How Developers Make Us Fall in Love With Video Game Characters
If you google “top ten most attractive game characters”, you’ll probably see some recognizable features and patterns their creators chose to follow. The universally accepted physical characteristics of beauty are more or less common throughout different cultures. You usually unconsciously evaluate someone’s appearance based on physical features that include facial averageness, symmetry, and sex-typical characteristics.
In this article, we’ve summarized several studies on human beauty, so that you can see how game studios appeal to our basic instincts to make us fall in love with their characters.
According to this research, most people estimate the attractiveness of a face in about 100 ms, i.e., on average, you will probably realize that someone is good-looking before you blink.
But while you don’t need much time to recognize a beautiful face, you need much more to look away from it. In one of the studies, the volunteers saw an unfamiliar face image that disappeared after 500 ms and was replaced with a circle or a square on the screen. The participants had to react as quickly as possible and press a key on the keyboard. As a result, after looking at more attractive faces, it took the participants more time to react.
Moreover, when you look at a beautiful face, it activates the limbic reward system which is a group of neural structures responsible for incentive salience or so-called "wanting", associative learning, and positively-valenced emotions, particularly ones involving pleasure as a core component, such as joy, euphoria, and ecstasy.
Researchers from Oslo conducted an experiment where volunteers rated the faces of people on a visual analog scale with anchors from “very unattractive” to “very attractive”. When their reward system was stimulated by morphine, the participants rated the most beautiful faces even higher and pressed the button that allowed them to stare at the images for a longer period of time. When under opioid suppressors, they underrated the images. At the same time, the assessment of faces that were considered moderately attractive didn’t vary.
Many researchers explore beauty in the context of sexual attractiveness or finding a partner, but you can recognize a pretty face long before your puberty manifests itself. In a 1987 experiment, 2–3 months old and 6–8 months old infants looked at the attractive face when they were shown a pair of attractive/unattractive faces. The older babies, if they were shown a pair of two attractive or two unattractive faces, spent more time looking at the attractive images.
In another experiment, participants looked at three-dimensional images of faces, and researchers tracked the movements of their eyes. The scientists recorded which parts of the face the participants looked at when they were asked to recognize faces. In the picture below, you can see the areas that we usually scan during the first few seconds. The red areas are what the participants looked at more often and longer. The blue ones are the areas that received less attention.
Another important thing here is limbal rings which are a distinctive contour along the edge of the iris. If a person originally has limbal rings, they may lose them due to old age or illness. The photo above is an example from a study conducted in the USA in 2011. The researchers figured out that limbal rings make a face more attractive because our brain is subconsciously looking for a young and healthy pair of eyes.
Examples of limbal rings from games:
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Australian researchers thought if animals use a more vivid color to attract females, they could try the same thing with humans. The scientists fed volunteers beta-carotene for two months and showed their photos to women on the Internet. It turned out that the "orange" boys were liked more often and seemed healthier to the target audience.
Male and female preferences
Women often prefer masculine faces, especially for short-term relationships.
In 2018, almost 600 young women took part in a study where they were asked to choose a more attractive male face while looking at similar images. As a result, they were more willing to choose a more masculine version, and this rate was higher for a short-term romance.
On the left in the picture, both male and female faces are more masculine, and on the right, both are more feminine, while neutral faces are depicted in the center.
Look at the picture with the graphs below. They display preferences for sexual dimorphism by group, on the left for men, on the right for women.
The blue sections indicate the proportion of the group that chose masculine faces as the most attractive
The white sections indicate the proportion that chose neutral faces
The pink sections indicate the proportion that chose feminine faces
Males from Aka (Central African Republic), Shuar (Indians from Ecuador), or Tchimba (Namibia) didn’t have obvious preferences for femininity/masculinity. Males from the Cree people (North American Indians) didn’t consider masculine faces of partners suitable for either short-term or long-term relationships.
Also, in a highly and medium-developed urban environment, men preferred women with feminine facial features. Preferences for feminine faces were practically absent in small ethnic groups that participated in the study.
At the same time, women cross-culturally perceive masculine facial features as more aggressive.
In early studies, symmetrical faces were created by reflecting each half of the face relative to the vertical midline. Such faces usually look a bit exaggerated. For example, if the nose bends sideways, then one nose will be abnormally wide, and the other will be abnormally narrow. Minor deviations in the original photographs lead to abnormally wide or narrow faces. The attractiveness of such photos is usually lower than that of a normal face.
But if perfectly symmetrical faces are created by mixing ordinary and mirror-inverted images, they are more attractive than the original slightly asymmetrical faces.
According to another study on the influence of symmetry, a symmetrical face is perceived as more attractive. One can say that games generally have symmetrical characters because it saves some time and makes the facial animation simpler. However, you can use asymmetry to depict a corrupt and devious nature of a villain or emphasize the energetic, chaotic, and free-spirited personality of a certain character.
The Greeks were the first to try to translate beauty into numbers. They believed that the proportions of the perfect face are as follows:
The distance between the nostril’s outer edges should be equal to the distance between the inner and the outer corners of the eyes.
The distance from the top of the nose to the center of the lips should be 1.6 times the distance from the middle of the lips to the bottom of our chin.
The distance between the forehead hairline to the upper eyelid should be 1.6 times the distance between the top of the upper eyebrow to the lower eyelid.
The width of a single eye is equivalent to the distance between both eyes.
The ideal male physique has the following measurements:
The arms = 2.5 times the circumference of the wrist.
The calves = 1.9 times the circumference of the ankle.
The thighs = 1.75 times the circumference of the knee.
The shoulders = 1.6 times the circumference of the waist.
The neck = 2.5 times the circumference of the wrist.
Body curve and ratio
Some researchers slightly edited the figure of the women and changed the curvature of the lower back angles within the normal range (from 16 to 69 degrees).
About a hundred men viewed 15 images and rated the attractiveness of the figure in the photo on a scale from 1 to 10. The results showed that the most attractive curve was that of 43–52 degrees.
For the next stage, the researchers selected images of girls with the same angle in the lower back, but due to different reasons:
Two hundred men chose the most attractive figure in each of these three. It turned out that the angle of the vertebrae is more important than pumped-up buttocks.
Regarding bust/waist/hip measurements, the goddess of love Aphrodite was considered the perfect standard. If you measure the statue of Venus de Milo, when converted to a height of 164 cm, its proportions are 89–69–93 cm.
Lara Croft is a fictional character and the main protagonist of the video game franchise Tomb Raider that has sold over 95 million copies worldwide by 2022. She has a very attractive appearance, and there was a lot of debate on the Internet about Lara’s unrealistic beauty. However, most sources agree that the classic Lara is 175 cm tall, weighs 59 kg, and her body proportions are 97–61–89 cm, which sounds quite realistic.
Another dream girl from the 90s and one of the first to break the stereotype of the "damsel in distress" was Chun Lin from Street Fighter II with her 88–58–90 cm body ratio.
While some studios continue applying fundamental principles when designing their characters, others push these boundaries. They do this to build a mesmerizing player experience by creating characters that resonate with a target audience. A great example is Horizon Zero Dawn, where the protagonist Aloy has tribal aesthetics deviating from traditional Western beauty. Another case is the beloved Lady Dimitrescu from Resident Evil Village, whose majestic appearance served as a catalyst in forming a dedicated community around the game.
A character is usually much more than a set of visual attributes. A well-written background, personality, and interaction with a player can contribute a lot to the overall presentation. Focus on what emotions and actions a character is about to trigger and use your creativity to develop a persona your players will enjoy.