Height and Character Design Musings

April 8th, 2009

The strangest realization popped into my head when first playing Metal Gear Solid 4 roughly a year ago. In one of the numerous opening scenes, Snake was standing at the foot of a grave stone saluting. It wasn’t the obvious throwback to MGS3 that caught my attention – that metaphor was already obvious. No, what grabbed me was how Snake looked like a human, a normal person that could don a blazer, tie and pair of chinos. Normal Snake, in a normal context. Snake’s moment of reflection is then shortly interrupted by an equally real Otacon. Seeing both of these characters rendered in gorgeous photo realism certainly pulls at the game’s heritage and really draws you in.

Witnessing Snake in something other than skin tight fabric wasn’t exactly what made him seem human. It’s certainly a contributor, and presents him in a more personal light, but on pondering the idea a little, I realized what it was; these characters have legs!

The history of video games has been stunted by men and women with stumpy legs. I guess you could blame the plumer perhaps, he started it. While not true of all games and genres, I feel that in the past the build of video game characters have been presented in a rather obtuse fashion. Call it a technological thing, that resolutions are small and hence the pixel count to build a person is rather limited, you can’t argue with that. Less pixel power naturally results in less complex imagery and (generally speaking) more simplistic character designs. With these limitations in mind, when abiding by a strict pixel count, where on the human body can you cull pixels while still maintaining a “human” image? The legs, of course. Short hands, tiny head, empty torso naturally appear strange, shorter legs, I’d argue, less so.

That’s just a hand-wavy assumption though, I’ll let you judge that one yourself.

RPGs are another interesting point of discussion, due to a camera angle that looks down on its characters, the legs of many an RPG protagonist naturally appear shorter than they really are. It’s a neat camera trick. Phantasy Star was a little different in this regard, an exception perhaps.

final-fantasy-viii-8-cast

The first game that got me thinking about the legs in video games was Final Fantasy VIII. Unlike the growth stunted heroes of the previous entry, FF VIII realistically rendered their cast with human sized legs, maybe even a little longer. Since then, no legs have really stood out for me, until that of MGS4. Like FF VIII, these characters aren’t just tall people, they are tall by conscious design choice.

Another example of character height that stands out to me is village chief Bitores Mendez from Resident Evil 4. In this case, his height was intentionally standout and it works effectively in characterizing this menacing creature. Height is clearly an asset to him, unlike Ramon Salazar, another character in the same game, who’s height is clearly a challenge. There are rarely ever any (non-comedic) distinctively short game characters, which makes him all the more memorable. That and the shrill of his voice.

Maybe this commentary all sounds a little batty. Height is clearly an integral part of character design, so it’s interesting to explore its history and particularly memorable moments of its integration in video games. After all it does have an effect, it’s part of the reason why I’m quite resistant towards the dumpy characters in the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles universe. I don’t know. Tell me some of your own ideas regarding game characters and height, and maybe this post would have been worth something beyond trail-less conclusions ^_^

  • An obvious one, to me, is Link — specifically The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time due to the fact you play as both Young Link and Adult Link.

    I played it and one of your examples, Final Fantasy VIII (my favourite FF game I might add) at around the same time and it was then that I realised that these characters seemed human. While I didn’t put it down to their legs, I did notice that some characters were taller and therefore a variety of sizes was available in the game. Now that you mention it, I can’t think of any other game that has made characters stand out by increasing their height, though I haven’t really given it any attention before either. Actually, despite the first-person view, maybe Samus Aran in the Metroid Prime series? She always felt tall to me, which in turn made her seem stronger. Subconsciously at least.

  • Angel Mass

    legs FTW