Favourite characters. We all have them, we all feel some kind of attachment to them, but what makes these characters so iconic, so memorable that 5, 10 even 15 years down the line, we still talk about them, we fondly remember their lines, and at the slightest hint of a reappearance we squeal with the kind of vigorous glee that is only rivalled by excited Japanese school girls?
Or maybe that’s just me…
Anyone who has ever dabbled in writing knows, that intentionally creating a memorable character is incredibly difficult, unless of course you have a team of analysts telling you that your target demographic is really into emo fringes, teenage angst and that the ‘tortured pretty boy’ look is in fashion.
These days analysts will tell the Lead Designer and the creative team what kind of look and feel they should be going for, NPCs will be designed to purposefully strike a chord with the target audience, both in looks, personality and even voice work, it’s all designed to make you care about them, to force that emotional attachment, whereas before, a character was obviously created with a certain ‘coolness’ factor in mind, but generally these characters became icons on their own merit rather than being designed from the ground up with the sole purpose of pulling an emotional attachment over your head and scream CARE ABOUT ME NAO!
One of the best examples that spring to mind is Dragon Age II.
Dragon Age II and its character design and construction is a perfect example of this. Let us start with the most obvious one: Fenris.
Fenris, to me, is the most cynical piece of character design in recent memory; he is a quilt of every fan-girl cliché dream since Cloud spoke his first immortal ‘…’
His hair is a mix of emo-fringe and anime style, two things that are immensely popular, there are parallels here to Sephiroth, but I will get back to that in a minute, his body is covered in arcane tattoos (that glow!) lending him a certain bad boy image, not to mention his sultry looks, the tortured soul, and huuuuge sword ( if you don’t think the sword is a euphemism, you’ve got a lot to learn).
He exudes an air of anti-authority and general mistrust, his dialogue keeps you on edge, he’s confrontational and is dangerous to be around **Spoiler alert** he can even turn on you at the drop of hat during the final confrontation, but the thing that really pulls the strings together, is the short but touchy moments that you get to see him with his guard down, he’s a little puppy deep down inside, who needs to be rescued, and who wouldn’t want to rescue him right?
Now I will admit to being a cynical type of guy, but as far as I am concerned Fenris is the perfect example of a character design philosophy that maybe tries a little bit too hard to forcefully create emotional attachment, in this case, piggy back riding on the vast fan community of Sephiroth in particular. You cannot tell me you can look at Fenris without thinking he could very well be Sephiroth’s sultry little brother. As compelling as I found his story in DAII, something about Fenris always felt forced, his look in particular was really off, compared to every other character in the franchise, you meet a lot of Elves in DAO and DAII, but none of them have silver anime hair or wields enormous oversized swords.
Fenris is not the only NPC in DAII that could be accused of being the victim of ‘focus group’ analysis, while he is certainly the most obvious attempt at grapping a chunk of the female audience, there is of course a little something for the boys in there too.
Enter Isabella, a salty vixen of the seven seas with a bosom so perky and gravity defying that Isaac Newton is still doing barrel rolls in his grave.
Isabella represents, in the immortal words of Bowling for Soup, the girl all the bad guys want.
She’s hot tempered, quick witted, stunningly beautiful, sensual and most importantly, gives off an air of ‘you MIGHT just get lucky’.
She is also, like Fenris, a tough nut to crack, but persistence will let you get a few glimpses of what is underneath her hard exterior, and the pay-off is there for those who pursue it.
While not as cynical as Fenris’ design, Isabella is still there to be the natural counterpart to him in terms of player appeal, she’s Jessica Alba’s looks, Pamela Anderson’s bust size and Buffy the vampire slayer’s pizazz, all rolled into one delicious overdesigned package, the main difference between Fenris and Isabella however is that Isabella fits the story, the setting even the world far better than Fenris in my humble opinion, making her design perhaps a little less calculating than his.
Those were two examples of over-designed or perhaps just overthought characters in recent memory, but really, one could write an essay about the multitude of over-done clichéd characters of today’s games, they are all carbon copies of each other, Garrus from Mass Effect is essentially Alastair from DAO, only somewhat bigger mandibles, they are both insecure at first, but throughout their stories they grow as people, and form a bromance (or romance if you’re that way inclined) with the PC, they also share a common love for one liners, which inevitably makes me think that they are all just extensions of Peter Parker’s psyche anyway in an alternate Marvel universe… I might pitch that idea at some point…
One could argue that the well of creativity has severely dried out behind the walls of the biggest games companies in the world, but that is a whole different discussion for another day.
So what made characters of the past, the incidental heroes, so appealing?
Let us start with the most recognizable face on the planet, Mario.
Mario is one of the best loved, and most well-known characters on the planet, his face is instantly recognisable and you’d be hard pressed to find a child that did not at some stage play a Mario game or at the very least recognise him in a line up.
Mario has a few things that instantly make him memorable, the bright coloured clothes, the M on his hat and a few effective catch phrases, like who can forget ‘it’sa miia, Mario!’
The thing about Mario, and his brother Luigi for that matter, is that they were never designed to be anything more than empty husks, something for the player to pour their own assumptions and stories into, Jumpman (the first incarnation of Mario) was just a guy saving a girl named Pauline from a massive tie wearing gorilla with a fetish for barrels.
Same thing goes for Space Invaders, a space pilot struggling to survive the alien onslaught and fighting for his life and the continued existence of Earth (The first Mass Effect!), or at least, that was the story I made up as I blasted those pesky aliens, the characters, and how we perceived them was entirely in our hands, it was not about focus groups, trends or demographics, it was about letting the player attribute the qualities and build a perception of the character, as well as the story, in their own minds.
In that light, Mario was a product of his time, the limitations of readily available technology at the time of course made the kind of character design we know today completely impossible, but imagine going into a games company now, and pitching the idea of making a game about saving a princess from a ginger dinosaur, and the unlikely hero being an Italian stereotype of a plumber from Brooklyn, with a keg sized stomach, a red hat, wavy moustache and a craving for mushrooms.
Our collective imaginations, and Nintendo’s marketing based on those perceptions helped shape Mario into what he is today, and a perfect example of how original design, will eventually take on a life of its own, and kudos to Nintendo for picking up on that and expanding on it.
The next pick is maybe a little controversial, but I firmly believe that he is one of the best characters to ever appear in a video game without being purposefully designed to appeal to anyone.
Enter Minsc, of Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 fame.
To those of you who might not know who Minsc is, he is an NPC and potential party member from Bioware and Black Isle’s late 90s masterpiece.
The player meets Minsc in the sleepy mining town of Nashkel, Minsc will engage the player upon approach and ask for help in fulfilling his Dhajamma (rite of passage to manhood), which is not original nor particularly ground breaking for a character in an RPG.
Minsc however initiates dialogue by talking to his hamster, Boo, and agrees with the hamster’s assessment that your group looks strong enough to help him in his quest, upon further talking to Minsc, he reveals that Boo is in fact a Miniature Giant Space Hamster, who helps him deal with hard moral choices. Over the course of the game it becomes very obvious that Minsc is a complete nut-job, a good hearted and good natured nut-job, but a nut-job no less.
Minsc’s dialogue is incredibly well written; he’s got a unique personality and quite often interjects with some of the best one-liners I have ever witnessed. His personality and trademark quotes made a character that was never meant to be anything more than comic relief in an otherwise grim fantasy setting take on a life of its own, and Minsc has since gone on to become a cult video game hero, his eternal partner Boo the Hamster has likewise obtained close to cult status, in fact, you can meet Boo in Mass Effect 2 and 3, he even ‘winks at you knowingly’.
The point of this spiel being that Minsc was never designed to please someone, or appeal to a certain demographic, like Mario he obtained cult status by being something quite unique and dare I say somewhat original, despite his obvious comedic status in a grim game, it was entirely feasible that he said and did the things he did because he’d simply taken one too many mace blows to the head. He was never created please a certain group, he just simply ‘was’.
That’s the authenticity that I feel is lacking in many games now, that creative original spark that genuinely makes you care as opposed to the ones that are designed to make you care.
So to round all of this off, I am going to give you my top 5 of ‘genuine’ characters.
- Minsc (Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2)
- Morte (Planescape: Torment)
That was my top 5, what’s yours and what makes them iconic and important to you?