What makes for a great video game character design? It seems obvious that the most visually appealing are sure to attract players, but what is it about a character that keeps people playing? To work through the process, I examined the best game characters I met while playing demos at PAX Aus 2023 during Melbourne International Game Week, to break down just why and how they won my heart.
Table of Contents
Most Unlikely Duo
Teddy the Fox and Bianchor the Anchor from A Fox’s Tale
Five years ago, a game designer awoke in a cold sweat, having just experienced a fever dream involving a bipedal fox and a ship anchor. This flash of inspiration would eventually spawn the designs of A Fox’s Tale, a capstone project for a team of Swinburne University students, who have banded together under the studio moniker Not Fox Studios.
So the story goes, a thieving fox enters an ancient temple and attempts to steal a magical anchor, only to become attached to her, and they must then work together to escape. The team developed this plot but decided to forgo dialogue and backstory to focus on the game mechanics instead. The result is gameplay that feels fun and springy while you’re shooting Bianchor at ledges and chunks of honeycomb, and jumping on spider-web-trampolines.
Despite shying away from an obvious plot, there are still traces of a larger narrative within the character designs. For example, Teddy wears an eyepatch which alludes to his pirate life and the shipwreck he experienced pre-game. Some early “questionable art” also led people to assume Teddy and Bianchor were in a relationship. This was due to the artist being “really tired” and drawing the anchor “with a certain face.”
So instead of a robust enemies-to-friends narrative, players can expect a unique little game with an even more unique pairing of characters. The team still hopes the moral of the story shines through: sometimes, the reward for stealing can be friendship.
Play A Fox’s Tale on itch.io.
Ham from Jumplight Odyssey
Jumplight Odyssey from League of Geeks is a “starship adventure sim,” and a whopper of a strategy game. From a destroyed home planet, you must maintain and defend your fleeing spaceship, as well as the intricate social dynamics of your crew. Also, there’s a pig hanging around, and his name is Ham.
I could have dedicated this entry to Euphora, the beautifully animated princess who must lead her followers to the Forever Star, but who can focus on that when Ham is stuck in the vending machine? Again?!
Ham is depicted as an agent of chaos, but according to the studio he “was born into this world beautiful and perfect.” Sometimes this is hard to believe, especially when experiencing a bug in the game that stretches him to human dimensions in what is known as his terrifying “Tall Ham” form.
Although not much is known about him, the team has hinted that he may be involved in some hijinks later on in the game. Beware, if any resources go missing from the ship it may be a certain someone “hogging” them (all credit for this joke goes to League of Geeks).
His thieving ways were already alluded to with Ham’s appearance at PAX Aus, where he wore a tiara that was so clearly stolen from Princess Euphora.
Coolest Little Dude
Taiu from Denari
From across the show floor, I spotted what might have been one of the neatest indie character designs at PAX Aus. Taiu may have appealed to my love of yellow things, or as the lead designer at developer Astronaut Diaries speculated, people may have approached him because they thought it was part of the Sonic The Hedgehog booth. But although Taiu has elements of a Bart Simpson or a bird Pokémon, there is something very appealing in his originality, and he’s made even cooler in the context of his gameplay.
Denari is a narrative-driven action game that feels pretty damn good to play, especially with the “telekinetic twist” that sees Taiu stopping projectiles mid-air and shooting them back at enemies. The Denari empire is made up of a similar species of a blue colour, and Taiu is tasked with saving his tribe from them, with his goddess-given powers.
Taiu’s spiky head is often interpreted as feathers, whereas the creator sees tendrils more appropriate to an alien-like creature. He also contends that “whatever you think is arguably whatever it is.” Taiu is also genuinely little, being roughly sixteen, which makes his role as a hero that much more impressive.
The team was reluctant to divulge much about the narrative, which implies maybe a back-story or a plot twist that will make Taiu seem even cooler. I’m also excited to see how the team is mixing and showcasing their various cultures, with maps and characters reflecting Tamil Indian, Maori, and Filipino inspirations.
Wishlist Denari on Steam.
Ailuri from Ailuri
Any fan of the small and furry had no hope of strolling past Ailuri, a platforming red panda who saves endangered animals in natural, hand-drawn, 2D environments. The team at Vivink Studios is all about raising awareness of endangered species and during development has run multiple fundraising campaigns surrounding animal protection.
The gameplay itself sees Ailuri saving various species, and the player is rewarded by being able to visit them in a sanctuary that displays their conservation status.
Sadly, many of the species appearing in the game have become even more endangered during development. However, the conservation status of the red panda species has recently shifted from “endangered” to “vulnerable” which we can safely assume is due to the awesome power of this game (the team was much humbler on this point).
When asked why the red panda was chosen as their avatar, amongst many options, the studio lead admitted that the contrast between an orange sprite against a forest green backdrop simply made the visuals more appealing and dynamic. Despite this, they have come to love Ailuri’s character, so much so that those who demoed the game received freshly hand-drawn business cards of Ailuri as keepsakes.
Play Ailuri on Steam.
Most Distracting Trio
The Gammon Brothers from Diets & Deities
I am particularly psyched for Diets & Deities, as creators Larrikin Interactive hail from my hometown of Darwin. Diets & Deities is a 2D rhythm cooking game inspired by various cultures including Australian, Timorese, Chinese, and Brazilian.
Every single character design is neat; you play Nephele, who was created from “the vapours of a cooking pot” and you must cook recipes for corrupted deities to save them from the evil KFZ (Kentucky Fried Zeus) who wants to gentrify all the food in the world. Even with this cast of epic gods, I was drawn to The Gammon Brothers, a trio of fruit-head-looking dudes.
As you dance away collecting beats and reading recipes (actual recipes are displayed after a completed song), you are accompanied by the brothers, who provide some comedic relief to your serious quest, often equipped with cringey food pun dialogue like “with patience and thyme” and others I can’t bring myself to write. There is Andre, the grump, Cacey is the business-minded middle child who regurgitates self-help book lessons, and Ellios, the sweet young chef.
The lead artist worked in collaboration with other creatives to create the Gammon Brothers, who first appeared in a territory-made manga called Gammon Sandwiches. The brothers are symbols of hope who seemingly spawn out of nowhere at a time when the universe seems bland and tasteless.
Wishlist Diets & Deities on Steam.
The Crab from The Dungeon Experience
The Dungeon Experience is an experience because of its characters. In the demo, we meet some incredibly special ones such as Brooke, previously named Broken Legs, Table Man who exists happily on all fours as the base of a table, and Orb, the multi-armed green weirdo who runs the dungeon-pyramid-scheme.
Then we have Crab, a “level 1 mud-crab turned entrepreneur.” Crab does not have a name because he is not worthy of one, although the developers have toyed with players gifting him one at the game’s end. Crab was initially created as a jerk trying to get the player involved in his schemes, but over time the developers at Bone Assembly decided to give him redeeming qualities. As it turns out, Crab is as much of a victim as the player. After being roped into an MLM cult, he is thousands of dollars in debt and is merely trying to pay it off and escape.
The combination of voice acting, dialogue, and animations trigger some sort of pity response, with my favourite being that Crab’s eyes have been programmed to reflect his “inability to maintain eye contact with others.” Although he is a truly pathetic crustacean, eventually that pity turns to sympathy, and then to awe when we see how hard he can wail on the saxophone.
Wishlist The Dungeon Experience on Steam.
Turnip from Letters to Arralla
In Letters to Arralla, you play a turnip who has arrived on a fictional island off the coast of Victoria to start a new job as a postman. You do wholesome things like exploring the environments and meeting the vegetables and fruits that make up the residents. The twist? Every one of these folks has a little dumpy.
Judging by the designs in the demo alone, Turnip, who dons a postie cap on his left stalk and prances about shaking his leaves and his booty, is the most precious to me. But in speaking to the lead designer at studio Little Pink Clouds about their favourite design, it’s actually a little guy called Willie Sauvignon, a baby grape.
Willie will be part of a quest where Turnip returns him to his mother, Coralie Sauvignon, and his many siblings. He will be found crying and lost, with a bandaid on his knee presumably from playing rough. His design is based on a doodle shared with the team which depicts the small hoard that is Willie’s family, green and armless. The team asked themselves: “do all children begin armless and grow them into adulthood like a tadpole into a frog?” They refuse to answer the question, instead loving the ambiguity.
The design element I adored most was each character being voiced by their own unique instruments. The mariner who transports Turnip is voiced by the sounds of bagpipes, and when you call Turnip’s mother on the payphone you can hear sounds of an otamatone. All voices were carefully designed to reflect the characters’ personalities and moods.
I was surprised to learn that there is no lore behind the tushies. The team simply thought it could be an X-factor for their game, something that would instantly stay in people’s memories. I still hope and pray the butts will become major plot points.
Wishlist Letters to Arralla on Steam.
From the fuzziest of foxes, to a variety of anthropomorphised fruits, to the most deplorable of crabs, there is clearly no one way to design the visuals of a video game character. I was initially lured by colours and textures, but the brief connection I felt to these characters during gameplay was indicative of what these studios thought was most crucial in character design; the ability to resonate with players, to bring sincerity to silliness, to represent cultures, and to carry a good story.
This article was commissioned by GamesHub and Creative Victoria as part of Wordplay, a games writing mentorship program held during Melbourne International Games Week 2023.