Art Theory: Grey Eyes

In mythology, the goddess Athena was said to have “grey eyes.” Not because her eyes were actually the color grey, but because grey eyes represented a certain style of visage. Calm, steady, unnerving, wise, powerful, resolute. Like a cloudy sky.

This is artwork of the goddess Athena in the mobile game Puzzle and Dragons (which I’m currently addicted to), and I feel like she conveys the concept of grey eyes very well. Her art hits all the right notes. Her face has that charisma about it which is hard to describe. Her pose is angled so that she’s not leaping into action, but it’s still kinetic enough that she’s pushing forward through space.

After I read about this, I became curious. How might one draw a character in such a way that they could be described as “grey eyed”? What components need to go into the artwork to make that happen? It’s such a nebulous concept, but the end result can really be felt. There are plenty of ways to draw characters who are angry or sad, but I have no idea how to draw a character who has that style of quiet determination. Not loud and garish, but still somehow strong enough to make people think “I need to pay attention.”

It’s so hard, because “determination” naturally looks very similar to a face’s base resting state. Neutral mouth, open eyes, forward gaze. Try to make a determined face in real life. How does that even feel? How would you portray determinationonto your expression? Does it even end up looking different from a bored or apathetic expression? It’s hard, and I don’t know how to do it. So I decided to study a bit more and try to nail down how to create a grey eyed look.


Like any Japanese game, Athena can evolve into different forms in Puzzle and Dragons, and these alternate forms are really interesting to look at because even though they are all clearly depicting the same character, they kind of lose the grey eyed feel. Chariot Athena just tosses the whole thing out the window. Flying-magic-spear Athena kind of brings back the grey eyes, but not as well as the original artwork does in my opinion. But despite that, they are all exactly the same character. Nothing really changes about her, except a few little details with her outfit.


Here’s another set of characters to look at. The two on the left were drawn by me, and are depicting different characters. The one on the right is an alternate version of the centermost character that another artist drew in an attempt to match my style. How do grey eyes work with these characters?

I felt that the centermost character that I drew had grey eyes going on. She has that kind of expression. It’s not really anger, and it’s not really intimidation. But there’s determination, and coldness, and a strong resolve. Like a piercing gaze. The fascinating thing is, the dude on the left just doesn’t seem to have those characteristics, even though they were both drawn with the same style. I almost feel like the left dude is kind of tired, weary. Almost brooding, but not quite as melancholy. And the dude on the right just loses the grey eyes completely. The squint makes him look angry, pissed off, annoyed, disturbed.

The ridiculous thing is that I wasn’t even thinking about grey eyes when I drew the characters. So I don’t really know how I made the centermost character look that way. But one thing I do remember is that while I was drawing her, I drew inspiration from Sandra Bullock’s appearance in the film Gravity. Yes, I know that the character looks nothing like Sandra Bullock, but it just kind of felt that way to me at the time.

Does Sandra Bullock have grey eyes in Gravity? Sure, she has her moments. There are times when she really pulls herself together and brings out the bravery to do all the crazy things she does. And then there are times when she breaks down out of fear. It’s just that kind of movie. In this specific shot, I’d say she doesn’t really have the eyes, but I can’t find a shot that does.

On the other hand, here’s a character who really looks like he’s got grey eyes going on. This is a promotional picture of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v Superman film (which I’m super hyped about). Lex Luthor is usually portrayed as a cackling evil maniac, but I really like how he looks in this film. It’s not a malicious look, it’s not an evil look, it’s not how we normally think villains look. At the same time, it’s not overly melancholy, it’s not meditative, it’s not contemplative. It’s determined and resolute and powerful. It’s a man with a plan, and he knows there’s a rocky road ahead but the thought of turning back hasn’t crossed his mind. Those eyes are pretty grey.

This is a good starting point to work off of. In general, character art works better when you start from reality. Of course, there’s a whole realm of stylization, but it’s nice to start stylizing based off of reality. Luthor has a lot of small details that help sell his grey eyed look. What are those small details, and how could they be embellished and emphasized to create a stylized grey eyed character?

Part of me is really attached to the way his left eyelid hangs over his eye (I’m using “left” from viewer’s perspective). His right eye just looks too open and bright for me to feel weight behind it. At the same time, go too far and you just get characters who are squinting. You can see that Luthor isn’t squinting. His brow isn’t furrowed in anger. Whatever anger there is, it’s broiling beneath the surface rather than bursting out. It’s subdued rather than obvious.

His head looks like it’s tilting slightly forward (forehead forward, chin down to chest). Not very much, but just a little bit, and I think that a subtle tilt definitely contributes to the grey eyed look. All of the Athena evolutions had their heads tilted forward, and my center character had a tiny bit of tilt going on.

On the other hand, Batman in Arkham Knight seems to take it too far. Even if you cleared out the brow furrowing (which seems like it’s practically carved into his cowl), his frown pushes his appearance away from “grey eyes” and more towards “I’m going to beat you up until you can’t move.” But if his mouth was a little more neutral, like Luthor’s mouth above, I think he would be pretty close to getting a grey eyed look.

So far, all that I’ve really got is a slight downward tilt, a neutral mouth (leaning towards a frown), and an unwrinkled brow. Eyes need to be in their natural state, with no squinting or widening, so something else needs to hang over the eye and act as a pseudo-furrow, because the eyebrow has to be clear. It’s a fine line, and there are plenty of ways to screw it up. Tilt too far, squint too much, frown too strongly. Still, I hope I can draw grey eyed characters with a little more intent behind them now.

Art Theory: The Underlying Issue With Narratology/Ludology

The question of narratology versus ludology was a hot topic in game design for a while. “Narratology” and “ludology” are pretty big words, but they boil down to a simple concept: what exactly are games, and what are they supposed to mean? Advocators of narratology argue that video games are vehicles for carrying stories, giving the player a rich narrative experience. On the other hand, ludologists claim that video games should be considered as their own separate medium, with its own unique language.

Narratology: games as stories. Ludology: games as games. A narratologist would say that Halo is a game about space aliens, whereas a ludologist would say that Halo is a game about shooting and combat.

But this essay isn’t about picking a side. Actually, the age of picking a side is over. The narratology vs. ludology debate is dead. That’s why this essay isn’t about narratology vs. ludology: this essay is about the underlying issue with narratology vs. ludology, what we can learn from it, and how it can enhance the future of games. And in order for us to figure out what exactly that underlying issue is, we have to delve a bit into the history of this debate.

The History of This Debate

A long time ago, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Simply put, it’s the idea that the way something is presented innately carries a message within itself, complimenting (or obstructing) the actual message. Imagine reading a newspaper article about the Columbine shootings, then watching a documentary about the Columbine shootings, then playing a video game about the Columbine shootings. The newspaper article might sound solemn and businesslike, the documentary might be emotional and personal, the video game might be dark and depressing. Even though they’re all about the same thing, the medium through which each is conveyed drastically changes the message.

When you think about narratology vs. ludology, you’re essentially thinking about “message vs. medium.” Do you want to focus on the message you’re telling, or do you want to focus on the way you’re telling it? But this isn’t a question limited to video games. Nearly every artistic medium has faced the issue of message vs. medium. In painting, the abstract expressionist movement tapped into the power of medium, as opposed to traditional realist art which tried to tell a narrative message. In film, some directors simply created film versions of classical plays, whereas other directors experimented with camera cuts and drastic angles. In literature, E. E. Cummings pushed the limits of what it meant to write poetry, unlike Ernest Hemingway whose brevity and conciseness brought readers as close to the narrative as possible. Analyzing the history of these various mediums can lend insight into the future of video games. For the sake of brevity, let’s zero in on one medium in particular: animation.

As novel and magical as animation may seem now, it was a hundred times more novel and magical during its conception.

In the earliest days of its conception, animation was a simple parlor trick used to entertain people. It was crude, unrealistic animation, but the simple fact that pictures were somehow moving amazed viewers who had never seen anything like it. Animation was such a novelty that churches used animations of moving devils to scare people into converting. And they did convert, because they thought the cheesy cartoonish devils were real just because they were moving.

Even after the novelty died off, animation stayed as mindless entertainment for quite a while. It was common for animations to be opening acts for a film, so many short animations were churned out quickly and thoughtlessly by studios. Eventually, a man named Walt Disney (1) put his foot down and said “No. I’m tired of making all these stupid shorts. We’re going to do a real feature-length animation that will rival the films that overshadowed us. And this feature-length animation will be Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

Of course, everybody laughed at Disney. Make a feature-length animation? Just stick to making the same old drivel you’re used to doing, and leave the meaningful work to films! But thanks to the brilliance of Disney’s co-worker Ub Iwerks, Snow White was not only created, but went on to become a massive hit.

There’s a reason why Disney chose Snow White, and it’s the same reason as why every Disney animated movie copies or is written in the style of classic fables. It’s because Disney was interested in narrative. The animation was there not for the sake of strong animation, but for the sake of furthering the narrative.  Message over medium.

Then the Warner Bros. company stood up and said “What’s all this narrative crap about? Let’s make animations for the sake of animating, not so we can tell cheesy children’s stories!” Their flagship series Looney Tunes was all about hilarious nonsensical gags, and their exaggerated style of animation created a frantic, intense, and insane atmosphere for those gags to thrive in. No one and nothing could mimic the same style that Looney Tunes naturally had, and that’s because it took advantage of the unique properties of animation. Medium over message.

These two companies became the leaders of pop culture animation: the world of Looney Tunes versus the world of Mickey Mouse. Medium versus message. Animation versus narrative. It’s the same thing as the narratology vs. ludology debate, except with “animation” instead of “ludology.”

But I started from the very beginning of animation rather than just jumping to the Looney Tunes/Mickey Mouse debate. That’s because it’s important for us to identify why the debate started in the first place. It happened because Disney and Warner Bros. both wanted to prove animation’s worth as a form of art in and of itself. They were tired of animations being a gimmicky side-show, an opening act for films rather than their own feature. They both loved animation and wanted to see it become something more.

It’s just that their methods were a little different. Disney wanted to say “Animation can tell deep, enriching stories, thus establishing it as a form of art!” Warner Bros. wanted to say “Animation can do all these things that no other medium can, thus establishing it as a form of art!” But when you put the means aside, the ends are the same: establish animation as a form of art. This trend happens through nearly every form of art, including video games.

Back to Video Games

Video games struggle with the same problems that plagued the field of animation.

Why did the narratology vs. ludology debate exist? Well, taking what we learned from the history of animation, the debate stems from the desire to establish video games as a form of art. Different people chose different paths to that goal, like the interactive fiction movement (2). We can then see that the narratology vs. ludology debate is related to the games as art debate.

Why did the games as art debate exist? Same reason as why the animation as art debate existed. Game designers wanted their work to be seen as something powerful and meaningful, not just mindless entertainment with no purpose. Video games had (and still have) a lot of negative stigmas tied to them like addiction and violence, all of which prevented games from being truly respected.

Why did the narratology vs. ludology debate end? Because the games as art debate ended. Of course, the games as art debate didn’t exactly come to a complete stop, but games are certainly being treated with more respect than they were in the past. There’s no reason to argue over whether it’s narrative or mechanics that makes a game meaningful when games are already acknowledged to be meaningful.

Why did the games as art debate end? Because of Portal and Braid (3).

Typically, the whole “___ as art” debate ends due to the sheer quantity of work produced and the subsequent analysis of that work in the greater scheme of that medium’s history. Typically, it takes a long period of time for a medium to be respected as art. Typically, you’re not able to point to one or two pieces and say “these works completely changed the course of their medium’s history,” so you have to talk in terms of general art movements and time periods instead.

Apparently, video games are not a typical medium.

There’s almost no contest when it comes to judging the artistic quality of Portal and Braid. They’re both very deep, contemplative experiences that leave players with a strange, undescribable feeling which has never been doing before. When someone asks for an example of games as art, you name either Portal or Braid, or both.

But enough of looking at Portal and Braid from the games as art perspective. When we look at them from the narratology vs. ludology perspective, we see something interesting. Generally, we’re able to categorize games in terms of whether their focus is on narrative or gameplay. Halo is about gameplay: shoot aliens untill they die. Final Fantasy VII is about story: save the world from the evil Sephiroth. Pong is about gameplay: outplay your opponent to win. The Longest Journey is about story: discover the truth about the universe.

You’re just not able to categorize Portal or Braid that simply. Portal is about gameplay, shooting portals to solve puzzles, but it’s also about story, escaping the clutches of GLaDOS. Braid is about gameplay, using time manipulation to solve puzzles, but it’s also about story, unraveling the metaphor of what time manipulation means to the protagonist.

Rather, trying to classify Portal or Braid as focusing on narrative or focusing on gameplay is almost an insult. The narrative and the gameplay are intricately interwoven, tied together so tightly that the experience would simply not be the same without either one. They bolster each other and create a unique experience through their dual strengths. It’s funny that the narratology vs. ludology debate ended because of games which excelled due to their use of both aspects combined.

And yet, all of this discussion is missing a crucial element. It’s all well and good that Portal and Braid ended the games as art debate. But why are Portal and Braid considered to be artistically designed games? How did they manage to establish an example of games as art? What exactly about them made them so artistic? If you dig deep enough, this boils down to two questions: what is art, and how did Portal and Braid fulfill that definition?

What Is Art?

Is this art?

When you ask “what is art,” you’re getting into a whole world in and of itself. Is art a piece of work infused with a deep meaningful message by its creator? If so, then would that disqualify nature as art? Is art a piece of work that took great amounts of effort to create? If so, then should digital paintings be considered less artistic than physical ones? Is art something that’s beautiful to look at? If so, then why are we so fascinated by the decidedly unbeautiful story of Macbeth? Trying to find a good concrete definition of art is tougher than it seems. Of course, it’s still possible. But it’s going to require another flashback.

1917. What was happening in the world in 1917? Nowadays, we would say “World War 1.” But back in 1917, they weren’t calling it “World War 1.” They called it the Great World War, and the War To End All Wars, and other dramatic names. This was the very first time that the whole entire world was enveloped in conflict, and people had no idea what to expect.

The Great World War broke a lot of expectations. People expected war to be something honorable and noble, but instead infantrymen were getting mowed down by faceless machine gunners. People expected soldiers to be respectful and gallant, but instead they used noxious gases and chemical warfare. People expected battle to be passionate and romantic (4), but instead most fights were spent huddling in dank, dirty trenches.

It was a devastating affair, not only physically but psychologically. People used to respect concepts like honor and bravery and courage: it was practically what defined us as humans rather than beasts. But the Great World War took all those concepts and threw them out the window. How are we supposed to deal with the fact that the atrocities of this war are proving our humanity wrong? If we can’t respect what we thought made us human, then what is there left to respect?

There was a group of artists called the Dadaists who took this idea and ran with it (5). If the sacred principles of human behavior have been desecrated, then screw it, let’s desecrate everything that’s sacred! Nothing is sacred anymore. We don’t have to bother keeping up this facade, pretending to be human when we really aren’t anymore. Let’s channel all these thoughts and emotions and create art from it, and show the world what monstrous beings we have become.

So the Dadaists went around creating all sorts of crazy artworks. At meetings, they would cut apart words from a newspaper, mix them in a hat, pull them out in a randomized order, and call it poetry. They were silly people. But it’s the work of one of these Dadaists in particular which really touches into the “what is art” debate. This Dadaist was a dude named Marcel Duchamp.

One day, Marcel Duchamp was strolling down a street when he saw a poster for an upcoming museum exhibit. The poster said “We will display ANY artwork. Pay us the exhibition fee and your work will be shown here, no matter WHAT.” Being the natural troll that he was, Duchamp decided to enter. He went to the hardware store, bought a porcelain urinal, turned it upside-down, wrote “R. Mutt 1917” on it, and brought it to the museum. “Here is my masterpiece: it’s called ‘Fountain’. Please have ‘Fountain’ on display when your exhibit opens. Thank you.”

Of course, no one liked “Fountain.” They hated it so much that they picked up “Fountain” and threw it into a nearby river. Duchamp wasn’t fazed: he just bought another urinal and named it “Fountain” again. This happened a few times (6).

It’s understandable that people would be angry if they paid money for a museum exhibit and saw an upside-down urinal on display. An upside-down urinal is not art! It has no deep meaningful message, it took no effort to create, and it’s not beautiful! Why the hell would anyone think this belongs in an art exhibit? But as the people were carrying “Fountain” out to the river, they found that the questions they asked in their rage were actually pretty tough questions to answer. Is art really about deep meaningful messages, or the effort of creation, or beauty? If “Fountain” isn’t art, then what is art? How is art defined, and how does that definition exclude “Fountain”?

For nearly the first time in art history, people were truly forced to ask themselves “what is art?” They all knew that nice little paintings and sculptures were art. If Duchamp had made one of those, people would have been happy and they wouldn’t have thrown his work into the river. But he didn’t: remember that Dadaism was all about challenging the concepts we hold dear. “Fountain” challenged the concept of art, and it did so by being decidedly un-artistic.

People came to their own conclusions about art. Some of them stuck with art being a vehicle for a deep message, and interpreted the “R. Mutt 1917” signature as a critique of society’s obsession with ownership. Some of them stuck with art requiring a great deal of effort from the artist, and asked themselves if urinal manufacturers and other laborers should count as artists. Some of them stuck with art as beauty, and they were the ones who continued throwing “Fountains” into the river.

But the beauty of it all was the fact that different people were coming to different conclusions. “Fountain” inspired each person to come up with their own interpretation, challenging their own beliefs and developing their own perspective. The phrase “definition of art” is a little faulty because it implies one singular definition that applies to all artworks through all perspectives, a neat one-liner that you can read in a dictionary. When it comes to something as subjective and personal as art, it just doesn’t work out that cleanly.

Art isn’t so much of a concrete object to be defined as a mentality, a way of seeing the world. I may look at a cactus and think nothing of it, whereas a flower arranger might look at it and think of how best to place it to generate aesthetic appeal. I may cross a bridge and think nothing of it, whereas an engineer might try to derive how it’s built and how it could be improved. I may use my computer and think nothing of it, whereas a computer scientist might think about all the complicated procedures happening under the hood of that same computer.

That in itself is my definition of art. To me, art is what makes you think. If something causes you to think, it’s art. “Fountain” forced practically all of its viewers to think, and the subjective interpretations of that thought are something I personally find  beautiful. When multiple people are interpreting the exact same thing in different ways, it’s art. Something may be amazingly artistic for one person, and provide no mental stimulation at all for another. Everything in the world exists in a state of either being art or not art, and its state is different depending on who the observer is. The only difference is who you ask.

Video Games Under the Modernist View Of Art

Video games are one of the only mediums which directly force players to think. Thanks to interactivity, players must take an active role and exert their own influence over the game world. No other medium draws its viewers into an active role as much as video games do, and that inevitably forces players to think. Under my definition, video games could quite possibly be the truest form of art.

It’s significant that Portal and Braid were both puzzle games, because puzzles are quite possibly the purest form of thinking. Interestingly, puzzles are quite possibly the purest form of games as well. Solving a puzzle involves understanding how all the pieces work together, how each piece can be manipulated, and what kind of actions must be taken to achieve a certain goal. Games can be broken down similarly. In a RTS, should I build more troops, or should I expand my territory? In a FPS, should I throw a grenade over this wall, or should I camp outside its entrance? In Pong, should I move my paddle up, or should I move it down? In tag, should I run this way, or that way?

All of these aspects are dedicated to thinking about game mechanics, but both Portal and Braid forced players to consider the narrative aspects of their puzzles as well. Where am I? Why am I solving these puzzles? What goal am I trying to achieve? Who am I trying to save? The art debate links right back to the narratology vs. ludology debate here: you’re thinking about how to solve the mechanical gameplay elements of a puzzle, but you’re also thinking about the narrative elements of why you’re trying to solve that puzzle. When thinking about gameplay is combined with thinking about narrative, the result is an experience that truly forces players to think about every aspect of the game they’re playing, thus creating an artistic experience.

It’s almost poetic how intricate the connection between the “games as art” and “narratology vs. ludology” debates are. Understanding one requires an understanding of the other, and resolving one conflict results in the resolution of both. Portal and Braid brought the state of video games to a new level thanks to the way each game approached these concepts. Likewise, a careful consideration and application of these concepts can work to create an experience that promotes interpretation and subjective thought.

The lesson to take away is that there is no point to trying to take a side. To create an artful video game requires a blending of narratology and ludology. A player is most engaged when he is not only thinking about how to proceed in a game, but also why he is proceeding in that game. Medium and message must come together if games are to reach their maximum potential as not only forms of entertainment, but also forms of art.


(1) Or rather, a man named Ub Iwerks.

(2) Interactive fiction games are like text adventures, except with a massive emphasis on narrative. Since player interactivity is so low in IF games, it’s tough to say if they truly qualify as video games. But that’s worth an essay in itself. They’re cool though. Galatea by Emily Short was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had.

(3) Strictly speaking, Portal ended the debate because it came first. Then Braid came along and hammered the nail in the coffin. Then Portal 2 came along and performed the last rites. Then the floodgates kind of burst open and we got all sorts of Dear Esthers and LIMBOs and Journeys. Accounting for time paradoxes, of course.

(4) It’s probably necessary for me to make the distinction between “romantic” as lovey-dovey versus “romantic” as full of emotion. Here, I’m takling about the latter.

(5) Needless to say, the Dadaists were very strongly anti-war.

(6) And it’s still continuing to happen. There have been a few scandals of people urinating into museum exhibits of “Fountain,” claiming that they’re completing Duchamp’s masterpiece. And I guess they were sort of on the right track. But not enough to justify having a museum smell like piss.

Art Theory: The Rift Between Fashion and Character Design

What’s the difference between cosplay and fashion?

Why is there a rift between fashion and character design? Why do fictional characters dress differently from people in real life? Why is “cosplay” called “cosplay” rather than “fashion”? It’s not as simple a question as it may seem. The way I see it, there are four different types of answers.

1. The obvious answers. These answers are obvious, but they’re also true. Example: Character design has a different setting from modern-day life. Link lives in the fantasy world of Hyrule, Kratos lives in ancient mythology, and Master Chief lives among aliens in starships. That’s obviously not applicable to urban lifestyle, so they’re not going to dress the same way. So let’s narrow our scope down to games with a relatively modern setting.

2. Game-specific reasons. Sometimes, character design is used for some kind of purpose in the game rather than purely for visual aesthetics. These answers are also fair. Example: In FFVII, overalls are the standard SOLDIER uniform. Zach wears one, Sephiroth wears one, and Cloud wears one. Overalls aren’t a part of modern-day fashion, but overalls aren’t the standard SOLDIER uniform in our modern-day world (and obviously, SOLDIER doesn’t exist for us either). They also play a symbolic role in showing each character’s relationship to the others through SOLDIER.

3. Limitations. Making things in our modern world is a different process from making things digitally. However, I don’t believe these are valid arguments because there’s a reason why we don’t put more effort into overcoming these limitations, which is tied into the next and last type of answer. Example: Yuna’s elaborate dress from Final Fantasy X would cost too much to make, with how much emphasis it puts on the quality of its cloth texture.

4. Branding. Fashion in reality follows certain branding rules, and character design doesn’t need to. It’s a concept called fashion branding, and it’s probably an unfamiliar one so I’ll be explaining it slightly. I studied fashion branding under Joseph Hancock, who wrote the book Brand/Story. It’s a much more in-depth analysis of what fashion branding is (obviously, since it’s a whole book). But I’ll try to summarize it.

Introduction To Fashion Branding

Brand/Story… examines how a retailer, manufacturer, or designer label grabs an individual’s interest. Fashion branding is not just about specific products. For consumers, branding tells the story and creates the identity for a product, a person, and a company. Brand/Story looks at what a fashion brand is about and why companies advertise the way they do. It enables the reader to think critically about branding – both the medium and the message – and not simply take advertisements and brands at face value.”

Take the fashion company “Vans.” What’s Vans’s target audience? Skater boys (1). How does Vans appeal to skater boys? Through advertising. But what’s the best kind of advertising? People. Billboards and TV commercials are all fine and good, but if you’re walking down a street wearing a shirt with a big “Vans” logo on it, you’re advertising for Vans. Strangers will look at you, look at your shirt, and make the connection. “Vans is associated with this kind of person.”

That’s how Vans got its reputation as a company for skater boys: skater boys wear Vans. In order to maintain that reputation, Vans needs to make sure that skater boys keep wearing their products. The flip side to that is, if you’re not a skater boy then Vans isn’t interested in selling products to you because you would ruin their image. Walk into a Vans store looking like a skater boy, and the employees will act friendly and helpful so you’ll buy something and advertise it whenever you wear it. Walk into a Vans store looking like a preppy nerd, and the employees will stare at you until you leave. At least, that’s what they do to me (2).

Brand/Story analyzes how companies establish their target audience and appeal to them using advertisements like billboards and TV commercials. Victoria’s Secret is associated with lascivious sexiness, whereas Anthropologie is more subdued and serene. Macs are advertised as being artistic and hip whereas Windows computers are more formal and business-like. Drexel University is urban and down-to-earth, whereas U. Penn appears lofty and filled with ancient wisdom. All of these images are created through brand stories.

But I think there’s more to it than advertisements. Brand stories are also defined by the actual products a company creates. Vans will never make business suits because they don’t fit into the skater boy image. Likewise, Ralph Lauren will never make skater sneakers because their target audience is formal classy people who probably don’t ride skateboards. Clothes still carry an image even if they don’t have a logo plastered on them. For some people (I would personally argue “all people”), personality is defined through the clothes they wear.

All of this leads to a big important question. If each company designs clothes that suit their target audience, then what about the people who no company ever wants to be associated with? People like geeks or loners or misanthropes or old cronies, the parts of society that no one likes. What company can they go to to buy clothes that express themselves? Who would market towards those types of people, and risk tarnishing their brand image? Who designs clothes that represent the personalities we don’t like?

The answer: character designers.

Brand stories and advertisement schemes and monetary profits all fall under real-world business. When you’re not dealing with the real world, none of that has to apply. Characters can wear whatever they want – or more importantly, characters can wear whatever matches their personalities best. Geek, loner, misanthrope, or old cronie? No problem: there’s nothing to be lost designing clothes for fictional characters in a fictional world. Rather, the more accurately a designer can show a character’s personality visually the better, regardless of how dislikeable that personality is.

That’s the difference between fashion and character design. Fashion follows branding trends, and character design doesn’t need to. But that was pretty theoretical, so let’s move on to my favorite part: examples.

Neku Sakuraba (The World Ends With You)

Character overview: “At fifteen, Neku is an ardent fan of graffiti, but far less enthusiastic about forging relationships with other people. When the Reapers’ Game throws him into contact with other Players, he has two choices: open up… or get picked off.”

In TWEWY, Neku wakes up in downtown Shibuya as a participant of a mysterious Game in which losing means death. The Game absolutely must be played in pairs, a requirement difficult enough for someone like Neku to overcome. But that doesn’t mean grouping up leads to instant victory: the pair will still lose if they have weak bonds  and cannot trust each other. This is practically the worst case scenario for Neku, who feels that other people do nothing but drag him down.

Design analysis: A lot of Neku’s clothing gives him places for him to curl inside and turtle up in. The pockets on his shorts pop out rather than just being sewn on, so he can hide his hands inside: rather, his hands naturally rest inside his pockets when standing casually. His collar has the same theme, extending from his tank top almost like a scarf. All Neku has to do is duck his head slightly and the collar covers his face.

Usually, all of that hiding would imply something like shyness or nervousness. But notice that Neku’s wearing shorts and a tank top: exposed skin emphasizes confidence and strength. Aren’t confidence and shyness opposites? That’s because Neku’s little hiding places aren’t actually meant to imply shyness: they’re meant to imply his preference to keep to himself and block others out. Using that interpretation, Neku’s confidence is meant to make his misanthropic mentality obvious: it’s a loud and clear message that he does not want to be bothered.

The epitome of Neku’s personality is his headphones. In the opening cutscene, he’s shown putting on his headphones to block out the annoying noises around him, and he keeps them on for the rest of the game. It’s not as though he’s a hardcore audiophile: it’s obvious that he likes music, but the headphones are primarily meant to reinforce his “don’t bother me” message. This message is so deeply built into his personality that his hair is practically formed around his headphones.

Real world relevance: The “don’t bother me” attitude is antisocial, and antisocial behaviors don’t exactly mesh with a social world. Modern society thrives on connections and friendships: the more of them you have, the better. Trying to block out other people and keep to yourself goes against everything society is about.

Headphones do exist in our world, but not as a fashion statement (3). Casual music listeners still default to earphones. Look at the iPod advertisements of cool hip people dancing around while listening to their music: they’re all wearing earphones. Earphones are smaller and less noticeable than headphones, so they make a wearer appear more open and approachable. Over-ear headphones like Neku’s imply blocking out all outside noise, while earphones don’t carry that same image (judging by appearances alone rather than actual noise cancellation).

Even so, it’s not just headphones: music itself isn’t all that common. Walk along a street and pay attention to how many other people are listening to music, headphones or earphones. Sound is a vital part of human society: language and speech are pretty much the foundation of any kind of interaction between people (4). The act of listening to music blocks out that sound aspect, regardless of the device. But headphones just imply it more strongly than earphones do. That’s why Neku wears headphones and not earphones, and that’s why headphones aren’t a part of modern fashion.

But when we look at Neku, we have to address the elephant in the room: he’s a Japanese character, designed by Japanese character designers, and Japanese character design is pretty weird. It’s tempting to just write off Neku’s eccentric appearance as a side effect of his cultural origin. That’s a good point, and I will counter it with this next character.

Faith Connors (Mirror’s Edge)

Character overview: Mirror’s Edge is set in a dystopian city where all communications are carefully monitored and manipulated to prevent civilian uprisings (or rather, any kind of free thought at all). Faith lives in this city as one of its Runners, an illegal messenger who carries and delivers information by hand rather than electronically. Runners can bypass the city’s restrictions on electronic communications because they’re not communicating electronically, but at the same time the city’s still trying to crack down on them. To combat that, the Runners developed an advanced mastery of parkour so they could travel through the city quickly and efficiently enough to not only deliver their messages, but also to avoid cops.

Faith and her sister Kate lost their parents in a protest march when the city police responded with live fire. Now, they both carry their parent’s dreams to improve the city, with Kate working from the inside as a police officer and Faith becoming a criminal Runner.

Design analysis: Most of Faith’s visual design revolves around practicality rather than aesthetics, and for good reason. Dressing up all nice and pretty just isn’t an option in the Runner culture.  Her hair’s cropped short, her tank top and pants are boyish, and her shoes have those weird separated toes. Faith was never meant to be a dainty pretty girl, and it reads loud and clear. Isn’t it fascinating how fashion can be used to show how little a character cares about fashion?

But Faith still does have an aspect which is purely aesthetic rather than practical: her tattoos. She has one around her right eye and one on the outside of her right forearm. While her arm tattoo doesn’t carry much significance, her eye tattoo is practically the game’s logo image. Its distinctive shape gives Faith an aura of sharp intensity, complementing her personality and goal.

The depth of her commitment alienates Faith from other Runners who are simply doing their job to survive. A major theme of Mirror’s Edge is the question of survival versus living: do the bare minimum necessary to survive, or struggle against your limits and truly live? Faith notes that the city degenerated into its dystopian state because most people chose an easy life and just accepted the government’s invasive changes.

Real world relevance: Tattoos have been associated with rebellion for a long, long time. A full report dedicated to analyzing that association would be hundreds of pages long, and I’m not qualified enough to try making one. The action of taking a step that can never be reversed is dramatic, impactful, and usually not done unless for the sake of some deep-seated cause. Often, that cause is some form of rebellion.

The concept of rebellion is seen as cool rather than fearsome. But how often do you see a facial tattoo like Faith’s? Facial tattoos toe the line between “cool” and “fearsome,” and Faith’s tattoo leans towards the latter. It broadcasts the fact that Faith will not rest until she has accomplished her goal. However, that kind of drive in the real world would be seen as antisocial and snobbish. Some words to describe Faith would be “intense, serious, unrelenting,” whereas some antonyms would be “easygoing, relaxed, friendly.” Which set sounds more like it would describe a popular person? I’d say the second.

The theme of survival versus living is a very relevant one for modern society. Take the easy road and live a comfortable life, or take the hard road and challenge yourself? Become a drug dealer and rake in tons of cash, or go to college and try to learn enough to make a difference in other people’s lives (4)? This is completely my own subjective uneducated opinion, but I believe people as a general whole are too unmotivated and lazy: survival over living. A person as driven as Faith doesn’t exactly mesh with the flow of society (5). Consequentially, a face tattoo representing a drive as deep as Faith’s doesn’t exactly mesh with the flow of society either.

Both Neku and Faith were jerks. Does this mean that characters designed this way are just total jerks who we would never want to associate with? On one hand, that was one of the main points. But on the other hand, likeability isn’t just a binary scale. A likeable person can have little snippets of personality that are off-putting and frightening, and that can be represented through character design as well. With that, I bring in my third example.

Raz (Psychonauts)

Character overview: Raz was a performer at his family circus production, but underneath that had psychic powers and a desire to train them. However, his father bore a heavy hatred of psychics, and prevented Raz from ever associating with them. After he tears up a brochure for a psychic training camp that Raz was reading, the young psychic decided to run away from home and join the camp, planning on honing his psychic skills to the point of becoming a Psychonaut.

As a person, Raz makes an effort to be friendly to the other cadets of the training camp. In fact, this theme goes even deeper: Raz spends a lot of the game exploring other people’s minds and understanding the way they think. Later, he acts like a Freudian psychologist, untangling people’s problems and helping them understand themselves better. But in the end, no matter how far away he runs from home, he still has to face his personal family problems.

Design analysis: It’s interesting how heavily clothed Raz is. Compared to Faith and Neku, Raz isn’t really showing a whole lot of skin. Even his hair, which is usually a key visual indicator, is covered by a large cap. The previous characters wore tank tops and bared skin to exude a sense of confidence. Why is Raz, the most outgoing and likeable character of the three, so bundled up? You can’t help but feel that he has something to hide.

The focal point of Raz’s design is his goggles. They’re big, imposing, and shiny. Interestingly enough, the goggles aren’t just a visual: Raz puts on the goggles every time he jumps into someone’s brain. People’s brains are strange, twisted worlds of insanity, and that’s how Raz’s goggles are associated: they represent insanity and unrelatability. When he’s done sorting through a person’s mental mess and getting to understand them the way they understand themselves, he takes off the goggles and looks them in the eye.

Real world relevance: Masks and other accessories covering the face are rare because of the fact that they hide the face. Humans express themselves through facial expressions, regardless of culture or gender or age or anything. It’s something that’s been studied in psychology and catalogued in the Facial Action Coding System by Paul Ekman. Putting on a mask hides those facial expressions, creating a sense of mystery and with it, fear. When we can’t understand each other’s expressions, we can’t help but be a bit unnerved.

How often are ski masks sported in modern fashion? Rather, how often are ski masks sported at all? We usually associate them with bank robbers or other criminals who try to hide their faces to avoid arrest. Ski masks are almost more closely related to criminals than to actual skiiers. They’re functional and warm, but I’ve never actually seen someone wearing one on the slopes, and I’ve been skiing/snowboarding for a long time. They’re scary because they cover over the face.

That is what Raz’s goggles do. When he’s wearing the goggles, we can’t see his eyes. We can’t see his eyebrows, or the bridge of his nose, or the way his cheeks interact with the bottoms of his eyelids. All of that is essential information for us humans to connect with each other. It’s cheesy to say that the eyes are the window into the soul, but considering the Facial Action Coding System, a lot of human emotion is told through the eyes. Covering any part of the face is intimidating enough: remember Neku’s turtleneck popping over his mouth and chin, or Faith’s eye tattoo. But with Raz, his goggles obscure the most important part of the face, and that is off-putting.

What Have We Learned From All This?

Well, we’ve learned that I am a raving lunatic. How can all of this be true when there are characters like Madison Page (Heavy Rain), Duck (The Walking Dead), and Alan Wake (Alan Wake) who all look very much like normal people?

But let’s break each character down. Madison Page is a normal lady who suddenly gets swept up in a murder case. Duck is a normal kid who has to live through a zombie outbreak. Alan Wake is a normal writer who has to deal with shadowy, dangerous creatures called Taken. If we look at them, all of these characters are actually normal people.

Neku, Faith, and Raz? They’re not normal people. Neku is a complete misanthrope, Faith is a big-time criminal, and Raz is a psychic. All of these six people are successful character designs. A core tenent of narrative design is “show, don’t tell,” and character design is certainly the former. These designs all visualize the character’s personality. It’s just that in some cases, that personality is normal, so the visualization is also normal. When the personality is abnormal, the visualization should match.

The real core of the issue is the personality of the characters we design. We as character designers have the ability to bring life to people who can’t easily exist in modern society due to their personalities. Consequentially, our players can experience the unique perspective of such an impossible person. And in my opinion, that is the true power of narrative: the ability to bring one person into the mind of another.

Therefore, that’s what we should be doing: bringing life to those kinds of people. When we explore a wider range of characters than the standard fantasy cookie-cutter, we enrich our players that much further. No other medium has as much potential to allow players/viewers/readers to connect with their characters as deeply as video games can, because video games are the only medium in which one can actually control their character. And through that control, players can gain understanding.


(1) This is a pretty big generalization about Vans’s target audience and it’s probably untrue, but just bear with me here for the sake of example.

(2) I don’t mean to diss Vans employees, it’s just an example. They probably do that because of the headphones I wear, which I discuss in the bit about Neku Sakuraba’s design.

(3) Skullcandy’s making a decent effort to bring headphones and music into mainstream fashion. Their practices (sticking their skull logo wherever possible, giving up sound quality for aesthetics, etc) aren’t exactly admirable, but I like the idea. Big problems need small steps, so go Skullcandy! Even if your headphones kind of suck.

(4) Relevant song: “River Runs Deep” by KnowMads:

(5) I could probably write a whole essay about modern society’s collective lack of motivation. But I’m not a philosopher: I’m a game designer. Instead, I’ll leave this line, from Yeat’s poem The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Seriously, why is it such a bad thing to be motivated?