Moving on, we will shift from how character design can be informed by what is in effect graphic design principles, to considering the importance of drawing upon our understanding of nature and anatomy when building original character designs. In this video, we will discuss some of the most common anatomical principles and ideas that we can apply to game character visualisation. Firstly, one of the most important things you must consider is body proportions. In nature, this varies tremendously based on a number of factors. Even two very similar people are unlikely to have exactly the same anatomical measurements. But there are general rules of thumb that underpin the proportions of human anatomy, and thus character design.
The principle most commonly applied character artists involves the use of the head height, from the top of the head to the chin, as a comparative unit of measurement. Although in many ways this is an artistic principle, it is reflective of detailed observation of life. It is also one of the simplest ways of making sense of what might be a highly complex character image, because the key unit of measurement is contained within the image itself. The overall height of an ideal character is considered to be roughly eight head heights. This is a simplification of reality, but from here we can decrease the ratio as characters get younger, down to approximately four head heights for infants.
As the ratio decreases, our perception of a character’s age is naturally affected by what we see. We can stick to this rule of thumb, or exaggerate it for effect. A cartoon character, such as Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet, makes use of highly exaggerated proportions to manipulate our perception. At roughly two heads high, Sackboy has a head-to-height ratio that exceeds that of a typical baby, greatly exaggerating his child likeness and cuteness. Boyonetta, on the other hand, is an example of a character whose overall height and leg-to-torso ratio are massively exaggerated to enhance our perception of our athleticism and dominance.
The physical appearance of the characters Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us were carefully designed to ensure that a believable relationship could be implied, with Ellie acting as a teenage daughter substitute for the bereaved father Joel. The head-to-height ratio of these characters roughly map on the expected ratios for a typical teenager and a typical adult. Next, we can consider body types. One of the most common systems of categorisation concerns the extent to which the body builds muscle and stores fat. Known as somatotypes, the three categories used to describe body type based on these factors are the ectomorph, the mesomorph, and the endomorph.
These are highly generalised and not strictly based on human biology and anatomy, but are useful for character designers who need to generalise a character’s overall body shape. The ectomorph character has a light build, with small bones and lean muscle tone. They are likely to have narrow shoulders and little body fat due to a high metabolism, and may also have long limbs or be taller than average. Characters who are more solidly built with bigger bones can be categorised as mesomorphs. They are likely to have a naturally athletic build, and while they may have some limited body fat, their muscles will be larger and more clearly defined.
Finally, endomorph characters will have a higher proportion of body fat to muscle, and will find it harder to lose fat than people who are more closely aligned with ectomorph or mesomorph types. When applied and exaggerated in game character design, somatotypes can play to our prejudices and common perceptions of body shape. For instance, some of the connotations that can be associated with ectomorphs, such Waluigi, include speed, thoughtfulness, introversion, emotional control, shiftiness, intensity, or creativity. Endomorph characters, such as Wario, are typically shorter, rounder, and stockier, and may have strong arms and legs. Dependant on the exact depiction of an endomorph, this body type can insinuate that a character is good humoured, fun-loving, sociable, tolerant, lovable, or strong.
The mesomorph character type clearly suggests strength and physical ability, but can also suggest courage, adventurousness, dominance, assertiveness, competitiveness, and a tendency to take risks.
While somatotypes can be used to generalised character shape, we must also be conscious of the fact that character sex has clear impact on body shape. In nature, the sex hormones that influence body and face shape are testosterone and estrogens. Very typically, males tend to have much higher proportion of testosterone than estrogens, while females have a higher proportion of estrogens than testosterone. In nature, this therefore leads to gentle differences in face shape and body shape and size, which we then infer as being typically masculine or feminine features. Firstly, let’s consider the features perceived as highly masculine. Testosterone, a steroid hormone, has the effect of enhancing body mass– body muscle and bones– leading to larger and heavier bodies.
Because there is a higher proportion of testosterone in male than in female bodies, men tend to build larger muscles more quickly, have larger hands and feet, and be both taller and stronger than women. If we correlate masculinity with testosterone levels, a highly masculine body would be tall and broad across the chest with well-defined muscles and low levels of body fat, similar to the mesomorph body type. As with the body, testosterone enhances the growth of facial features. Both the jawbone and the ridge of the eyebrows tend to become more pronounced, and throughout puberty the face will shift from being rounded to being squarer.
In particular, a notable characteristic is that the relative proportions of the face will change, so that the face appears wider. All these characteristics can be considered descriptive of a highly masculine face, which can be caricatured for effect. While testosterone impacts on bone and muscle development, estrogens interact more with the storage and distribution of fat. Typically estrogens distribute fat around the buttocks, hips, thighs, and breasts. They also widen the hips, leading to more marked differences in body shape between men and women during puberty. Consequently, if we correlate femininity with oestrogen levels, a highly feminine body would be shorter and more lightly built than the masculine body.
Because it is primarily testosterone that dramatically impacts on the shape of the face, the lower levels of testosterone in women means that faces do not change as much in adulthood. Highly feminine faces are smaller and rounder than masculine faces, have less pronounced jaws and brows, contain proportionately larger lips and eyes, and have smaller noses.
There are many game characters that make explicit use of sex differences in body type to accentuate ideas of masculinity and femininity. Given the historical ‘young male’ gaming audience and continued issues with representation in both game worlds and game development, is particularly easy to find stereotypical examples of masculine and feminine body shapes in games. Many male characters fulfil commanding and/or violent roles, and subsequently are designed with highly masculine forms. On the other hand, for much of the history of games, female characters have had a less inclusive role and have commonly been deployed to act as damsels in distress or simply to provide sex appeal. As such, there are lots of examples of women characters with highly feminine body shapes.
However, there are still interesting examples of character designs that play with commonly held notions of body shape. A good example is Samus Aran from the Metroid series of games, who was famously revealed as a woman at the end of Metroid, the first game in the series. To the gamers of the day, it would have been naturally assumed that any main player character in an action game would be male, and her sex was deliberately disguised until the final screen. Furthermore, her visual design intentionally embeds and exaggerates masculine body characteristics to maintain an air of ambiguity over her sex.
While her Power Suit is effectively her equipment and not subject to her biological development, its shape still triggers our ability to recognise sex differences in the human form. When in her Power Suit, Samus arguably appears more masculine than feminine, with characteristically broad shoulders and chest, and armour that suggests dense muscle. There are feminine characteristics in the Power Suit designs as well, notably the chest-waist-hips proportions. Overall, the suit acts to muddy the apparent sex of the character by blending masculine and feminine characteristics. Out of her suit, Samus becomes highly feminine, with accentuated curves.
There is clearly an element of female sexuality and sex appeal within this aspect of her visual design, but the unambiguously feminine body shape of Samus also provides a stark contrast with the Power Suit design, ensuring that the femininity of this archetypically masculine sci-fi action hero is communicated effectively. Today, as a well-known character, the continued use of exaggerated masculine characteristics in the Power Suit is of particular relevance, as the role of women characters in games is a hot topic of debate and the desire to see leading women is as strong as ever. In summary, an appreciation of general anatomical concepts is vital to our analysis and design of game characters.
We can simplify this by considering how body proportion affects our perception of character age, how sex hormones alter the shape of our bodies and faces is just more or less masculine and feminine features, and how somatotypes can infer different character connotations.