Friday, January 20, 2012

Character Design: The Style of Substance

So there's a post that I think we should talk about. This one right here. This is a post by an artist for League of Legends defending a female character's design in meta-terms such as "readability" and "engagement" and "silhouette" - the usual terminology, common in gamer knowledge basically since Valve explained their character designs for Team Fortress 2. In essence, his argument is that character design in a meta-sense (i.e. characters designed by artists for an audience, rather than characters made to look believable) explains why the character is the way it is despite the occasional protest from those who feel her design is somewhat unbalanced.

Here's the character he's talking about.

One of the recurring themes of his defense of this character is the need to identify the character's gender. Whether it's in terms of her equipment or her physique, there's this sort of overwhelming need for gender to be reinforced by her design. To cherry-pick some quotes:
"So, we do often I believe have to make sure we're making sure to make sure that the figure is readable as a guy or girl. How do we do this? Well, proportion, accentuation, exaggeration, etc."
"If we make her too broad, you might mistake Sejuani for a male, that'd be, ya know, not what we want."
"Thickening her up, while addressing how a chick could wield such a weapon comes at a risk of her looking like a male also."

Here's a question that I don't think is unfair to ask: why is that important? Because that's the #1 thing he focuses on, apart from the occasional mention of "working within pre-established motifs" (which has its own problems, but one step at a time). Shouldn't a character's status as a warrior or a mage or a thief or any other class/profession be more important than their gender? It's just generally established that you need to be able to tell what gender a character is, because if you couldn't then (???).

Additionally, a huge amount of his post is dedicated to the idea of a "silhouette", which I think you'll notice has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she's wearing a bikini top. He's doing a bit of a clever job with word usage, making it seem like he's actually justifying that design, and all he's really saying is "we wanted it to make it look like a hot chick and our target audience wants to see hot chicks, ergo she's a hot chick, deal with it".

His justification reminds me a lot of my complaint with Soul Calibur, which was that many of the characters were designed in that meta-sense of appealing to fans and not in the sense of actually connecting their design to their characters or using them to illustrate something about said characters. However, the contrast was that Soul Calibur also had a few more reasonable characters (including female characters) whereas League of Legends' lack of such characters is why there were complaints in the first place. To sort of "work our way up from the bottom", let's look at the basic things that should go into believable character design.

The first aspect of a character's design - and I say "first" because the other bits can be sort of layered over it - is utility, which refers to the aspects of a character's design that are based on cause-and-effect relationships. While what might spring to mind most readily is something like reasonable armor or clothing, this also includes things like a physique that matches a character's lifestyle and skillset, and physical attributes such as scars or even a character's hairstyle (such as the Norman and Japanese hairstyles designed around cushioning helmets) that can be connected to their background. Basically, I'm talking about anything that the character would choose to wear for a logical reason in-universe, or any part of a character's design that makes sense as something that happened to that character.

The purpose of utility in character design is to illustrate how the character is affected by the world and how the character intends to affect the world. The thing about "meta-designs" is that they sort of exist in a vacuum: the artist sat down and made something s/he thought looked good, and that's the end of that story. In contrast, a character's utility or justified lack thereof says a lot about how seriously they take their work. A character clad head to toe in armor reinforces the idea that armor helps avoid dying, which then reinforces the idea that dying is a bad thing, which - simple as it may sound - creates tension. A character who bundles up in an arctic environment is conveying the climate as something other than "the ground is white and there's flakes in the air". A character who is scarred is an obvious veteran; I mean, that's basically the simplest indicator of veterancy there is. If you took two characters and drew scars on one of them, bam, nothing else needed, the scarred one has seen some serious business. If there's a story behind each scar, even better. The elements of the design help tell a story with the character, and thus become relevant to the story.

Conversely, a character who intentionally shuns utility, or in the case of physical modification has managed to avoid such things, is made actually interesting if "utility" is the norm. For example, if there was a character who chose not to wear armor out of a sense of personal chivalry or honor, that would be far more meaningful in a setting where it's established that not wearing armor is a bad idea. It would be established that the stakes are higher for the character because people who don't wear armor tend to end up dead, which (again) creates more tension. If a character is unmarred in a world where every other warrior is realistically torn up and mangled, the audience (or readers, or players) can note the difference rather than simply writing him off as another regular guy. The contrast needs to exist in order for those things to be meaningful.

It's also possible to have designs that have only partial utility - that recognize a concept like "armor is good", but don't exactly follow it through. This is also the field of the meta-design, where parts of a character's design are used as a sort of visual shorthand without actually understanding the basic principles they're meant to represent. Skyrim was guilty of this quite a bit, which honestly was worse because of the fact that the game was so good at representing weather effects. Both the "armor" and "clothing" aspects of steel plate are sort of not-quite right: there's a solid cuirass with a warm layer of fur underneath it, but then there's no arm coverage at all and the shape of the plate itself leaves some unnecessary openings. Essentially, they included two elements that were reasonable, theoretically, but then didn't actually think them out in terms of how the character wearing them would react.

The benefit of having utility be fully, rather than partially, represented is that it allows the audience to tap into a lot of the sensory information lacking in an audio/visual medium, whether it's something as intense as pain and impact or something as simple as warmth or chill. I singled out Skyrim in the last paragraph because, as I mentioned, they did very well with the weather effects, enough so that I was able to truly imagine the feel of the wind and the cold air. It was therefore reasonably unimmersive when I couldn't really get any clothing that seemed up to the task of keeping a character warm under such circumstances, which is strange when you include the fact that "it's cold here" was basically the entire theme of the game's setting. It represented a break in an otherwise well-rendered product, which made it more severe.

Finally, "utility" is basically going to be the same for a man and a woman. There's no way around it, at least for the majority of situations. A suit of armor is not going to need to be significantly different for a man and a woman because well-designed armor is shaped to be effective, not to be representative of its wearer. Unless armor is very thin, there's basically no need to make it conform to a character's physique, and even if that is done, there's right ways and wrong ways to go about doing it. Clothing is pretty much similar; a parka's going to be a parka no matter who's under it. The problems with female designs almost always arise from it being designed "by artists, for audiences" rather than being examined from an in-universe perspective. Yet, strangely enough, this same phenomenon is one of the most persuasive in terms of actually conveying the benefits of believability. People who don't really care about armor design or reasonable clothing in fantasy are still often a bit "put off" by the depiction of female characters, which raises questions about utility, which then lead to questions of their own. Basically, I'm saying that people who don't really care about believability are confronted with female designs so ridiculous that their suspension of disbelief is shattered and they begin to say things like "wait a minute that doesn't make sense from multiple perspectives", which is a net gain for people like me.

Of course, people don't only choose to wear what makes sense in a utilitarian sense. People have their own sense of aesthetics and fashion that affects what they choose to wear and in which situations they choose to wear it. The problem with this in a lot of character design is that (a) "style" is treated as being totally the opposite of "utility", as opposed to something that can be blended with it, and/or (b) the "style" in question is usually the artist's, not something justified as being related to the character's mindset. A character's sense of style can say as much about that character as their choices with regard to utility, so conveying that aspect of a character is just as important in terms of character design as an aggregate of a character's choices.

Let's start with style as a reflection of the character. There's plenty of ways that a character's culture and background can be tied to their visual appearance; in fact, pretty much anything the character wears (or any modification they make to their body, such as piercings, tattoos, and hair styles) can be representative of a culture if done properly. Let's say a film is set during the Crusades. By contrasting European and Middle-Eastern fashions, it's easy to establish who belongs to each culture. Furthermore, due to the long-term nature of the Crusader Kingdoms, many crusaders became somewhat "nativized", adopting Middle Eastern customs out of either utility or simple appreciation for their culture. Hence it was often easy to tell the difference between a first-generation Crusader, new to the Holy Land, and a second-generation Crusader, born to those who'd been came before. This is only one limited example, but it illustrates the ways in which an aesthetic design can be used for something beyond simple audience reactions and actually provide context and clues for the audience as well.

Furthermore, it's utterly fallacious to say that "style" by necessity means sacrificing utility. In some cases, of course, it does, but there were many ways to combine a sense of style and utility in cultures all around the world. The thing is, armor was worn by people, and people generally have a sense of style even in serious situations; they just look for ways to include stylistic choices without compromising an outfit's utility (and they know that if they DO compromise utility, they're going to pay a price for it). Even looking exclusively at clothing worn with armor (not even the armor itself), there's surcoats, tabards, jackets, skirts, tunics, puffed shirts, capes, cloaks, robes, plumes, and flags worn on your back. Some of you might notice some less-than-utilitarian items in that list, at least for combat purposes, and my counter is that they were generally useful in another sense, whether it was warmth or recognition (by other people, not by the audience). If you said they'd generally take those items off to fight, because a hindrance is a hindrance no matter how you cut it, you'd be totally right. I'm giving you a lot of credit here, but I think you've earned it, hypothetical reader.

I'd like to link to a rather interesting thread that notes (based on translations of French texts) that the Knights Hospitallier, almost intrinsically linked with the monastic concept of wearing robes into battle, in fact objected to them on utilitarian grounds and were eventually permitted by the Pope to not have to wear them if necessary. When I was talking earlier about "a contrasted lack of utility", that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. That situation would never arise unless the effects of clothing on combat effectiveness was represented, because everyone would wear what they want. Hence the religious devotion of wearing robes on the battlefield was established by the fact that the robes got in the way, which may seem like a little thing, but it's more than "they wear robes because they're monks, the end".

I talked about female designs from a utility perspective (that perspective being "there's no reason to have female designs be different from male designs"), but I'm also going to address them from the viewpoint of a character's style. This is because "style" is one of the most common arguments that I, personally, have seen in defense of female characters having overtly feminine designs, refusing to wear helmets, dressing in titillating manners, and so on. While it's certainly true that many female characters could be justified in dressing in such ways (fairly easily, at that), the more important point is that designers don't really care. For Soul Calibur, I objected to two characters: Isabella Valentine, the chaste noblewoman alchemist who dresses like a dominatrix, and Sophitia Alexandra, the pure religious devotee who by SC4 is wearing literally two thin strips of linen over her breasts. I also pointed out several characters who lived in climates that supported more skimpy clothing, or who had personalities/backgrounds that would justify them. The problem is not "girls dress skimpy" or "girls have big tits" by themselves, but rather the fact that these attributes almost always feel like "the artist needs to include some boobs so that 14-year-old boys will buy it". A character's style and sense of fashion are reflective of their characters and their cultures, so there are ways to basically justify any outfit you care to name - it's just something you have to actually do, rather than relying on the audience (including the ever-critical feminist audience) to be like "oh okay that makes sense you've objectified her, good enough for me".

I'd like to take some final time here to acknowledge medieval Japanese designs, which serve as a quite interesting examination of a sort of "tug of war" between style and utility. Basically, the samurai had a lot of little things that started as utility and turned into style, or started as style and turned into utility, or even just sort of moved between them. Some examples:

- The samurai haircut, or chonmage, started as a utilitarian concept: it was designed to hold one's helmet in place. However, the fact that it became so common among samurai for that utilitarian reason meant that it became a sort of cultural standard, associated with the samurai class and the tradition they entailed.

- Samurai armor was both useful for defensive purposes and highly stylized due to the nature of its construction. The combination of lacquered scales/lames, colored lace (used to hold the armor together), and the clothing worn underneath meant that samurai were highly colorful and noticeable without sacrificing much in terms of defense. Later, during the Sengoku period, mass-produced breastplates made of banded steel plates were actually designed to look like older, more fashionable lamellar. That's not to mention helmet crests, which got more ridiculous the further up the chain of command you got (essentially trading combat utility, which was less needed if you were a high-ranking officer, for recognizability).

- Ritualized combat between warriors during battles was an expected norm during feudal-era battles, and this was arguably due in large part to Japan's insular nature. Japan's early civil wars were as much a ritualized affair of honor and personal esteem as they were about actual conquest. As such, most "battles" in Japan consisted of individual Samurai challenging each other to duels - because "style" was more important than "utility". For much the same reason, the Japanese eschewed the use of shields despite the importance of the bow in their culture. While many tenets of Bushido were created long after the period was actually over, martial honor in Japanese society was still very influential with regards to how their tactics evolved.

- The ritualized nature of samurai combat was most notably tested during the Mongol invasion of 1274, where a Japanese force met a combined group of Mongols, Chinese, and Koreans, using weapons and technology from the far reaches of their empire. The Japanese, who hadn't had a "proper war" in decades, attempted to carry out combat based on their ritualized, honor-based system. This failed miserably. It was several strokes of luck, such as delays on the parts of the Mongols and famously stormy weather, that beat the Mongols back, not martial prowess. When the Mongols invaded again in 1281, the Japanese were more ready for them, having fortified the coastline and adapted their tactics to a more skirmish-oriented mindset. Again, of course, it was the storm that truly won the battle, but it's a clear example of the Japanese adapting to a new enemy, trading style for necessary utility.

The reason these examples interest me is because they're stories about changing environments. They're an evolution, and in some cases a tradeoff. The rules of reality still applied to the samurai, just like they did to everyone else. It's just that, in most cases, they didn't care because combat was about ritual, not results - and when they found reasons to take it seriously, they moved towards utility. I could easily cite dozens of other warrior cultures that had similar concepts, such as the gladiators (whose outfits were designed entirely to draw a crowd, and yet still always included a helmet), but the point is made, I think. It's entirely possible to make a character whose design is (a) distinctive, (b) stylish, (c) justifiable, and (d) relevant, all without having to resort to bikini tops on your winter-themed warrior characters in the name of "silhouettes".


  1. Just wanted to pop in and say that this has been a great example of where a solid understanding of establishing meaning in design translates into an insightful blog post. Useful outside of game design even.

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    2. I agree, thanks for an informative and entertaining article!

  2. While we're on the subject of Soul Calibur...have you seen some of the advertisement posters for SCV? It's a new low for the series, and that's saying something. .. .. The first one translates to "Go big or go home."

  3. I'm gonna be honest, that doesn't bother me as much as it should. I'd be perfectly okay with, say, an equivalent poster showing Mitsurugi's bare chest or something, but of course the Feminine/Masculine Unequal Sexualization Returns issue would mean that wouldn't be good enough to balance it out.

    1. I wouldn't want one of Mitsurugi's bare chest either though. Because to me, it completely fails as an advertisement to the game. I fully expect giant boobs flying all over the place in Soul Calibur, or any other fighting game. But when a poster advertising the game (something that is supposed to A) sum up the game in a single image, and b) entice me to want to buy the game) says "buy SCV: We have T&A and it will make your penis happy" in such a blatant way offends me. And I honestly don't get offended that easy. But I feel like it's insulting me as a customer because "Well obviously anyone who buys Soul Calibur wants some hot chesticles in their face." To me this poster goes beyond having Ivy dress like a dominatrix and having every character's bust size inflate every game.

    2. But it does sum up the game in a single image.

    3. Fun fact about Soul Calibur IV, though, it's easier to create a reasonable female character there than in basically any other game I can name simply because they give you so many options. Of course it's easy to make a scantily-clad or ridiculously-clad character as well, but choice is choice and it's wholly possible to make a female knight clad head-to-toe in plate and mail, a female samurai with all the standard accouterments of that particular class, and other such combinations. The body types allow you to go from totally flat to hilariously large-chested (as opposed to many boob sliders which go from "large" to "very large"), and the "muscle slider" has a pretty extraordinary range too.

      So in short I like Soul Calibur because it gives me the tools to make actual good designs, which is honestly why I don't care as much as one might think about their bad ones.

  4. I agree that making the outfit fit the environment is key for being immersed in the storyline. When Princess Leia showed up in her slave outfit with Jabba the Hutt the outfit was extremely revealing. That made sense because part of Jabba's purpose was to denigrate her. It was not meant to be protective.

    However, when a fighting game presents a woman in a chain mail bikini, while the men around her are in full plate, it just looks silly. A woman still has a jugular vein in her neck. She still has a femoral artery in her upper thigh. She would want to protect these life-threatening-injury areas just as much as a man would.

    It figures - in the image shown above with the woman knight being held, her outfit has a giant gap right where the femoral artery is. A sword strike would almost be directed there by the metal.

    1. you mean the part where there's chain mail

    2. Yes, the chain mail is laying loose on top of the leg armor. The sword would hit the metal on the leg, slide right up that metal, and there's nothing to stop the sword from going right into the thigh there. The chain mail is a pair of briefs; that wouldn't be any help with a sword skittering with force up the leg. The color in that gap is the same color as her bare hands.

      More well designed suits of armor would not have the leg stop like that, for that reason. Leg strikes were quite common. Instead, in one style, the upper armor would extend down so that the sword was caught and not allowed into that region. In other styles, the legs would be front-pieces to a more solid chain base beneath.

    3. Her hands and legs aren't bare, that's padded cloth. Why the hell would she have bare hands and legs?

    4. I respectfully choose to disagree. He has bare hands; many swordfighters keep their hands bare for a secure grip. Cloth would slide, especially once sweaty. They would wear leather if they wore gloves.

      Even if we assumed that she had flesh-colored padded cloth on her leg, that would not slow down a fast-moving sharp metal sword for more than a hundredth of a second.

    5. You can't "respectfully disagree" about it. Click the picture and look at the larger version, it looks nothing like bear skin. It might be cloth or it might be leather, it's NOT bare, and it's not a particularly unconventional design, either.

  5. I agree that making the outfit fit the environment is key for being immersed in the storyline. your concept picture a beautiful and nice.thanks for sharing.this post.Thanks

  6. Thanks for this article! Being a girl, when I look at games/shows where girls end up fighting in next to no clothing I can't sympathize with them. It would be nice to be stylish, but before all else I'd want the best damn armour I could wear without slowing to a turtle's speed

  7. Great article! Very informative and useful in character design of any medium, as others have also stated. Thanks.

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  9. Just wanna say, that you're awesome. This article awesome. It's totaly true about environment and style. About veteran crusader and some new crusader difference are great examples.

  10. Armor can still be very stylistic and utilitarian. Just look at Hellenic muscle armours. They have no need for nipples on the armour but they do because the Greeks believed the human form to be beautiful.

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