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Inked Models: A Look at Tattoos & Character Design

An entry level discussion into the application of tattoos in character design. Originally posted as a feature on the website I write for NXTGamer.com.

Dave Taylor, Blogger

October 7, 2010

6 Min Read

As stated in the summary, this was an article I originally wrote for the website NXTGamer.com. Therefore, it is very much "beginner" material, and is mostly written to give a consideration into a design frame-of-mind and application.

A character’s design remains key in not only their characterisation, but as a reflection of the game’s style and design mythos. Ostentatiously designed characters can reflect the silliness, over-the-top or otherworldliness of the game’s environment, realistically styled characters immediately bring the tone of the game to a more level-headed setting and so on. Each aspect of the character brings more insight into themselves and their surroundings, therefore it’s no surprise that artists and designers in this visual medium harbour a high level of talent and knowledge to create the storytellers and scene-setters in their game’s world. And yet, one aspect of character design remains largely unchecked, resulting in some very badly-informed artistic decisions that affect not only their art’s aesthetics, but can lower the character’s effectiveness as a strong narrative tool. Tattoos have made, and broken, many video game characters, and so I will take a look at why they are so important, how to ink your character, and some examples of good and bad uses of tattoos in games. For years tattoos have featured heavily among many characters from different backgrounds, creeds and even universes. Many of these characters have been instantly improved from a clever placement of a tattoo, be it for characterisation or aesthetics. However, there have been a huge number of tattoos that seem to have been slapped on as a sort-of afterthought, without any consideration to how a tattoo can symbolise something to their person. This of course applies to characters from film, television and any other form of visual media or storytelling, however for this we will consider examples in video games. They have, after all, produced some of the best and worst examples of character design in our history.

When conceptualising a character, many aspects of their personality and placement in the story will change the way they are created by artists. Particularly, their facial structure and body type will give an instantaneous impression to a player about their character. For instance, a well-kept, preened appearance will portray the character’s lifestyle, or perhaps their vain tendencies, as it represents their attentiveness to their appearance. Many other additions may be added to a character’s immediate birthday-suit, like John Marston from “Red Dead Redemption”, sporting a number of scars that provide the player with a window to his past, implying a previous scuffle with any number of enemies that have left him not only alive, but possibly wiser from it. So with special consideration to a character’s body, why are tattoo’s often planted on a character with no indication to how or why they went under the needle? This brings me to the first consideration that should be applied to a newly designed character, in whether or not they would actively pursue, desire or purchase a tattoo in their universe and setting. Would this character go under the needle? To give an example of how this has worked, Salem from “Army of Two” sports two full sleeves of tattoos on both arms that crawl up his sleeves (possibly indicating more hidden under his clothes). Considering Salem’s loud personality, the pseudo-modern setting of the game’s time-line and his history growing up in Brooklyn, NYC, it’s no surprise he sports some incredibly bright and numerous tattoos. It’s no stretch of the imagination putting him in a tattoo parlour in the Bronx getting inked. Army of Two is also a good example of differentiating multiple characters in a series, as Salem’s bright tattoos show his brasher personality, whereas his partner Rios has a couple of very subdued and likely meaningful tattoos around his arm.

The meaning or purpose behind a tattoo can range from near-zero to incredibly important. When a person gets a tattoo, it is either chosen on the spot based on it’s aesthetics and the person’s personality, or can be mulled over for months or years, it’s meaning to the person becoming more important than the way it is drawn and coloured on their skin. This consideration should be in now way lessened based on how symbolic the tattoo is, when choosing for a character. If the tattoo means absolutely nothing to you or the character, then this still implies something about their person. An example of this is in Jin Kazama from the “Tekken” series. Now acting as a reminder to fans of Jin’s youthful city exploits in the earlier games, his small tribal tattoo adds absolutely nothing to his character in terms of symbolism, but it does give an image of his younger years spent on the city streets. This, however, I fear is unintentional, as when it was applied it was supposed to represent the “Devil Gene”, with no real way of a person to figure this out based on it’s aesthetics or placement. I personally consider this the worst tattoo in game character history. Perhaps Zell Dincht from “Final Fantasy VIII”.

So what is in a meaning? Tattoos to many people mean many things, and the only way to use this in a video game – without your character having to actually tell the player – is by implying it visually. For a simple example, you can show your character’s likes and dislikes with a design that shows this. To use Salem from “Army of Two” again, his right forearm shows a flaming 8-ball on his arm, indicating some kind of preference for games and fun by creating a link to pool. In the game, it is revealed he enjoys gambling, and thus this successful link can help make a character more realistic and believable or even help create a link between player and character through a common interest or belief. If a character sports a particularly impressive tattoo with religious connotations, and the character cements this through his actions or dialogue, players may find a more common ground with them or simply be impressed by them. The most effective use of this is in showing a characters heritage or allegiance. A perfect example of this is Faith from “Mirror’s Edge”. Her tattoos act more as “markings”, creating an image of Faith actively marking her body to show herself or others her allegiance to the group of “runners” that all share similar markings. This instant aesthetic impression can help as a narrative tool, as it can streamline the introduction to her place in the group and her inclusion into their beliefs. Tai from “Gears of War 2”, Sheva Alomar and Takaya from “Yakuza” all utilise this well, as their heritage and lineage is cemented with face and/or body tattoos or their tribe or group.

Finally, a special consideration should be made for the placement of a tattoo, as it can not only help improve the tattoo’s effectiveness, but can hinder their characterisation. Kou Leifoh from “The Bouncer”, is completely covered in facial and body tattoos that are not only ugly but completely meaningless. There is no implication in Kou’s personality, actions or dialogue that he carries the sort of personality that would actually get facial tattoos which usually imply a strong belief or manic personality to get one done. Kazuma Kiryu from the “Yakuza” series has a complete back tattoo, but nowhere else on his body. This is due to the fact that tattoos in Japan carry connotations of gang association, and as such people are often banned from certain places and buildings in Japan. This knowledge of tattoo culture and placement can again create more believable and better characters simply from correct placement on their body.

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