Character design is a complicated topic. It’s tied up in gender politics, fantasies, and fashion, and all of those items alone are exceedingly complex. And of course, a lot of it comes down to preference. I know people who can’t stand boob plate in any situation, and I know others (myself included) who think there’s a time and a place for it, but that the time and place isn’t 100% of the time, and in every game. And there are others who don’t mind boob plate in the least; it’s a fantasy, who cares?
Fundamentally, a character’s design is meant to convey something. There’s a certain amount of information that you want to give your audience about the character, and also about the world they live in, and maybe also about the kind of game this is. A fancy, over-the-top design like Bayonetta’s tells you that—at very least—Bayonetta isn’t gritty realism.
There’s a lot of gray area when it comes to what constitutes “good” character design. It’s almost impossible to look at a design without knowing the context and judge it accordingly. As a character designer myself, I acknowledge that there’s a huge variety of attributes out there—practically unlimited, when it comes to fantasy—and it’s how they are used in the context that make a design good or bad.
If a character wears heavy makeup and silks and coiffed hair, maybe it’s that they value their appearance, or are in a position where their looks are important to maintain authority or popularity. If they’re covered in scars and nicked armor, it tells you that they’re probably battle-hardened, and used to close combat fighting. When you start mix-and-matching design attributes, you can get some really interesting subtext—a warrior with scars and nicked armor who also carefully applies makeup and wears a nice silk scarf, for instance, is someone I want to find more about. Why do they care about their appearance even on the battlefield? Were they always a warrior, or did they have a different background? Is there someone they want to impress or look nice for?
In other words, if you choose to put a battle-hardened warrior in makeup and silks, you should think about why that is and what you’re conveying with the design, inadvertently or not. Unfortunately, with female character design, attributes are often slapped on without much thought at all—beyond “this looks hot,” at any rate.
When a substantial majority of designs have a specific set of attributes that are applied regardless of character, setting, or game, then there’s a problem. If 95% of female warriors wear low-cut boob plates, we can acknowledge that at least some of those designs are probably great, and still argue that the trend is obnoxious—especially since male characters are rarely given the same treatment. This is where a lot of frustration with female character designs comes from. The criticism is about the gendered double standard within trends, about the mismatch between context and design, and about the laziness that many designers fall into in choosing attributes to use in designwork; it isn’t a criticism of sexy designs or “beautiful” characters.
In summary: I can dig an individual chainmail bikini design. I can also criticize a particular design for not matching a character’s personality or circumstances. And I can be annoyed that male characters virtually never get to wear battle lingerie.
So what are some examples of good female character design? Again, gray area—obviously this is a totally subjective thing. But here’s my take as a) a gamer, and b) a character designer and artist.
Isabela from Dragon Age 2
Wait, Isabela? Isn’t she the one who doesn’t wear pants? Well, yeah. Dragon Age 2 one of my favorite examples of a game where a female character walking around with no pants and a loosely tied top actually makes sense.
Isabela is salacious, flirtatious, and delights in flaunting her sexuality at pretty much every given opportunity. Her outfit is a design decision that tells us something about her personality and her priorities. There are other elements to her design that tell us more about her—she wears a lot of gaudy gold jewelry, she wears huge (not high-heeled) boots, and she’s freckled from the sun.
The real reason this works is that Isabela stands in stark contrast to almost every other female character in the game. While all the character models are the same (everybody in Thedas during the DA2 era has improbably big boobs, I’ll grant you that), Aveline, Merrill, and Marion Hawke are all clothed almost head to toe. Aveline in particular, along with all the other women in uniform, is fully armored.
What makes Isabela’s overt, scantily clad sexy look agreeable is that it makes sense for her character, and the women whose personalities don’t make sense for that kind of garb…don’t wear it. That contrast gives us an immediate sense of who Isabela is, because we know that pantslessness for women isn’t the norm in this world. If Aveline didn’t wear pants, we would lose both some of Aveline’s characterization and some of Isabela’s. There would be no contrast.
The takeaway? There’s nothing wrong with sexy—just diversify your character designs enough that it actually means something. If sexy is default, sexy isn’t sexy anymore.
Red from Transistor
Red’s costume is fairly unique for a video game protagonist. She’s fashionable, has legs that go for miles, and a fairly low-cut dress, sure—but her silhouette is imposing. She’s more Cruella De Ville or Veronica Lake than Action Barbie. Again, there’s a time and a place for Action Barbie, it’s just not in ’40s-era-inspired Transistor, and I’m glad the designers agreed with me.
Red’s fashion choices make sense for her character. She’s a performer, a songstress. She’s also involved in the resistance movement, but as a sower of discontent and a public figure. She needs all eyes on her. Her shoulders and the hair over one eye invoke the idea of a femme fatale, but her design is all bright colors and geometric silhouettes. Her main colors are red, yellow, and blue, like a superhero—she is the protagonist, after all. And then her makeup and curly hair soften the look and give her sort of an innocent mystique. It’s implied that she uses this to her advantage. Nothing about Red’s design is random, in other words.
I like Red’s design because it’s one that is traditionally feminine (a dress, coiffed hair, bare legs etc.), but is also bright and bold and somewhat imposing, and fits both her character and the setting really well. You don’t have to sacrifice fashion for power as long as it makes sense in context. See also: Evie Frye from Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Vivienne from Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Sasha from Tales From the Borderlands
I like Sasha’s design more because of how the narrative frames her than anything else. She’s short and flat-chested and doesn’t wear any makeup. Her eyebrows are thick. Her sister, Fiona, is taller, curvier, and does wear makeup. While Sasha gets the crop top and Fiona is more heavily-clothed, neither of their outfits are particularly sexy in the traditional sense.
Perhaps most importantly, Sasha and Fiona are both women of color, but Sasha has darker skin and wears her hair in locs, while Fiona is lighter-skinned and wears her hair straight and swoopy. Obviously we don’t often see women of color in protagonist roles, so it’s great for that reason. But it’s also important because of the way the narrative frames Sasha. According to everyone around her, she’s very pretty—she’s the one that has to bat her eyelashes when the sisters are pulling a con.
It’s refreshing for our assumptions about beauty to be questioned in terms of makeup or chest size, of course. But it’s also important to see a (presumably) biracial girl with locs and thick eyebrows be called beautiful by those around her, because our culture so often labels those traits ugly. (None of this is to say that Sasha is actually ugly, of course—just that we’re socialized to not see women like her as bombshells, and that’s at least partly because most media never allows them to be. See the reaction to Zendaya’s locs on the red carpet for confirmation.)
I’ll also mention that Sasha’s fashion sense is a good indicator of her personality. She’s hot-headed and scrappy, and she wears bone earrings and colorful patchy clothing. It’s the kind of found fashion that makes sense for someone who’s poor and young and always on the move. But at the same time, nothing she wears is an impediment to a quick escape or a firefight.
Sasha is a good example of a character whose design is truly informed by the way the narrative frames her, and sometimes that’s just as important for your characterization (and world-building, and messaging) as the design itself. See also: Ellie from Borderlands 2 (included below), Katherine from SOMA, female Shepard from Mass Effect 1–3.
Chell from Portal and Vella from Broken Age
I’m putting these two together because both characters are examples of designs where the character does not “choose” their outfit. Of course no character can actually choose what they wear—characters are not real—but these two didn’t choose their clothing even within the story. Vella wears a frilly pink evening gown, forced upon her by cultural practices that dictate she must be sacrificed to a monster (and must look beautiful while she’s at it). Chell is also sacrificial, in a way, since she’s a test subject in an underground lab; a sacrifice in the name of science, if you will. Chell’s outfit is a utilitarian orange jumpsuit and white tank top.
Both of these women alter the clothing they’ve been made to wear. Vella rips the bottom off of her dress so she can move around more easily, and she goes the rest of the story that way. Chell ties her jumpsuit around her waste, perhaps because she’s too hot—maybe the air conditioning in Aperture Labs doesn’t work anymore. Either way, both are altering their outfits so that they can function better in their environments. It’s interesting that in both cases, the alteration reveals more skin, but neither character is sexualized. They’ve also altered their uniforms as a way to rebel against the situations imposed on them, though, mirroring the storylines in their respective games.
In summary, if you’re putting your character in an outfit they didn’t choose, think about why you’re having them wear those clothes and think about how the character might deal with the situation. Don’t just use it as a way to force sexiness onto your female characters. (Also noteworthy because male characters almost never get that particular treatment.)
Samus from Metroid
Samus Aran was one of the first female protagonists in games. Of course, nobody who played the first Metroid knew that Samus was a woman until the very end, when she pulled her helmet off, but it was a purposeful design decision. It was supposed to be a big reveal, and it played on the idea that women aren’t protagonists, aren’t strong, and aren’t expected. Or, at the very least, that if women are present, they’re marked by their gender. The designers knew that players would automatically assume Samus was a man because she bore none of the typical markers of being a woman—no bows, no long hair or cleavage, no eyelashes or pink armor or high heels.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, of course. But the idea that male is default while female is different is one that persists. Anita Sarkeesian goes into it in further detail in one of her Tropes vs. Video Games segments, but suffice it to say, Samus is a nice break from the trope, even if it was originally done for shock value. Plus, she looks—and is—really cool.
To reiterate, there’s nothing necessarily bad about any specific tropes in design, but diversity is wonderful. Your female characters don’t have to look completely distinct from your male characters. It’s actually okay if we don’t know at a single glance what gender a character is! (On that note, it’s best not to assume someone’s gender at a single glance in the first place.) See also: not a video game, but the response to this response to the female Storm Trooper armor, Aveline from Dragon Age 2, female Spartan from Halo 5.
Max from Life Is Strange
Anyone who’s read my review knows that I have some conflicted feelings about the game in general, but the design of Max is great. She’s a teenager who looks like a teenager. She’s not unfashionable, but she’s not Buffy Summers, either—she dresses how most girls in high school actually dress. (To be fair, I adore Buffy’s fashion choices, but they’re not particularly realistic.) She also doesn’t look like she’s in her mid-20’s, which is a benefit of being animated (no child labor laws to contend with), but is pretty refreshing for a teenage character.
A lot of character designers don’t know what teens actually look like, which is partly because we base our info off of television, with all of its gorgeously made-up 25-year-old women playing 16-year-olds. There are some damaging repercussions to the trend, especially in terms of actual teenage girls thinking they’re supposed to look like those actresses.
Max is usually seen in a print t-shirt, converse, and jeans. Her hair is brown, she wears minimal makeup, and sometimes she accessorizes with a necklace or bracelets. She’s kind of mousy and short. I also like her younger self’s look—hair pulled back tight in a ponytail, large forehead, braces. She’s very 12. Cute, but also kind of awkward-looking, which, if you’ve ever seen a photo of a 12-year-old, you’ll know is an accurate description.
I like Max’s design because it’s a realistic outfit in a (mostly) realistic setting. Switching Max for someone like Bayonetta and vice versa would be absolutely jarring and awful and just…super weird. See also: Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (the reboot), Ellie from The Last of Us, Clementine from the Walking Dead.
Ellie from Borderlands 2
Ellie is very confident, very capable, and very fat. In video games, fat characters—especially fat female characters—are virtually unheard of. Especially as good guys. I love Ellie’s character partly because she knows she’s fat, she’s teased for it and berated by her mother for it, and still loves herself and her body. She’s strong, funny, and unapologetically confident in both her self image and her sexuality (and if her flirting is taken at face value, she’s also bisexual).
I recognize that some of that is meant to be funny. Incredible, that a person could be so fat and still so self-assured, right? Borderlands in general is fairly irreverent, and part of the issue is that Ellie is a joke because everything in the game is a joke. On the other hand, she’s also genuinely likable, and I believe we’re meant to be on her side all the way along. If part of it is a joke, at least Ellie is laughing too.
Also, I love her little heart tattoo. It’s both an homage to her mother’s—Moxxi, who has a very similar personality, but a typically sexy body and outfit—and a cute acknowledgement that Ellie is unafraid to show her body off in obvious ways, while still dressing in clothes that make sense for a mechanic who lives out in the desert surrounded by evil bandits. It also tells you that she and Moxxi’s relationship is complicated. At least at one point in her life, Ellie maybe did want to be like her mom in some way. Maybe she still does.
Let it be known that there are plenty more designs I adore, and plenty of characters whose designs I like but don’t know well enough to write about, and even more that I like but don’t necessarily think are particularly good design. If you think of other designs that you love, let us know what they are and why you love them on Twitter or Facebook!