplayer games like Quake, Team Fortress 2, or Halo where blue and red teams fight. It makes it easy to know who and who not to kill.
Or you can just stab everybody. That works too.
But, there is also the possibility that you want a character to stand out among a large group. Then it might make sense to make to make your character a different from the rest. Going back to Fullmetal Alchemist, the reason why Ed wears a red coat is because no other character wears red! It makes it easier to make him the focus of a shot or of a scene. It’s a trick that Hollywood pretty much since the start of film. It has also been applied to games like Dynasty Warriors, where the screen can be filled with armies fighting a single person.
There is so much more that I can discus about this topic: unity, harmony, Gestalt principles. But that’s a bit much so I’ll have to save that for some other time. Just remember, when it comes to character design, make sure your character looks like they belong with the rest of the characters. If they are a part of a group, make sure they look like part of the group. And if you want to make a character a focal point, give the character a little something to make him or her stand out. Like I’ve said in pretty much any other article, play around with the design. Experiment. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Think things through and find what’s best for you!
Like I said, there’s a lot more to talk about on his subject, so if you got any questions or if you want me to explain something further just ask in the comments. Got something to add or dispute with me? Well, you might as well use the comments too. That’s all for character design for now. Next week we’ll get int...something else! Not sure yet but it'll be fun.