Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Boobies and designer stubble: What makes a video game character attractive?

Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure it's not this:

A Well-Rendered reader suggested to me the other week that I write a post about the relative attractiveness of male and female video game characters, a task I approach with enthusiasm if not reverence.

Just to get it out of the way, I'll start by making mention of the opinion that whilst female video game characters are created for the male gaze, male video game characters aren't created for the female gaze.

This may have been the case in the past, but it is definitely changing. Designers, developers and publishers alike are not only aware of widening demographics, but also of the fact that more stories can be told if you expand your cast of potential characters.

That's Nathan Drake from Uncharted. I've only played a bit of Uncharted, and Nathan's not really my type, but you get the general idea. He's like a cross between Indiana Jones and one of Joss Whedon's more clean-cut heroes. Whether Nathan floats your boat or not, it's clear that he wasn't designed with a complete disregard for those who find men attractive.

Neither is he a rare example of an attractive man in a medium saturated with pnuematic women. In fact, story-centric games these days often feature as many attractive men as women. As soon as characters are required to function as more than just eye candy (see: Soul Calibur, below), it seems that the men are as pulse-quickening as the women. It's testament to this that every time I thought of an attractive video game man, I would immediately realise that his love interest or female counterpart was equally attractive, and vice-versa.

Here's Jacob "Mr Smouldering"* Taylor from Mass Effect 2:

I might be making huge assumptions here, but Jacob seems to have been designed to appeal to people who like men.

Mass Effect 2 being the kind of equal opportunities free-for-all that it is, his counterpart Miranda is pretty "appealing" too.

That is such a practical bra for a soldier.

If the player has managed to get either Miranda or Jacob to this state of undress, they will have had endure several hours' worth of character development, unearthing their paramour's hopes, fears and dreams through the medium of conversation. Although the emotional weight of Mass Effect 2's sex scenes is rather undermined by the fact that you get and "achievement" for completing them, at least the characters you share them with have depth.

Besides the relationship between plot and character development, there's also a correlation between the year a game was released and the appeal (or lack thereof) of its characters. Going back to Uncharted for a minute, here's Elena.

Elena is attractive in a way that would have been extremely hard to render in-game ten years ago. Her understated prettiness would have been totally impossible at a time when polygons were at a premium. Back in the day, video game characters needed to have exaggerated characteristics in order to give them any kind of identity.

Speaking of which, there's some interesting discussion in this video** about Lara Croft's sexuality, or lack thereof. Her creator Toby Gard was so upset by the direction marketing took Lara (in the opposite direction to her clothes, it would seem) in anticipation of the second game that he left Core design altogether. He didn't feel that the character he created would ever take her clothes off for a lad's mag. The picture at the top of this article is the kind of thing he is referring to, and I think he has a point.

The Lara of the games was sexy because despite having the beauty, brains, education and money to do anything she wanted with her life, she chose the difficult path which led to her true passion. Incidentally, this is why I find the likes of Paris Hilton and Peaches Geldof so annoying. I don't begrudge them their weath, beauty and priviledge, but they never seem to do anything interesting with them. It just seems like such a waste.

For this reason, Lara is never sexier than when she's scaling cravasses in her desert boots or figuring out how to solve a complex puzzle.

Someone else whose exaggerated physical characteristics become alluring when taken into context with the rest of their character is Enslaved's Monkey.

I understand that Monkey is not everyone's power orb of tea, but what at first seems threatening - tattoos, tribal face-paint, scars - becomes intriguing as soon as the character starts talking. That he's athletic enough to perform the gymnastic feats that make the game so fun doesn't hurt his masculine appeal.

As one might expect from such a beautifully-designed game, his counterpart, Trip, is one of the prettiest video game characters ever.

This image supports what I was saying earlier about how technology allows video game characters to be more attractive. That picture is in-engine, not pre-rendered. Have a look at full-resolution. It's pictures like that which make me excited about the future of gaming.

Where was I?

Like Uncharted, Enslaved is a game in which storytelling is paramount. The characters in both games are attractive because their relationships are so well-written.

Without a well-written character inside, a beautiful form is just a shell. Take the Soul Calibur IV ladies, for example.

With her glossy hair, porcelain skin, deep brown eyes and iridescent clothes, Xianghua is lovely to look at. And yet she's just a beautiful ornament because she doesn't have a character. As an avatar in a fighting game, Xianghua is basically just a tennis raquet. A beautiful, bouncy tennis raquet with perfect make-up, but a tennis raquet nonetheless.

That said, there is nothing wrong with such a beautiful ornament as long as it is never required to be anything more. Xianghua and her fellow besworded lovelies fulfil their roles perfectly.

In fact, one of the best things in Soul Calibur IV is the character-creation toy. As someone who spent most of my break-times at school laboriously drawing pictures of the Spice Girls with different hair and make-up, there is a lot of fun to be had creating characters who are so beautiful they are almost works of art. Unlike the character creation modes in Mass Effect or Oblivion, it's easy to create beautiful characters in Soul Calibur IV. If those people at Namco ever run out of things to stick a blade to (this will happen soon, the last game featured a hula hoop and an umbrella), they might consider a dressing-up game.

Getting back to the point, because the Soul Calibur ladies don't have personalities, they're just beautiful, never attractive.

On the other end of the scale, someone who is attractive without being especially beautiful is Red Dead Redemption's John Marston.

He might have been handsome once, but he's been in so many fights his face now resembles a dropped omelette.

And yet he is attractive because behind that messy face lies a complex, flawed person. The same can be said of his wife Abigail.

The player is only introduced to Abigail after they have been playing Red Dead Redemption for upwards of twenty hours. Everything that the player does in the game is in aid of reuniting John and Abigail. Because John speaks so much about her, and because he manfully turns down all manner of attractive offers from maidens and not-so-maidens, the seasoned gamer expects Abigail to fall lazily into one of two tired gaming tropes: the buxom wench or the wilting flower.

It's a big relief to see that she is neither.

After all, she's always had to work for survival. When she met John she was a prostitute, and she's been a farmer ever since they were married. This explains her slightly weathered face and practical attitude. Rockstar have always been sophisticated developers who prioritise storytelling, so if their characters are attractive, it's because they look like people rather than mannequins.

Abigail's believability makes her an interesting subversion of a rather tiresome video game stock charcter: the girlfriend MacGuffin.

Here's the first and worst of these, Princess Peach.

Princess Peach is Mario's "reward" for navigating the various technicolour obstacle courses which make up the various Mario games. I don't think it matters that she doesn't have any personality at all because the Mario games aren't about story, but she is partly to blame for a number of excruciatingly bland female characters.

(On a side note, I urge you all to watch this video, which imagines the sort of conversation Princess Peach and Princess Zelda would have if they were real characters.)

The female video game love interest is a character who usually ends up being as excruciatingly dull as all the princes in the early Disney films, who were lucky if they got more than three lines.

Consequently, it's nice when a love interest is an interesting character as well as being nice to look at.

Alyx Vance is objectively pretty, but in a way that makes sense within the confines of the plot. Unlike Trip, she doesn't seem to have found a place to buy decent make-up after the apocalypse, and she keeps her hair short and easy to manage (I think about these things). She has a nice figure, but this is because she runs around a lot trying to escape the authorities and source bits of scrap metal, not because she spends all her time in the gym.

Alyx proves an important point, that although writing is important to a character's allure, it's equally important that their appearence is a good fit for their personality.

Even if the writing and voice acting were kept exactly the same, Alyx would be far less attractive in a boob tube and heels because she wouldn't be believable, even within the context of Half Life's post-apocalyptic universe where head crabs are a major threat and the quickest way of moving furniture is by using a gravity gun. Alyx's practical attire is as key to her character as her dry wit, and the fact that she doesn't seem too bothered about her appearence makes her all the more appealing.

Just to prove the point, Half Life's gritty nuclear wasteland would lose some of its oppressive lustre if it were populated by people who dressed like this.

It's ok though, because Fang (from Final Fantasy XIII) exists in a game which has the word "fantasy" in the title.

I think Fang is one of the sexiest characters in gaming, and it's no co-incidence that she's in a game that's barely a year old. If you look at the above picture in high-resolution, you will see the uneven texture of the skin of her legs, the faded leather of her top and the needle marks in her tattoo. Admittedly, this picture is not an in-engine image of Fang, but the care taken to make her look as though she spends her time outdoors makes the character much more compelling than if she was rendered to look perfect.

She's also charismatic and conflicted in ways that are all too often the preserve of male characters across all media. In this sense she has much in common with Alien's Ripley, whose functional physicality is testament to the fact that she is not defined by the men around her. Despite her cherry lipgloss, Fang has an equally fluid sexuality, and her role within the story has nothing to do with her gender or anyone else's. This makes her fascinating, sexy and alluring.

Aside from the above, there are a couple of contextual features which make Fang unusual. The first is her Australian accent***, a feature so shockingly absent from gaming as to be exciting in its own right. The second is that the dark-haired older woman in a Final Fantasy game is usually a mage, so it's nice to see Fang cast as the character with the strongest physical attacks. Hopefully, as gaming matures, it will rely less upon such conventions, but for now, Fang's fairly minor subversion of gaming tropes gives her the edge over the more predictable appeal of Final Fantasy X's sultry Lulu.

Lulu's a decent character, made more interesting through her complex relationship with Well-Rendered favourite Wakka. And yet there's so much about her that we've seen before that she doesn't hold our interest (alright, MY interest) in the way that Fang does. She's a witch who dresses in black and has massive breasts and no sense of humour.

It's not that there's anything wrong with massive breasts (see Miranda, above), it's just that they're more effective when they are an additional feature to an already excellent character, rather than being the main event. I understand the aesthetic appeal of huge norks, really I do, but when they're stuffed down the top of a character as rubbish as Kaileena, they're just a transparent and desperate substitute for a personality.

I'm not offended by Kaileena's breasts, it's just that they remind me of everything that was wrong with Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within. Here's a tip for anyone writing video games (or indeed producing any other kind of art): Darkness does not equal depth, unless you're talking about depth of cleavage.

Kaileena is only sexy if you don't really find women attractive and would prefer to have sex with a squishy automaton who is just going through the motions.

Never does she display any preferences, humanity or charm. She just garbles some nonsense about "destiny" and the only emotion she exhibits is a baffling seriousness that is totally at odds with her stupid outfit.

She's especially disappointing when compared to her predecessor, the spoilt princess Farah.

Before you say that she's wearing pretty skimpy clothes too, I will point out that she's just been kidnapped from her home country in order to be given as a slave (read: courtesan) to one of Persia's stragegic allys. Her getup is hardly her fault.

Farah's an endearingly flawed character who annoys The Prince at the same time as she charms the player. She jokes, teases and whines like anyone might when forced to befriend the rather dishy son of her country's enemy.

The Prince looks a bit humourless in that picture (he's fighting sand people!) but he's really quite charming in The Sands of Time, especially in the bits where his outfit gets ripped and he has to keep stopping to take bits of it off. Like John and Abigail, Monkey and Trip and Nathan and Elena, the Prince and Farah are given depth through their relationship. As their counterparts find them more and more attractive, so too do we.

Or is that just me? The obvious point I have thus far failed to mention is whether we should find animated characters attractive at all. I don't see anything wrong with it, but that's because I am a geek.

The argument to the contrary is, I suppose, that the object of your affections isn't real. But then neither were the celebrities you put on your teenage bedroom wall or the film stars you enjoy watching a little more than you should. Even the crushes you have on people you don't know that well aren't crushes on real people, they're just crushes on a person you've invented.

With that in mind, I don't think there's much difference between fancying Gemma Arterton and fancying Fang.

What makes a person attractive is who they are. How they look is certainly part of that, but only insofar as their phsicality relates to who they are. A perfect body is all very well, but it's much more appealing if the person in question actually enjoys using it. A person who spends sunny afternoons cooped up in the gym for the sake of looking hot in the evening is always going to be less attractive than someone who loves to climb mountains, or play tennis, or dance.****

You could argue that that this shouldn't apply to video game characters because they have been designed. But don't we all design ourselves to some extent? Admittedly we can't choose the shape of our face or the colour of our skin or our species, (even though some of us might want to), but all of us try to make our outsides match our insides.

Of course the insides matter more, but the outsides are their windows. Everyone knows this, and that's why attractive people dominate the media. If you've only got a few minutes to sell something, or if you need a lot of people to watch a music video, or if you're trying to funnel thousands of people into a cinema, your best chance of doing so is by getting someone with great outsides to lure everyone in.

However, although looks are the worm on the end of the fish hook, if the line isn't strong enough to hold the fish, the worm goes to waste. In other words, if something beautiful is shallow, everyone forgets about it in five minutes. This is why no-one can remember the name of the protagonist of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and yet no-one cares that Barbra Streisand has a crooked nose.

The reason Tomb Raider was so successful is that it was a great game. Lara's hotpants might have caught everyone's interest, but it would not be on its tenth iteration in fifteen years if the game and the character were shallow and boring.

So what makes a video game character attractive? A number of things. I suppose an attractive video game character strikes a balance between being well-designed, beautifully-rendered and immersed in a great plot.

But that's just me. Those are just the things that bake my potato. Attraction is just about the most personal thing there is, and we're all different. So please tell me where I've gone wrong, who I've missed, and why I'm underestimating the power of boobies.

* I didn't come up with that. Salaryn did.

** Essential viewing if you're a Tomb Raider fan. My favourite bit is the interview with Tomb Raider model Karima Adebibe, who not only shows that you can wear hotpants and still say intelligent things, but that video games deserve respect. Angelina could learn a few things from her. The documentary also features a short segment with Katie Fleming, who provided the Tomb Raider screenshot used here, and pretty much all the other Tomb Raider screenshots on this blog.

*** I have a lot to say on this matter. The first thing is that Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect 2 also happens to have an Australian accent. The second thing is that I wonder what sort of accent Fang had in the Japanese dub for Final Fantasy XIII. The third thing is that I like how Fang and her fellow L'Cie Vanille have Australian accents despite coming from a universe in which Australia doesn't exist. Creatively speaking, this choice was made because Fang and Vanille are from the giant wasteland of Gran Pulse, whilst their American-accented companions all hail from the inverted planet of Cocoon. Rather than inventing an accent (as John DiMaggio so heroically did for Wakka in Final Fantasy X), I like how whoever was in charge of the English language version riffed on real-life accents.

**** Obviously I say this because I am lazy. I would like to think that my pale speccyness is attractive because I really do enjoy being a big nerd.


  1. Yet another great article, excellent topic as well. :-) One of the things I did think about is that given that most games are built around action or adventure it does make sense to some extent that the characters are going to be in decent shape, assuming that the aforementioned action or adventure is a part of their daily lives.

    Having said that, as you stated most male characters in games tend to look like what men think women want rather than woman actually seem to want or at least say they want (with the obvious caveat that like most men I have a far from perfect understanding of what women are after). Perhaps game developers are spending more time looking at the cover of magazines like Mens Health rather than reading the relationship advice inside?

    Female characters on the other hand are almost universally physically appealing to guys and for the most part somewhat scantily clad. It's great to see however that with graphics improving there are at least more subtle nuances now rather than the previous stereotypical big boobs, hold the brains eye candy type. Strangely enough though attractive female characters seems to be more a feature of the adventure game rather than shooters? In fact off the top of my head, I cannot remember any female characters in any of the Call of Duty games from COD4 onwards. Halo in it's various incarnations features the lovely Cortana, Catherine Halsey, Miranda Keyes and Veronica Dare all of whom are quite attractive in their own ways but in terms of personality and independence are on a par with the likes of Lara Croft and could not be further away from the simpering Princess Peach and her ilk. I would have thought that if any genre of game was going to go for the cheap and easy eye candy route it would have been shooters rather than adventure or RPG's?

    BTW with regards to regional accents in games, the Halo series features a number of different types. Although the main characters tend to be from the US (Master Chief, Sgt Johnson) or Canada (Gunnery Sgt Buck as voiced by the wonderful Nathan Fillion) there are many other accents. A fantastic Aussie drawl (and dry wit) Chips Dubbo in Halo games 1-3, Hungarian from Jorge and Russian/Eastern European from Kat in Reach, both Jun and Emile as the names suggest also feature non North American origins and accents.

  2. I buy games just for the boobies myself :)

  3. For Tomb Raider, I really confused with Toby Gard the "absolute creator" of Lara. He said he dislike the way publisher treated Lara, sexualized her in ads and promotion but what he did afterwards?? In TR Legend, he and Crystal Dynamics gave Lara BIKINIS(!) and very revealing, extremely wide and low cleavage, ripped night gown and lacy panties. All IN GAME. Maybe he lied about the true reason why he left Core before.

  4. Hi Anonymous,

    Lara in Legend gives out a few mixed messages. On the one hand she isn't flitatious and she isn't helpless, but on the other hand there's that evening dress and, as you say, the lacy panties. That gown is completely ridiculous. In TR5, she went to the opera in a floorlength gown and flat shoes.

    The bikinis... well I would imagine Lara might wear them on holiday, and I can't say I was too troubled by them. The dress was worse because I just can't see a classy lady like Lara mincing off to an exclusive party with a couple of bits of plack ribbon draped over her nipples. Heigh ho.

    I wouldn't want to comment on Gard's reasons for leaving CORE, but I wasn't too keen on using Lara as a sex object for marketing purposes either. That is, once I'd played the games. How did I get into the games you ask? Well, by watching the TV, seeing Lara selling Lucosade in the ad breaks, and deciding I wanted to be like the sexy lady on the TV in the hotpants (I was 10 at the time, an age when the line between being powerful and being exploited is blurry. This possibly explains the success of Beyonce/Rihanna/Girls Aloud/The Saturdays blahblahblah. At least Tomb Raider has some substance beneath the hotpants).

    Without that, I don't know if I'd have got into Tomb Raider, the series that got me into video games. So I'm conflicted about it, rather than completely against it. CORE's Lara might have been a bit objectified, but at least she had an edge. Crystal's was safe, functional, but ultimately a little limp, though she grew a backbone as the trilogy wore on.

  5. Um dude if you don't like Kaileena I have some bad news for you...Your gay...

  6. Um, Anonymous, I am a girl.

  7. I'm a different anonymous, I'm a guy, I'm not gay, and I found Kaileena to be at best a waste of space, at worst horribly annoying. After 2 decades of gaming I'm pretty darn bored with carboard cutout characters including angsty bad mouthing stubly protagonists and the standard 2 female stereotypes in games i.e. Victim girl and DD assualt bikini ninja woman.

    My point is there are plenty of men (perhaps not boys) who agree with your assessment. Generally we don't shout about it though since the only internet reply that would likely appear is the one from Dec 29th

  8. Hi Anonymous,

    I'm not surprised there are men out there who don't find Kaileena attractive. Like you say, she's a bit of a waste of space.

    I think the indusry are beginning to realise that viewpoints like yours are worth catering for (probably since you're probably quite intelligent and might have a job, the proceeds of which can be spent on video games), which is why we've started seeing more ladies like Elena Fisher in leading roles (have you played Uncharted? Elena's great. Scraped back hair, unflattering shorts, trainers, yet still so attractive. *sigh*).

    I hope you're not too disheartened, Anonymous. For my part, I was just pleased to have someone troll my blog...

  9. I was initially searching for sexy pics of lulu, then I found this article. It reminded me how I whine when characters are insipids, but am still driven by looks...

    Reminded me of another example: Bloodrayne. Back in the days, I was 14. She was incredibly hot in this time. My friend and I loved to play the game and watch her moves. Then, after several hours, we were wondering if she had a brain or something. As many female characters in video games, she was a ghost. But what lured us into buying the game first? The looks.

    A daily contradiction... What you wrote in this article is true, yet tomorrow I will forget about attractiveness and try to find hot pictures of lulu or else...

    It seems you have awakened a real question about beauty in my daily life.

  10. Firstly, perenoel, you have exposed the reason anyone other than my mum and hardcore Tomb Raider fanatics read this blog: I have a lot of pictures of sexy game characters in tight-fitting clothes and make sure to label them properly. Most of my new readers come through Google images. No joke.

    Aaaaand the fact that I recognise that and the fact that I have no problem exploiting your interest in Lulu looking hawt in order to get you to read stuff does indeed awaken a question about beauty in daily life. I certainly first became aware of games like Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy because of the attractive women. It was the gameplay that made me fall in love with them, but it was the looks that first got me interested.

    It is no surprise to me that this is the page that gets me the most hits: it is the page with the most hawt women on it.

    I remember Bloodrayne. I didn't get into it for some reason, though I played quite a bit of the one on the PS2. She did move in a pretty unique way.