Characters are a massive part of the video games we play. While the NPCs and characters we interact with help to fill the world it is the main character, us, that really link us to the game. The way our avatar looks, feels, acts, sounds and moves is all a huge part in how we react and ultimately enjoy the game. Everything must be considered in order to make your character fun and believable within the environment.
Alot of games these days that focus on story telling or atmosphere that involve your character have you play in 3rd person. This allows for a greater sense of individuality and personality to the character you play, letting you see how they look and move. While 1st person tends to be used for more action based shooter games, where your avatar doesn't need a sense of character and is more just a shell that you fill with little real interaction with the environment or NPCs.
There aren't many games from the past that I can recall having particularly memorable main characters, possibly due to the design of the character you play only becoming considered more important in recent years. Games seem to approach character design and importance in different ways, for in instance games like Call of Duty or Battlefield your character doesn't have a personality or design because you never see them, they are merely shells that you fill. In games such as these character, personality and interaction come from the other people who play with you online, and not from the NPCs in the single player campaign which often feels empty and underdeveloped. In my opinion games that are designed toward online play often have this issue and this leaves the single player disappointing and less enjoyable.
The games that really nail character design are the story driven 3rd person action/adventure games. The games that revolve around your character and how they interact and respond to the world. You aren't just sitting in a shell shooting at stuff you are following a characters story and living through it with them. Fantastic character design is a link that lets you really feel part of the game's world. There are many games that do this well and one I personally enjoyed was Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. All 3 Uncharted games have amazing character design and there is a real sense of personality, interaction and history between the main characters. The way they banter and relate to each other increases the sense of believability and enjoyment you get from the game and it makes the experience thoroughly enjoyable. The interaction, humour and believability of the main characters is easily what I enjoyed most about the 3rd game (the rest of it is awesome as well, making it one of my favourite games of all time!). Another stunning part of Uncharted 3's character design was the way you moved as Drake. Depending on where he was and what was going on he would move and react believably. No more endless running from people that never tire! No, if Drake would run too long he would get tired and have to catch his breath looking abit sluggish and slower. One of my favourite examples of this is where Drake must make his way through a desert after surviving a plane crash, during which he often collapses and he must stagger back up with you pushing him onwards as he becomes ever more exhausted. The realism and sensations you get throughout Drake's movement within the game world is staggering and something that will have been carefully considered throughout his design process.
Perhaps the thing that comes to mind most however when thinking about character design is the appearance of the characters. This is obviously an important part of design and is something we will immediately relate to as players. The way characters stand and move, the colour or quality of the clothes they wear and the purpose of them. Is the character a stuck up rich prince or a dependable army grunt? If the characters look or feel out of place or wrong within the environment we will pick this out and dislike it, whether we know it or not. So characters, whether the main character or an unimportant extra need to look and feel believable.
While most genres of games or films will need characters to be as realistic as possible there are many cases where heavy stylisation or characterisation is used to fantastic effect. Examples of this include the game Team Fortress 2, which has 9 unique characters, each designed and styled to be instantly recognisable and interesting. The animation company Pixar uses heavily stylised characters that while often unrealistic are always believable and enjoyable. The fantastic use of exaggerated facial expressions or characteristics allow you to instantly understand what is being portrayed and its always thoroughly enjoyable!
I often wrongly assume character design to simply be how the character looks, a series of awesome concepts that explore the different clothes, faces or stances characters can have but I now understand it to be much more. Character design is just that, the design of a real character with depth. Something that is believable and fun to play, some one you can connect to and experience. Some one with an appearance, attitude, sense of humour, stance, motive, emotion, drive and even a way of moving. True character design isn't easy or simple, people are complicated things and the art of character design is creating someone well enough ,that we actually believe they exist.