Characters, and more specifically character design, is a central aspect to what makes gaming such an evergreen medium and instant nostalgia trigger. Games tend to be a more time-consuming pastime than film and sometimes even books, so you’re spending large amounts of time with fictional people (or monsters). The result is often extremely special. Think about the iconic Final Fantasy VII and the death of Aerith Gainsborough. Gamers collectively wept at her untimely demise, and how would this be possible were it not for the exceptional character and narrative design that went into creating Aerith in the first place.
Gaming has also introduced an incredible amount of characters to the pop culture canon and we simply cannot get enough.
Aerith isn’t the only amazing character to stem from the Final Fantasy universe, she’s actually one of… many. Final Fantasy and the worlds they depict are positively brimming with diverse and distinctive characters. We’re talking quirky mages, bunny ladies, mysterious swordsmen and some iconic hybrid creatures that’ll win your heart and also probably beat you to a pulp. The characters are largely designed by either Tetsuya Nomura and Yoshitaka Amano and man, these guys know what they’re doing.
There are a lot of fighting games that boast some incredible characters and rosters. Heck, good character design is enough to get me to shell out some $$$ on a game, to be honest. From the colourful scrappers in Street Fighter to the Conan meets Robocop vibes of Mortal Kombat, there’s usually a feast for your eyes and thumbs to be found.
One fighting title, however, stands out. By a lot. That is the one and only Soul Calibur. Soul Calibur has a very unique visual style, blending international aesthetics and period garb through a uniquely Japanese lens. This results in something that is a cross between sand and sandal, high camp and pomp anime splendour. Think of Voldo’s insane accoutrements, Taki’s incredible shinobi attire and Ivy’s… anyway, there’s a lot to love and admire in SC’s design.
Tomb Raider, specifically Lara Croft, is an iconic character that has truly stood the test of time. She’s remained gaming’s top heroine through the years even though she’s undergone a bevvy of transformations and redesigns. She’s a kickass archaeologist, a buxom British lady and a scrappy fighter with enough appeal to launch loads of games, merch and movies. Iconic doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The Last of Us
The gritty, post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us is made memorable by the deeply burdened and traumatised people who populate it. This bleak vision of America in crisis is a haunting exploration of human nature and relationships and one of the more harrowing gaming experiences out there. Joel and Ellie carry much of the narrative weight and props must be given to the incredible artists and actors that have brought them to life because you would be very hard-pressed to find more human and relatable characters in the medium. A triumph of character overall.
The zany, cartoon-ish planet of Pandora is home to a motley crew of scientists, mercenaries, bots and sirens, each one more unnerved and crazy than the next. Borderlands might suffer a bit in terms of narrative excellence, but the moments that do allow its cast to do their thing and go for broke in this violent and hilarious tale feel ripped straight out of a Tank Girl comic.
The Legend of Zelda
Few gaming duos this side of Mario and Luigi are as memorable and evergreen as Link and Zelda. This hero and damsel pair are two of gamings most enduring characters and the stories they are in have always spawned legions of fans and inspired true love and dedication. Just the simple aspects of Link’s character like his green outfit and bright blonde hair renders him instantly recognisable and iconic.
Pokemon is one of those games that will never be completely forgotten from public memory or cultural relevance. This is in large part due to the extremely expansive and diverse roster of monsters at your disposal. People form intense and loyal connections to their Pokemon of choice and literally spend hours combing the game worlds to get the best Pokemon and train them until they are god tier. It also helps that each character (read: Pokemon) has been lovingly rendered and spec’d to slot into the worlds around them perfectly, and have real relevance in anyone’s roster.
The monsters, rivals and gym bosses that makeup Pokemon’s unique ecosystem must surely be one of gaming’s great feats.
Now we know that throwing this in here is a risky move, seeing as Cyberpunk is about as glitches as one of the braindances it features, but come on. The denizens of Night City are absolutely insane… when they’re not low-poly or clipping in and out of a cyber truck. From lavish body modifications to street fashion taken to the nth degree, Cyberpunk features some truly outlandish and memorable character designs. Dress up, shoot straight, samurai.
Resident Evil is the epitome of body horror, zombies and cool characters looking impossibly good while warding off both. Another gaming mainstay, the RE franchise has veered from gritty realism to over the top camp to a bit of both and that is when the series truly nails its landing. Think of the total norm bro Ethan Winters swearing off against the impossibly glamorous Alcina Dimitrescu - it’s the stuff legends are made of. Or take Ada Wong for example, in a red silk gown with a thigh-high slit, zooming in and out of plague-infested Spain shooting a crossbow. It just doesn’t get much better than this.
These are our favourite games with impeccable character design and we’d love to hear your thoughts. In trying to find some common denominators in the above titles, the only discernible commonality is that most of the series has been in existence for a long, long time. Whether the character design was the root cause of it or a byproduct of the titles’ legacy aspects - well, we simply do not know. But I’d hazard a guess it’s the former. ;)
- Dante Ludolf
- Dante Ludolf