Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

Video game character art

A brief history of game characters
In order to really understand and appreciate the visual design of game characters today, we need to spend some time considering the history of game characters. Clearly, this is an extended and deeply complex history, with characters appearing not only across an eclectic range of gaming platforms, but also within a variety of styles and genres. In this video, I won’t aim to provide an exhaustive list of notable game characters. Instead, I want to cover some of the key developments in game technology from the past few decades, and discuss the impact on the visualisation of game characters. Firstly, we need to acknowledge the earliest digital games. Some of the titles typically identified
as being among the first computer games include: Tennis for Two– an experimental game that served as the predecessor to Pong; Mouse in the Maze, which featured a ‘mouse,’ represented by a dot, working its way through a maze drawn by the player; and Spacewar!, which required two players to take control of spaceships and compete against each other. It would be a mistake to skip over these early, non-character based games when trying to establish an historical timeline for game characters. While they might not be characters as we know them today, the early novelty of having direct control over a digital object is vital to our understanding of player interaction within digital worlds.
The forming of a link between player input and visual feedback on a digital display– seeing an object move left or right, up or down, forwards or backwards when explicitly commanded to do so– is really our start point for representation of player intent in a digital space. Furthermore, interaction with computer-controlled objects could be considered the genesis of digital non-playable characters, or NPCs. Again, these might not have looked or sounded like the characters we see in games today. But players interacting with these limited graphical objects could project human personalities on to the blocky graphics, accusing them of malice or of cheating, of being sly or of being ruthless.
In other words, although it was only a dot-shaped ‘mouse’ or a visual blip that looked something like a spaceship, we could argue that these objects were effectively early examples of game characters.
The commercialisation of computer games via the arcades in the 1970s led to rapid improvements in game character visuals. Graphics that can be recognised as characters– however loosely– helped to grab consumer attention and provide video games within basic narrative contexts. One of the first games to clearly depict representations of human-like characters was Gun Fight. Played as either a single or two player game, Gun Fight featured simplistic animated character graphics, with gameplay based on a Western-style duel. In 1976, Sega developed Fonz, a racing game based on the hit US television series Happy Days. Although it was a racing game, the Fonz character was shown in the game world.
this milestone arcade game also demonstrated that characters from existing media franchises and storyworlds could make the leap into cyberspace, foreshadowing the potential for video games to take influence from narrative media such as television and film.
Among the most noteworthy examples of early arcade games featuring virtual characters were Space invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Frogger. These classic games set new benchmarks not only for gameplay quality, but also for game character presentation. In particular, Pac-Man was one of the first games to establish a cast of characters– Pac-Man as the player character and a set of four, distinctive non-player characters, Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, each of which had their own colour and personality. By the end of this period, it became clear that game characters were vital to the branding and success of many games.
Lamentations in computer power still meant that characters had very basic graphics and sound effects, but this was rectified through the use of detailed art on the physical arcade cabinets, encouraging players to imagine that the pixelated forms shown on the screen were actually much more complex characters.
While the arcades established video games as a commercially viable entertainment medium, it was emergence of affordable home computers that really brought gaming and virtual characters to the masses. A multitude of game systems made their way into living rooms and bedrooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Not all of these devices achieved great success, but platforms such as the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and the hugely influential Nintendo Entertainment System changed the nature of home entertainment forever. Game characters became more graphically advanced, showcased more detailed animation, were empowered with a wider set of gameplay actions, and found their voice through dialogue and narrative exposition.
Notable game characters from this period include Pitfall Harry from the iconic Atari 2600 game Pitfall and Dizzy, the cartoon egg adventurer created by the Oliver Twins. During this period, it was arguably Nintendo, and designer Shigeru Miyamoto, that was responsible for the creation of a new generation of gaming icons. In 1985, the release of Super Mario Bros. Can be identified as a launchpad for arguably the most important game character of all time. Mario evolved from Jumpman in the earlier Donkey Kong, but would go on to become arguably the most recognisable character of all time. Other notable Nintendo characters still an active service today made their debuts in the 1980s, including Samus Aran in Metroid and Link in The Legend of Zelda.
To this day, these three franchises are still hugely important to Nintendo.
While many designers were presently players with skill-based and strategic challenges, others were looking to create games that more closely resembled a form of interactive fiction. The graphical adventure genre led to the emergence of much more detail the game characters, with fleshed out personalities. Although the genre ultimately declined in the mid 1990s, it gave rise to some of the most important and influential game characters of all time. Arguably, it was Lucasfilm Games that were the masters of the graphical adventure. Games such as Maniac Mansion introduced characters that had a greater quality and depth of personality than many of the other virtual characters of the day, and featured cut-scenes that allowed for more advanced narrative exposition.
Perhaps the most memorable adventure game characters of this period were the characters that were first featured in The Secret of Monkey Island. Guybrush Threepwood, the protagonist of The Secret of Monkey Island, was a groundbreaking game character. Guybrush demonstrated a range of subtle yet easily recognisable personality traits, delivered memorable lines of dialogue, and frequently engage with the player directly by breaking the fourth wall.
The 16- and 32-bit eras of game consoles of the 1990s ushered in richer graphics, with more colours, more frames of animation, and of course, the use of 3D. Many of the characters that were popular during this period fitted with a particular aesthetic, which we might identify as anthropomorphised attitude! Animal heroes such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Earthworm Jim, and Crash Bandicoot came to dominate 90s gaming culture, particularly amongst the young teens who were among the first who grew up with home video games. To an extent, these characters became the mascots of companies, with Sonic and Crash Bandicoot in particular becoming strongly associated with the success of the Sega Mega Drive on Sony PlayStation.
As we noted, the ’90s also ushered in true 3D graphics. 3D games had existed on earlier computers and platforms, but it was the arrival of the Playstation Sega Saturn in 1994, and later the N64 in 1996, that marked the widespread use of 3D characters in games. New characters such as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider opened up new possibilities for the performance of game characters. Characters in games could now negotiate virtual environments in ways that were much more familiar to us. Full movement in the X, Y, and Z axes of 3D space helped to bridge the gap between reality and virtual reality, and in consequence what followed was a gradual enhancement in the realism of virtual characters.
True 3D was also the precursor for a shift in the dominant genres of video game. By the end of the 20th century, the first person shooter had arguably replaced the platformer as the most popular and well known genre of game. The game was frequently cited as the landmark FPS is Doom, but games such as GoldenEye 007 and Half-Life would introduce more detailed character models and more memorable storylines.
In the mid to late 1990s, another technological evolution
impacted on game character design: the widespread availability and increasing speed of Internet connections. Online gaming became more accessible, and RPG developers were among the first to capitalise on this new aspect of game design. MMORPGS, massively multiplayer online role playing games, such as Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Star Wars Galaxies opened up new opportunities for game character customisation and social interaction in virtual worlds. The term ‘avatar’ entered the mainstream gaming vocabulary, and players became increasingly attached and devoted to their virtual identities. While online play had existed for many years, the arrival of MMORPGs towards the end of the 20th century changed the way gamers engaged with characters.
For visual design, the power to exercise a high level of control over the visual appearance of a character really took off with MMOs. Character customisation is now a common feature of most online and many single player games. The combination of advanced graphics, complex audio, and online capability underpinned the design of Triple A games in the late ’90s and the first decade of the 21st century. On the mainstream consoles and on Windows PCs, it was the big budget video games that dominated. Some of the most memorable game characters appeared in games such as Final Fantasy VII, Silent Hill 2,
Grand Theft Auto III, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Call of Duty. During this period, the size of games studios increased in order to meet the demands of art production and programming, whilst increasingly complex characters needed much more time, resources, and talent to create. Today, we can see the outcome of this effort has been extremely high expectations of virtual realism. Many game series today feature highly realistic game characters, with intricately crafted models, textures, performance captured animation, and voice acting. Grand Theft Auto V and the Rise of the Tomb Raider are two examples of games that are near cinematic in quality, and the boundaries between cinema and video games are evidently blurring as production pipelines are increasingly shared across both mediums.
At the same time, diversity of visual style is apparent in today’s video game landscape. There has never before been such a range of visual style and aesthetics in game character design, across both Triple A production, in games such as Overwatch, and independent game development, for instance, Playdead’s Inside. From photorealism to abstract characters, caricaturised stylisation to pixelated nostalgic characters, it is clear that game developers today need to understand not only the production pipelines for character creation, but also the underlying visual principles that help us to define distinctive, memorable, and exciting game characters.

In this slideshow, we will consider a brief history of the visual design of video game characters, from the very first computer game systems up to present day consoles.

This article is from the free online

Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education