The Making of a Memorable Video Game Character

by David Giltinan

What keeps a video game character in our minds for years while others simply fizzle away? David from ARGcast explores this phenomenon.

Video game characters are a dime a dozen whether you’re looking at the heroes, villains, cronies, or side characters. Considering that there are usually more characters in a game than in your average movie, plus the number of gaming titles released per year eclipses that of films, it’s safe to say you’re more likely to see an out-of-work goomba than an out-of-work actor. That’s part of the reason why it’s so difficult to find a video game character that can truly stand out.

So what makes for a memorable video game character? Let’s paint this topic with broad strokes first and think up some fictional characters, period. Mickey Mouse, Batman, and Bart Simpson immediately come to mind, but why?

Profile, Personality and Empathy

A popular notion is that these are all characters with unique silhouettes. Chances are you’re going to guess who each of these famous figures are if all you had to go by was their shadow. Now add in some defining characteristics, such as Batman’s bat symbol on his chest or Mickey’s patented gloves, and you got a character who really starts to stand out.

Of course it’s not all visual appeal that gets us inspired by a particular character. Just like how there are defining visual traits, a memorable figure also has to have the type of personality that audiences can either relate to, or simply understand.

Using Batman again for example, many of us may never know what it feels like to be a billionaire playboy who goes out at night, dressed as a bat, delivering swift justice. However, we can all sympathize with his backstory as a child who senselessly lost his parents to street crime. What follows is sadness and mourning, along with a devotion to save others from the same sense of grief and anguish. These are all raw, human emotions that most of us can comprehend easily.

Creating a Pixel Person

We have pretty much determined at this point that a memorable character (in general) is any combination of the following: easily identifiable, unique visual traits, and a personality audiences can understand or relate to. How do we apply this to video game characters? Let’s bring up one of the most well known examples.

When most people think “video games,” what comes to mind? More times than not, it’s Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot Mario. Funny enough, Mario shares a lot in common with Disney’s Mickey Mouse. They both wear predominantly red clothing and white gloves, the top of their heads (Mickey’s ears, Mario’s cap) gives them away in silhouetted form, and they share a lighthearted and fun personality that pretty much everyone can understand and love. Being the face for their respective companies and also having cartoon-ishly high voices certainly contributes to this comparison.

Something More

What sets Mario (and every other video game character) apart, however, is the way they play. Unlike movies, TV shows, comics, and books, video games have the leg up in terms of interaction. This just adds another wrinkle gaming characters need to consider when trying to stand out.

Super Mario Bros., while not Mario’s first game, was the first time the koopa-stomping plumber nailed down what it feels like to play one of his games. It has become the gold standard for platformers ever since thanks to silky smooth movement and context-sensitive jump mechanics. This gameplay is so tied into Mario that it’s part of what makes him unique and memorable.

Let’s cut over to Street Fighter cover boy Ryu. Immediately, you understand him with the traditional Shotokan white gi and stoic behavior. Yet, despite these simple characteristics, most people will go with the  iconic sound bytes of “Hadouken!” and “Shoryuken!” That also goes to show that you don’t even need to be speaking in the same language as most of your audience to have such memorable voice lines. Don’t forget the actual moves that accompany these lines either.

There are indeed many factors that come into play for a video game character to maintain significant public reach. The way in which they do so might run under a variation of the general rule set, but otherwise it stays largely the same. These are figures who stand out not only in their fictional universe, but ours as well. They are fantastical and unique in a combination of ways and at varying degrees. Yet no matter what, they will always leave an imprint in our collective consciousness.

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