Jay Castello
Freelance Writer
jaymcastello@gmail.com
@jayplaysthings

On the Importance of Character Design

Or ‘I’m a bit obsessed with Chloe Price’s hair.’

When I think about video game character design, my mind immediately jumps to impossible, or at least implausible, representations of women’s bodies, and the same bland (and also pretty implausible) grizzled white dude who seems to be copied and pasted between the majority of AAA games.

And that’s kind of irritating, because character design can be so much more. Visual choices should tell us things about a character, and at their best should help us to understand, empathise with, and, where appropriate, see ourselves in those characters.

For me, this comes across most clearly in Chloe Price’s beautiful blue hair.

A while ago, I wrote about how I loved Life is Strange primarily because I could see myself in both Max and Chloe, and it was incredibly validating.
The first thing I said about the similarities between Chloe and myself was “I have had, and plan to go back to, hair like Chloe’s,” – by which I meant brightly coloured. (I now have done that. My hair, when I started writing this, was neon green, and now I’m finishing it up it’s more of an “emerald” colour. I can’t stop messing with dyes. I love it. Anyway.) It’s really amusing to me, though, that that was the first thing I said because at the time I was sporting my natural brunette – so it wasn’t a similarity at all.

The reason that I said that, though, was that my hair was, and still is, really wrapped up in my sense of identity. And that’s why, for me, Chloe’s hair is a really masterful piece of design. For other people, it could be something else, like her tattoos, or perhaps Max’s propensity for jeans and T-shirts. The point is that Dontnod does a really good job of having the visual presentation of the characters say something about them, and I wish there was more of that in the industry as a whole. (Not to say there aren’t other games with great character design, but that it really does seem to be surprisingly uncommon.)

So what does Chloe’s hair say to me?

Firstly, short and/or dyed hair is traditionally (if somewhat stereotypically) associated with gay or bisexual women. Possibly not the most subtle choice on Dontnod’s part, but as a bisexual woman with short, dyed hair, I feel like I can let it slide. Moreover, we know that Chloe’s hair became shorter and more of it became dyed leading up to the present day. Perhaps this is a representation of Chloe accepting her sexuality. That’s pretty common among people her age, and was likely helped along by her meeting/falling in love with Rachel.  

The changes in Chloe’s hair also mirror her development into the rebellious punk that her childhood friend Max barely recognises. Dramatic changes in one’s hair are often linked to changes in one’s life – or the desire to enact change. This certainly fits Chloe, who repeatedly states that she feels trapped in a situation that has been declining since her father died several years before.

But I don’t see Chloe’s hair as a negative symbol; quite the opposite. To me it represents Chloe’s persistent desire for improvement. The colour choice helps a lot with this. Blue is one of the key colours associated with Chloe. Light blue traditionally symbolises health and tranquillity. The Life is Strange wiki also notes that blue can symbolise vulnerability, but also hope for the future. One of the things that I love about dyeing my hair is that it puts me very much in control of something that could be considered quite scary – bright hair nets a lot of attention, but it’s all up to me, I could dye it back to brown anytime. I think Chloe would like this too. All of this together feeds into my understanding that, for Chloe (and for me), working on her hair is a form of self care.

This makes it especially tragic that, during the events of Life is Strange, Chloe’s dye job is in need of an update. She has several months’ worth of roots. I can only imagine that she stopped her self-care hair routine after Rachel disappeared. And that makes me so sad because that’s when she needed it the most.

Video games are a deeply visual medium, and graphics are talked about to the ends of the earth, but the importance of character design is so often overlooked even though a little effort can go a long way. I’d like more Chloe Prices, where small details can make them seem so relatable, so understandable, and so alive. 

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