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Developers from all kinds of backgrounds discuss their processes for including fat characters and expanding body diversity in their games.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

May 22, 2023

23 Min Read
Characters from Sea of Thieves, Calico, Mythwrecked: Ambrosia Island, and The Sims 4.

If this guide is going to make any sense to you (or frankly, to me), I need to begin with a story.

The year is somewhere between 1997-2002. That would put me between seven to twelve years old. I'm sitting in my bedroom, and I'm consumed by an obsessive thought. I yell out a question to my Mom, who's somewhere down the hallway: "Am I fat?"

Her answer has far faded into memory. I only recall that it didn't satisfy a worry I felt at a way too-young age: That there was something wrong with the shape of my body, and to fix it, I would need to change that shape.

To get to the heart of what I was feeling, you'll need to flash back to the media environment of the '90s and 2000s. On TV, in the movies, and in video games, fat bodies were a scourge, and thin or conventionally athletic bodies were an ideal. Warnings about a childhood obesity epidemic were in full swing. Whatever was in the air, it was obvious enough to a pre-teen that there was a stigma around any body that didn't—or couldn't—match a specific ideal found in popular media.

Video games certainly played their part in all this; if not by outright caricaturing fat people as either delusional villains, greedy symbols of excess, and lovable food-obsessed sidekicks, then simply by sheer omission. Even if your game didn't go out of its way to slag on players with larger bodies, there was always an implicit message being sent by not being able to fulfill that sense of agency you'd get with other video game fantasies.

But you know what's cool? That status quo is changing. Very quickly, even. At studios of all descriptions, developers are taking an interest in featuring fat characters in broader and more interesting ways. Some are casting them in vital roles in a game's story, others are including them in character creators or making them part of character-focused multiplayer games. Others are going even further, using tools that enable body diversity to support the depiction of pregnant characters, characters affected by trans-affirming care, disabled characters, and beyond.

These improved depictions also come with fewer and fewer stereotypes about their fatness, giving them plenty of room for these characters to embody plenty of other traits. They can be flawed, funny, heroic, villainous, powerful, or tragic—all without casting their bodies as totems of a specific level of health or moral character.

A lot of great writers and academics have spent the last decade identifying what's gone wrong in depicting fatness in games. I wanted to build on that work, and gather tips for game development based on what's gone right in making these characters over the last few years.

To get these insights, I reached out to studios of different complements to learn what they've learned making games for completely different audiences. EA, Rare, Peachy Keen Games, Polygon Treehouse, Glow Up Games, and more all had different lessons to share, and different—sometimes conflicting—thoughts about how developers can think about fatness in the game development process.

How should developers define fat characters?

Before we dive into the technical lessons, there's an important question raised by academics like Todd Harper, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore—how do you actually identify a character as "fat?"

In Harper's own writing on the topic, they had to concede that you can't set a specific definition of the word. "Where is the line drawn between 'normative' and 'fat,' or how do we categorize bodies that are 'muscle-big' rather than fat?'" they wrote in a 2020 article published in an issue of Fat Studies.

In the scientific sense, "fat" is a noun referring to a chemical substance inside the body. As a social adjective, "fat" is a descriptor that struggles to keep up with the wide variety of bodies humans inhabit.

"Fat" and "thin" are both relative terms judged against an ever-shifting standard. Not even all the developers we spoke with employed the term, with some preferring to use phrases like "plus-sized," a word most often seen in describing clothing and fashion. Others preferred to speak about "body diversity" and discussed building systems that could embrace as many of those body types as possible.

(None used the phrase "overweight," an exceptionally flawed term whose official definition is clinically pegged to the Body Mass Index metric, which is an imperfect system if we're being charitable).

To get us through these tips, I'm going to use the definition of "fat" laid out by activist Aubrey Gordon in her book "What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat."

"Fat is a 'neutral descriptor' for predominantly plus-sized people," she writes. "While fat is frequently used to insult people of all sizes, many fat activists—those of us who are undeniably, indubitably fat by any measure—reclaim the term as an objective adjective to describe our bodies, like tall or short."

Gordon's descriptor isn't the final word on this topic, but it can arm developers to start thinking of the word as they would any other descriptor for a character. All video game characters are designed in relation to each other and the space around them—and designing better fat characters begins with centering their humanity, and not their body.

How indie devs have approached body diversity

Every developer I spoke with for this story agreed on the same frustrating fact: implementing a body in a video game—any body, of any shape, size, or color—takes time, effort, and resources. And because game development is a constant process of balancing priorities, developers wanting to include characters with a wide variety of body types in their games face unique challenges from day one.

Smaller developers with fewer resources face greater challenges with implementing characters in games—but between the proliferation of game-making tools and triple-A talent moving to smaller studios, it's these developers who've pioneered some really unique solutions.

Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou, creative director at Mythwrecked: Ambrosia Island developer Polygon Treehouse, has made it a point to include fat characters when designing games at the studio. He works on narrative-focused titles filled with casts of characters that are meant to reflect the diversity you see walking down the street. "The world is a much richer place for everyone's differences," he said. "So why not reflect that in a game?"

It helps that the aforementioned "richness" can be the foundation for a distinct visual style. People with different body types have different silhouettes, and that's a fundamental aspect of character design that benefits from inclusive thinking. "You want contrast," Kanaris-Sotiriou explained, saying that visual contrast can intertwine with narrative contrast in a game like Mythwrecked.

The cast of Mythwrecked. The Greek pantheon has been reinterpreted as hip modern 20-somethings.

Mythwrecked is a game where players wash up on a lost island filled with the gods of classical Greek mythology. Players strike up a unique relationship with each god and learn about their problems to solve the mystery of the island. If the gods all looked similar, it would be hard to make their personalities distinctive too. "If they all look the same, it's really boring," he said. "You want to have characters who embrace their differences, who have different shapes and silhouettes."

Games with unique, dynamic characters often have distinct visual profiles, but that's not true of every game—especially as the number of characters goes up. Developer Peechy Keen Games ran into this challenge with Calico, as the two-person studio wanted to fill a small town of characters players could encounter while managing a cat café.

Studio co-founder Kells explained that their solution was to build a character creator that would work internally when designing NPCs, and externally when players designed their own magical girl protagonist. She said she wanted to make a game with characters that her friends could cosplay, and that meant trying to include as many types of bodies as possible.

Calico was Peechy Keen's first game, and Kells said she was "surprised" at how easy it was to design a tool that could support fat characters. She thought there was some computational reason why developers weren't building those tools, but at least for low-poly indie games, she said that "it's not hard."

"When you make four-legged creatures, that's really hard because you can't use regular animations," she said. "The IK [rigs] are super different."

But on humans, fat bodies can "morph" and "move" around the rigs, and it works "really easily." She said that she used Blender's "shape keys" to do this morphing. "I make sections of the body and make them what they would look like bigger [and smaller], and then scale them in between."

She contrasted this to a more conventional approach to sliders in character creators, which often start with a medium-sized body with parts scaled smaller or larger to simulate fatness or thinness. Kells urged other developers making flexible character creators like this to "start with the biggest body first."

"You need the detail when things get bigger, you need the [polygons] for that information," she noted. "If you start skinny... and then blow it out, it's not going to have the detail, and that's when it's going to look bad."

Kells also raised the point that questions about depicting fatness very closely intersect with how games depict different genders. She said it was very important for her team to add a "cinch" feature to the character creator, to let players modify characters' waists, so that players weren't locked into prioritizing the "hourglass" body shape, especially for femme bodies.

A screenshot from Calico. The player rides a cat through town.

She also raised an interesting topic she wants to tackle on her next game: fatness in bodies is often influenced by hormones, and people's bodies are sometimes shaped by hormones they take for medical or gender-affirming care. It's something she wants to solve in Peechy Keen's next game. "We're going to be thinking about how to still make genderless sliders," she said, so anyone of any gender can craft a wider range of bodies.

Glow Up Games CEO LaToya Peterson noted that supporting body diversity in Insecure: The Come Up Game was an exceptional challenge for a smaller team. Making a game based on a TV show set in the modern world called for some degree of realism, and to implement that realism, she said her team had to be "strategic" in supporting different body types and Los Angeles' huge amount of racial diversity.

"If you're doing a contemporary game, these types of ommissions [of those people], can be really obvious," she reflected. Players will notice an "absence" if a game set in the real world doesn't look like the real world.

Their core solution was to build a system based on the Unity Multipurpose Avatar (UMA) system off the Unity store. Insecure: The Come Up Game technical director Ethan Redd used it to create "straight," "slim," and "plus" models for NPCs based on characters in the HBO TV show and player avatars. Redd had explained to the rest of the team that it wouldn't be inclusive to just work off one model, and there was only so much bone scaling you could do to a rig before it starts looking "warped."

Latoya praised Redd as a technician and artist, noting that he had to overcome a lack of documentation for supporting these kinds of characters. The absence of documentation and off-the-shelf options for implementing fat characters (or traits from other marginalized cultures) was something she felt while working on the Insecure game. She agreed that resources for fat characters akin to the Open Source Afro Hair Library or the UMA could help studios like hers design for inclusivity at a more affordable pace.

Twin Drums art director Giuseppe Modarelli said that the team behind The Wagadu Chronicles "embraced the fact that in many Black cultures the western beauty ideal of 'thin female & buff male' does not always apply." He and his teammates created an avatar system with two models, and each body shares the same animation rig, topology, and UV maps. "This allowed us to have a single character rigger/animator on the team and we to focus our time of adding more animations to support the many features of the game, instead of having to create a custom setup and set of animations for each body shape."

A screenshot from the Wagadu Chronicles. The player character is on the left, with traits available on the right.

"We still need to make adjustments to the animations, but that's way faster than having to create brand new ones."

The biggest technical challenges we heard about from indie devs came from those working on 3D games, but we didn't want to leave developers working on 2D titles by the wayside.

Soft Not Weak creative director and co-founder Alex said that body diversity was an important central tenant of Spirit Swap: Lo-Fi Beats to Match 3 To.

Given that Spirit Swap's dating sim is set in a visual novel format, all of the characters are rendered in 2D and just have to be drawn as creatively as possible. But Alex shared something about Soft Not Weak's creative process that really felt important to this whole effort. "The way we approach character design was a little bit different," they said. "Once I had created the world, I went to the people that were already on the team, and I said, 'I wanna put you in the game if you'd like to be in the game.'"

This process wasn't about naming characters after real people (a process that has created some problems for developers like Blizzard Entertainment in recent history), it was to help zero in on what fantasy they could fulfill in Spirit Swap. For lots of the people they spoke with, that meant creating characters who would be fat, just like them.

Alex noted that moving in queer trans circles, self-representation can be "a very fraught thing." They invited people to describe their ideal selves, and then challenged their animator to supercharge each character with attractiveness and self-confidence.

A screenshot from Spirit Swap: Low-fi Beats to Match-3 to. A witch named Samar and satyr named Leon square off.

Alex's response, along with other indie developers we spoke with, really highlighted how designing for this inclusivity can be a genuine act of love. Love for your friends, family, or yourself: particularly for anyone who has their body portrayed in games as an object of derision or somehow limited based on its mass.

For all the technical solutions I dug up, that love and compassion seemed to be just as important in the process.

Triple-A studios and inclusive body design

As Kells mentioned, better-resourced developers often turn toward "slider" systems to let players create characters. Sliders can make bodies bigger or smaller, but as Harper pointed out in Fat Studies, these can limit what kinds of fat bodies players can generate.

A larger studio that's tackled this problem is Sea of Thieves developer Rare. With Sea of Thieves, Rare went out of its way to give players an astonishingly vast suite of avatars in a system called the "Infinite Pirate Generator."

When players make a character, they're offered a suite of eight pirate avatars to pick from. If none fit their fancy, they can hit a "randomize" button, and the game generates a new batch of pirates with different features to select.

Rare art director Ryan Stevenson said the system was born out of Rare's history with colorful cartoon characters in games like Banjo Kazooie and Viva Pinata. "We wanted to make it as though you were given your own personal Rare character handmade by an artist," he said. "We also wanted to surprise [players] with different choices."

Three pirates from Sea of Thieves.

That element of "surprise" (one might say hopefully it's "delight") motivated Rare to fill the Infinite Pirate Generator with as many character traits as possible. Players might go in wanting to play a Jack Sparrow, Blackbeard, or Jim Hawkins archetype, but one spin of the generator can quickly introduce them to new options.

"You might go 'this old wizened grandma pirate is the best pirate I've ever seen, and I want to be her!'" he said, adding that Rare was also motivated by how the vibrancy of pirate crews in cinematic history was driven by the eccentric crew members who'd orbit the main characters. It's a system for both letting players fulfill a fantasy and discovering new ones.

Stevenson said every single Sea of Thieves pirate has the exact same skeleton and rig. The skeleton then deforms from there. So from one central body type, pirates can be molded into many different shapes. Steven said that the team uses a "compass" mapped with different targets to push that deformation mesh into a wide variety of different sizes.

For example, pirates aligned on the north end of the compass have larger meshes, and pirates on a different axis have a more muscular mesh. If you blended those two meshes together, you'd get the muscular and large pirate.

It's risky to use the word "intersectional" when describing this system because the word has a much broader and more important social context, but this system really is... literally intersectional. Age, and gender expression are also in the axes, and details like scars and tattoos help create variance among similarly-sized avatars.

Rare's greatest difficulty in implementing this system was the clothing (which several developers noted was a formidable challenge in designing fat characters in 3D games). Clothing in Sea of Thieves isn't gendered, and is also deformed around body shapes.

But that system requires a lot more hand-authoring, especially for buckles, buttons, and other accessories that don't sit on every body the same way. "If you open a clothing file in Sea of Thieves, it's actually lots of pairs of shapes. It's that same outfit repeated tons of times, with lots of 'targets' that we're able to blend between.'"

If you're thinking of riffing on the Infinite Pirate Generator for your own system, Stevenson wanted to point out that the final result isn't a result of random numbers. The Generator runs on a number of "artistic rules" to maintain a certain level of quality, and those rules have helped Rare develop new outfits that still support all body types in the years since.

When Harper was analyzing character creators in Fat Studies, he pointed out that The Sims uses a non-slider system, which allows for players to create a wider range of body types on their own.

Maxis executive producer Phillip Ring told us that on The Sims 4, building body diversity in The Sims character creator began with wanting to "reflect real life." In The Sims, players can customize sims by "sculpting" them, targeting individual parts of their avatar's body by clicking and dragging their mouse.

A screenshot from The Sims 4: Growing Together. Several Sims throw a baby shower.

Sliders, he said, can kind of create a "trial and error" effect, while the sculpting process lets players directly target the real-life features they want their Sim to possess.

Ring, like Stevenson, did explain that the team faces specific challenges when designing clothing that can be used on all Sim avatars. The solution he said is always "care and attention." When new interactions or assets are created for The Sims 4, they're tested against "multiple frames" in a process that's built into the development schedule.

By doing that, supporting body diversity in The Sims 4 doesn't take "extra work"; it just is the work. "By having that as a default expectation, it sets our development schedules and plans so we can take the extra time to ensure that..our players are going to have a great experience."

Expanding body diversity possibilities in The Sims 4 has been an evolving process, and Ring said that it's relied on some of the other diversity, equity, and inclusion best practices that Maxis uses to support other marginalized identities. He pointed back to his 2023 GDC talk as a resource for how to interact with your community and solicit such improvements for your own game.

Designing fatness in gameplay (or why maybe you shouldn't)

Fresh off of reading Gordon's book and devouring a host of other thoughts about how people deal with fatness, I charged into this story with a particular eagerness—I wanted to ask developers about how they thought the experience of being fat could fit into game design. While it's not right for every game, I wanted to pick over how topics like trait systems, hitboxes, and other spaces where a character's size become relevant to how players interact with a game.

But early in my interviews, Harper threw my own question back at me: "Does fatness have a meaning mechanically?"

Their answer: "No."

It was a question based on Harper's own experience. They'd been working on another paper studying fat characters in games, and had challenged themselves to identify how you could translate fatness into game mechanics. They said they couldn't come up with any useful answers. Any trait you might assign to a fat character—speed, strength, firepower, etc.—could be mapped onto a character with a different body size for a different reason.

Let's zero in on the topic of hitboxes. In shooters and other combat games, a hitbox is an invisible system that detects if a character has been hit by a projectile or melee weapon. It rests around a character model, often invisibly expanding that model's space in a game to make a "hit" feel more "fair" in a combat system.

Hitboxes often intersect with a character's physical size, and there's a video game logic of "if character big, then hitbox big." Those characters are often blessed with traits that counteract how easy it is to hit them. For example Respawn Entertainment's Apex Legends launched with damage bonuses and nerfs called "Fortified" and "Low Profile" on its characters. Physically larger legends like Caustic and Gibraltar (who are fat, though that connection isn't super explicit) took 15% less damage, but had slightly larger hitboxes. Physically smaller legends like Wraith and Octane took 5% more damage, but had smaller hitboxes.

The Low Profile perk was removed from Apex Legends in 2022, leaving Fortified as the remaining hitbox-anchored mechanic. Gibraltar and Caustic can still make the most out of the mechanic because their abilities are based around the idea of laying traps and shields, making for a more grounded and less fast-moving approach in combat. They can't dodge incoming gunfire as easily, so damage resistance rewards them for staying in the line of fire and using those abilities.

Harper pointed out that from even a game design mechanic, a character with a "bigger" hitbox doesn't need to have a bigger body. We discussed two of Overwatch 2's "tank" heroes, the hook-wielding Roadhog and mecha-piloting D.Va.

These two characters have comparable hitboxes, but Roadhog is the one who is designed around the idea of being "fat." He has an incredibly heavy foot stomp associated with his movement. He literally leads with his belly in his walk animation, and of course, towers over "medium"-sized heroes like Reaper and Soldier 76.

(Harper noted that they personally hate Roadhog's design, but acknowledged other fat Overwatch players take inspiration from his fantasy of raw, overwhelming power. "You have to navigate that paradox...with the understanding that because there's multiple ways to be a fat person, no one choice is ever going to fill everyone's needs," they observed.)

D.Va has similar traits, but the character herself is a thin young woman in a jumpsuit riding inside the mech, and the mech itself is what creates the larger shooting profile. The discrepancy here is that one character—the fat one—is the one whose hitbox is defined by the shape of his body. D.Va's is defined by a machine she pilots.

That's not inherently "wrong," but it just is true that Roadhog's "tank" characteristic is defined by his size and girth, while D.Va's is defined by machinery. Both are arbitrary choices, and Blizzard has been rather gun-shy about designing new fat characters since Overwatch's debut.

Thinking about fat characters in this way demands developers to look at what any character is capable of in a video game, and to remember that it's all fairly impossible and always justified in the rules of the game. From photorealistic games where characters can mysteriously soak up dozens of bullets to the campy and fantastical standards of fighting games like Street Fighter 6, almost every avatar you see in a video game is already doing the impossible. It's just often fat characters who are assigned design elements based on the shape of their form.

In contrast to the other discussions we had with game developers, this topic was the one where there's only one best practice for thinking of gameplay mechanics for your fat characters: you don't need to. Fat characters can embody every playstyle archetype a game has to offer. They can be speedsters, tanks, glass cannons, mages, support characters, pilots, etc.

For a practical example of this, let's loop back to Sea of Thieves. Player characters in Rare's seafaring online game all share the same hitbox, no matter the size of their avatar. It levels the playing field in combat, and lets players experiment with different roles in combat, from stealth missions to swordfighting to cannon battles across the water.

The stealth gameplay was an interesting one to discuss, because in Sea of Thieves, players often sneak onto one another's ships to steal loot, score kills, or even make off with the whole vessel. Under conventional design logic, the "smaller" characters would supposedly be better at stealth, because they'd be less obviously visible.

But in reality? Stevenston said he's seen characters of all body types pull off heists and get away with it. Fat or thin, if a player stays still while hiding behind the captain's chair, they've got a good chance of not being seen even if an opponent goes searching through the room. Movement attracts more attention than the size of a character model.

In games about power fantasies, players who are fat will definitely welcome a chance to play as fat characters who aren't defined by their body type. And in games about more grim, dark worlds, players will welcome a chance to explore flawed fat characters whose moral failures aren't tied to the size of their bodies.

Developers at all corners of the industry have an incredible opportunity at this moment to push back on the stigmatization of fat bodies. There are tools that can be designed, character creator systems that can be made, and stories that can be told that can make larger bodies as welcome in games as those inspired by athletes or runway models.

If developers take up that charge, they'll find an audience of players waiting for them. Some of them are fat themselves, and will find joy in being able to play as themselves in a video game. Others won't be fat but will find that surprise and delight that Stevenson mentioned, at finding a new kind of fantasy to embody in a virtual world.

Stevenson shared one story that took place after Sea of Thieves was unveiled at E3 2015. He was contacted by a friend he hadn't spoken with in a long time, who excitedly sent him screenshots of what had been unveiled during Microsoft's big press event. "It was an image of the plus-sized models, and she just went, 'I absolutely love it,'" he recalled.

That out-of-the blue moment of excitement from a friend who'd apparently experienced anti-fat stigma impacted how Stevenson looked at his own work. "That's the reason why we do what we do," he said. "It's amazing when people connect with the characters that you make."

And if you'd like to experience that moment yourself—hopefully the stories in this piece helped shine a light on what you can do on your next game.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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