Creating Character: Ten Faces We Won’t Soon Forget

by Meagan Marie on Sep 27, 2009 at 08:14 PM

Cookie-cutter bodies and perfectly painted faces are a thing of the past. Instead, developers are making a point to flesh out distinctive, flawed and entirely fascinating protagonists. Sure, Nathan Drake and Lara Croft are admittedly attractive, but they don’t stand out much among the crowd of other ideally proportioned and intentionally unblemished gaming icons.

Whether it’s a crooked smile, a small scar, or a meaningful tattoo, these characters have been meticulously crafted to be hard to forget. We’re not saying that having character makes one ugly. Instead, we are calling out and congratulating developers who don’t simply look at their protagonists’ visage as a collection of necessary parts.

Lucky for us, we were able to go straight to the source for several of these leading lads and ladies. We picked the brains of a handful of developers and dove into the process of creating each character from the ground up. Some even provided us with concept art. For those unable to participate, we instead provided our own musings as to why the particular character is memorable. Read on for the scoop.

Faith, the face of DICE’s Mirror’s Edge, is a hard lady to forget—and not just because of her distinctive tattoos and athletic body.

“Faith was created to be a strong and iconic female character that would appeal to women as well as men,” explained producer Tom Farrer. “We wanted to break away from the clichéd videogame look where all the men are muscle freaks and the all the women are well endowed. The idea was to create a more grown-up, minimalist, and fashion orientated character. There was an ‘edgy’ attitude that we wanted to capture, a punk-like rebelliousness. This attitude is communicated through her body art and the controlled use of bright red on her glove and shoes. The look never becomes dirty or trashy though, it conforms to the clean minimalist aesthetic of the game which was very important to us. Faith is of course also a very athletic heroine which is reflected in the proportions of her body, she is attractive but she isn’t overly sexualized. It was important to us that she felt human not superhuman, inspirational not unattainable, a real hero.”


We have to give the DICE team props. Not only is Faith’s build and attire appropriate for her profession—a level of practicality you rarely see in the game industry—but the team managed to keep her femininity intact. Still, some don’t appreciate her diminutive assets as much as others, as evidenced by a fan redesign that caught the attention of the DICE developers themselves. The redesign saddened the team, upset that some fans would rather Faith looked like a “12-year-old with a boob job” than a sharp-witted athlete. We have to agree with them. The fan recreation depicted an entirely generic character—one devoid of the charm that landed her on this list in the first place. That’s why we wouldn’t change a thing about Faith. Her rough and tough demeanor paired with a petite frame and features gives Faith a well-deserved place on our list.


There is definitely no shortage of muscular mercenaries or testosterone-infused troops in modern video games. This means it takes a particularly unique solider to stand out in the camo-clad crowd. Tyson Rios, the more substantial half of the Army of Two team, is such an example.

“When we created Tyson Rios, we knew that we wanted to create a character from a non-Caucasian, and ethnic, ethnicity,” began Reid Schneider, executive producer. “We thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to Salem because he would have different perspectives on war, corporate greed, politics, etc.

“Also, we wanted Rios to be older, more mature, and a strong counterpoint to the younger Elliot Salem character. Tyson needed to be experienced, and we wanted his face to show it. We went through many iterations of his facial scars to show the depth of experience in real battle. Finally, Rios needed to be smart. He needed to speak in a tone that commanded respect.


“In terms of his gear, his mask was very important as well. We knew from very early on that we wanted his mask to have the look of a skull, and to reflect a bit of his facial scarring. We also wanted his mask to intimidate those who might encounter him on the battlefield.”

Schneider continued to say that the goal in the newest Army of Two iteration is to model Tyson after a modern-day Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Essentially, they want him to appear as someone who was once built beyond reason, but has softened over time. As such Tyson now has a small layer of fat over his still-muscular frame.

Scarring and an intimidating stature on its own isn’t enough. But combined with several other features, including his dwindling muscle mass, the combo is enough to warrant him a place on our list. These small touches brought Tyson Rios back from a somewhat predictable precipice, making him believable and unique in a sea of nameless grunts.


It’s not difficult to see why these two ended up on our list. We might go as far as to say that they inspired it. But IO Interactive deserves props for taking a risk in creating two such offensively unattractive characters. We have to admit that personality may play a small role in the preceding statement.


Let`s take a look at Kane and Lynch. One is a heartless mercenary set out to right his wrongs. The other is a medicated maniac who second-guesses his intentions more than those of others. Now middle-aged, both look ragged and used. One has a receding hairline and the other compensates for surface area with length. One has an intimidating stature and the other is so obviously unstable he doesn’t need bulk to be terrifying. Both are deadly and dysfunctional but one looks like at some point in time he could have been someone’s dad. More than just biologically speaking that is. The two characters balance each other’s unique psychoses and make a perverted but somewhat effective team. As long as one keeps his finger away from the trigger that is. We don’t really need to say much more. Once you’ve spent an afternoon with Kane and Lynch, you won’t forget your time together.

Heavy Rain isn’t even out yet and we’re already enamored with enigmatic protagonist Madison Page. That goes to show how important character design is—we can’t help but want to know more. But the unique thing about Madison is that she, like all the other characters in the game, is based on a real person. Heavy Rain takes a unique approach in terms of character development by working with “virtual actors,” and creating digital clones of real individuals.

 “In most games, the face is ‘designed,’ where one actor lends his animations, another his voice, another his facial animations, and the result is some kind of composite of four to five people,” explained David Cage, founder of Quantic Dream. “We felt from our past experiences that this way of making characters was creating inconsistency and would not fit with our will to create real, believable, living and breathing characters.

“The first difficulty we faced was casting for Madison Paige. We were looking for an actress with the right face, the right body, the right way of moving, the right voice and a real acting talent, being able to invest a year in a crazy project like ours. The actress we ended up choosing, Jacqui Ainsley, had something in her attitude that perfectly fit the character. One key distinction we wanted to make for Madison was her hair. Jacqui is originally blonde with long hair, but that was a bit too sophisticated for Madison. So we cut the hair and changed the color to black.

“From our previous tests on The Casting demo, we had identified the importance of the eyes in the acting performance. Early on in the development process, we prototyped eyes in matter of rendering, working on specific shaders reacting to light and looking wet, and in matter of animations. We have developed a specific technology allowing us to motion capture eye animations to match facial expressions.

“Madison is also the main character of the first scene of Heavy Rain. We wanted to introduce her in her private life and we made some decisions to make the player feel like he intimately knows her. Making Madison a more interesting character than just the standard female video game stereotype was something essential for us. We did not want to give her special skills or make her a sexual object. We wanted to create a real character, with nuances of light and shadows, strengths and weaknesses, someone that the player will be interested not only to look at, but also to discover who she is. Developing a character with nuances remains a massive challenge in a video game and definitely our biggest one on Heavy Rain (especially because we tried to pay the same attention to our four main characters). We hope players will enjoy discovering Madison Paige and will fall in love with her as we did.”

So although we can’t give Quantic full credit for designing Madison (instead giving them credit for finding her) we can approve of their choice for Heavy Rain’s leading lady. Madison’s intimately rendered face, down to freckles and small smile lines, sharp cheekbones, short hair and believable build makes her ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. At the very least—memorable.

The argument for Tyson Rios also applies to Gears of War poster-boy Marcus Fenix. Just as above, Marcus is a grizzled war-hero with the scars and massive build to prove it. But somehow he manages not to feel like a manufactured solider. Chris Perna, art director at Epic Games, touched on the process of designing COG armor as well as specifics about Marcus’ features.

“From contemporary SWAT-style design, to looks influenced by the Vietnam era, to a futuristic samurai appearance, we took our time finding a style for the COG soldiers,” began Perna, “As we moved along, we kept in mind that the war on Sera had been raging for decades, so these guys would be hardened and battered from such an extended time in the trenches.

“We began focusing on Marcus Fenix after settling on an armor design for the soldiers. We wanted an ‘intelligent ***’ who had almost predatory features—sloping forehead, pronounced jaw line, thick brow, etc. These guys had been in serious combat, and they would be bulky, bruised, weathered and scarred. A decision was made to give Marcus a scar to give him a bit more of a ‘used’ look and to add character to his face.”

And it somehow all works. Despite having all the ingredients—muscles, scars, facial hair and more—Marcus doesn’t come off as another expendable meathead. Instead, his “predatory features” are paired with intelligent eyes that make him someone you wouldn’t want to mess with, but whom you would trust your life to. You get the feeling that while never once in his life unremarkable, Marcus’ appearance has been directly molded by the circumstances of the world around him. His looks alone tell a story.

Frank West is an everyman. An everyman stuck in an extraordinary situation. And the truth is that the zombie apocalypse—in all its inevitability—won’t discriminate against its victims. Your standard action stars are going to be just as screwed as your aspiring photojournalist. And while muscles may help prove “survival of the fittest,” brains and resourcefulness are ultimately going to make the biggest difference.


And that’s what you get with Frank West. He may not look like much, with his thick brows, slightly bulbous nose, stocky frame and abundance of chest hair, but with Frank you get an unexpected character that uses humor and anything he can get his hands on as a weapon.

True, Frank might not warrant a second look on the street, but that’s what we love about him. Frank West represents that little part in all of us that hopes to survive a zombie apocalypse some day.

Although most of us remember Captain Price for his selfless nature and unique personality, his oddly charming looks are another reason we won’t soon be forgetting him. But let’s be honest—i`ts mostly because of the ‘stache.

“Even though his appearance is heavily inspired by Cpt. Price from Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2, we wanted to give him a fresh new look,” explained Robert Bowling, community manager at Infinity Ward. “The handle bar mustache is a trait that we wanted to keep but we wanted to modernize it a bit so we added scruffy beard hair to help blend it into his face and give him a grizzlier look. It’s tough to pull off, but we spent a lot of time working on his eyes and brows so he has a battle-hardened thousand-yard stare. His face is A-symmetrical; he has some small freckling, and even sports a receding hairline complete with a bald spot. It’s Price’s imperfections that make him come across more believable. His boonie hat took a lot of experimenting to get right. We deformed and bent it until it not only looked cool, but dropped a shadow over his eyes like a baseball cap would. We built Cpt. Price to look like a character and let his actions make him a hero.”


Short and sweet. Like the other soldiers on our list, Price never feels lost in the crowd. Instead, his distinctive looks allude to an alternate existent—perhaps a different life where his skills weren’t needed for war. Not bad getting all of that out of a single render.


We’ve already been over this. Zombies don’t discriminate against who they attack. Flesh is flesh. So while some zombie flicks or games choose to follow blonde bunnies who wind up in notably less clothing and more blood on them then in them, Valve reflected the truth of the zombie apocalypse in their characters—no one is safe. This includes bikers, students, IT analysts and former Green Berets. It’s safe to say that if the formula worked in the first iteration, it should carry over to the second. As such Valve opted to use a newly announced Left 4 Dead 2 survivor to illustrate their character creation process.

 “During the early stages of our design process the artists and writers brainstorm character ideas," explained Valve`s Chet Faliszek. "Some ideas start as simple sketches others as quick snippets of text. A large roster of characters soon exists. Artists then begin to sketch the text snippets and the writers write bios for the sketches.  An important part of this process is that no one is precious with their work—we create many more characters than will ever make it into the game. You have to be ready for most of your work to be thrown out during this stage. Some quickly get discarded, others move to the front of the pack. The Gambler aka Nick, was the first front runner (in reference to Left4Dead 2). He started as a sketch and a quick gambler bio was created.


“The next step is to take all the front running characters and create teams of survivors. We look not only for visual and backstory overlap but vocal overlap as well.  Nick tested well here as he was in the middle tones between our other front runners the deep bassed Coach and the lighter voiced Ellis.

“Once we have the basic look, we then search for a body model. The body model will help the modelers create the characters face and basic body type. For Nick we used Taymour Ghazi as the body model. He had the right mix of good looks and winning personality. Once this step is complete we create a full bio and casting sheet to audition the voice actors. Hugh Dillon had heard we were casting for Nick and as a Left 4 Dead player himself, he wanted to be a part of Left 4 Dead 2. Once we heard his audition reel, he became an obvious choice.

“During the entire process, animators weigh in with their concerns and hopes for the characters. A character is not just a look or a voice, they are also defined by how they move. For Left 4 Dead 2 we wanted to make sure each character moved and behaved differently. Some of these differences are subtle but they all help define the character.
At the first recording session, writers work with the actors and animators to create the characters.  With Hugh’s help we were able to find a place for Nick a deadpan, sarcastic tough guy. This is the perfect mix for an axe wielding Nick.”

For characters with sparse dialogue and little in the way of a back-story, a surprising amount of effort goes into creating each survivor and balancing them as a team. But that’s why they feel frighteningly believable and how they were able to claw their way onto our list.


Yes, another action hero. But there is more to Sam Fisher than meets the eye. Not your average male protagonist, Sam manages to look tough and grizzled, while still maintaining an approachable demeanor. The gloves and goggles aren’t always on—and someone does (or did) call him daddy. Additionally, Sam’s creators have never been afraid to change him, be it shaving his head or notably aging him. Jacques Marcoux, team lead in character modeling, spoke to us about some of the more technical aspects of creating Sam Fisher.

“Creating an iconic character such as Sam Fisher is not an easy task,” began Marcoux. “Trying to revamp his look without losing the essence of the original is even more difficult. Before defining what the hero looks like we must define on paper who he is. Working on his background, his age etc… The story and the gameplay will also play a part in the creating process. Once that part’s done then we start working the concept arts. Once the concept art is approved (after many attempts), we continue by the creation of a base-mesh; it is the canvas which we sculpt on and is of very low resolution created in 3D Studio Max.


“We then take 360 degrees photographs of people to help us in the process, we use them for the sculpting and is a very crucial step since we are making a realistic game. Every detail is drawn on the model; starting with bones then fat, wrinkle, pores, skin tension, etc…

“Once it is complete we color the head with the photographs taken previously and paint on top additional details as needed. The in-game mesh is then modeled in 3D Studio Max with the proper edge loops for animation and optimizations. The high resolution sculpt is then projected to the low resolution to generate the normal map and ambient occlusion when necessary. Hair is added last with sets of planes to give the proper chaotic look on Sam.”

Chaotic and controlled are both good ways to describe Sam Fisher. A little bit James Bond and a little bit Jack Bauer, Fisher is one character who is hard to ignore. We can’t wait to see how he continues to evolve.


Rockstar knows how to make interesting characters. Max Payne and Jimmy Hopkins both fall in line with GTAIV star Niko Bellic. But Bellic takes the cake for a variety of reasons.

Niko is an intense looking guy. His constantly furrowed brows, intense stare and practical dress make obvious his one-track mission. Top it off with his widows peak, scruffy facial hair and scarred brow and he looks like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.


At the same time, we all know a fun and friendlier side to Niko. A side that likes to go bowling on dates and joyride around Liberty City. Rockstar managed to play both aspects of his personality out through his looks—even if one side is more dominant than the other.

Niko’s no-nonsense looks put him on our radar, and deservingly so. We don’t think anyone will be forgetting him anytime soon.