Most video games have a shared language when it comes to showing us that we are taking damage. We can either see our red health bar get smaller as we take hits or raspberry jam starts to cover the screen as we get shot. However, some games do a much better job of showing the lasting impacts of the trials we put our characters through.
In some games, characters age as time passes or they grow more haggard as they take damage, while in others everything from their wounds to their body language changes to reflect beats in the story. Sometimes painstakingly obvious, sometimes breathtakingly subtle, but always noticeable.
Updated April 13, 2023 by Dennis Moiseyev:It’s always neat to see visual continuity in video games since it serves as a constant reminder that your characters are physically affected by the points happening in the story. Plenty of games demonstrate some amazing changes to the character designs once a particular event comes into play, including Resident Evil 4 Remake. This list was updated with further noteworthy characters who are not immune to some suffering.
14 Death Stranding
Death Stranding is a case where the visual progression of Sam Bridges occurs in quite a subtle matter. Rather than seeing the physical evidence as the gameplay progresses, you start to see the effects of all that grueling delivery travel in harsh terrain during your rest period in the Bridges facility’s private room.
If you break your boots and continue trekking along rocky mountainous regions, you’ll see your feet battered and bleeding. Walking through areas of intense freezing snow will cause hypothermia, especially if you fall asleep. Another detail on Sam is the handprint markings visible around his skin that appear like tattoos, resulting from his multiple repatriations.
13 Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
Wolfenstein 2 doesn’t change the fast-paced first-person shooter gameplay formula for BJ Blazkowicz’s gruesome Nazi-killing revenge tale, nor does it stop featuring the titular hero in the third person during cinematic cutscenes. So aside from the iconic scars you’ll see on his body, BJ receives a life-saving accessory that keeps his head attached to the rest of him.
A shocking story beat in Wolfenstein 2 is BJ’s capture by the ruthless tyrant Irene Engel, who decapitates him in a public showing. Luckily, BJ has the mind of scientist Set Roth within the Kreisau Circle, who performs a successful head transplant. For the rest of the game, BJ has a gold ring around his neck, and his head is attached to an entirely new body.
12 Life Is Strange 2
Life Is Strange 2 has a radically different tone from its predecessor. Instead of a young photography student Maxine Caulfield having the ability to rewind time to solve a mystery, you’re an older brother named Sean Diaz on the run with your younger brother Daniel. And Daniel is the one with the supernatural ability of telekinesis.
Their journey is a long one filled with turmoil at every turn, from being tied up and held hostage at a gas station to surviving a cougar attack and eventually getting separated from each other. Sean will stop at nothing to fight to get his brother back, even escaping the hospital with the patch still covering his damaged eye.
11 A Plague Tale: Requiem
Amicia and Hugo are put through an emotional and physical wringer in the Plague Tale games, but the sequel, Requiem, shows a greater amount of receipts on their appearance by the end of the game. Moving through environments while evading medieval weaponry, massive hordes of deadly rats, and playing with fire will certainly alter your look.
Amicia faces her mortality more in this one, first suffering a wound to her head at an early part of the game, which leaves a bad mark after the wrapping is gone. And later, she’s left injured after taking an arrow to the stomach. By the end of the game, she loses her long ponytail hair and has a very short haircut. And Hugo’s Macula gets worse and worse, fully succumbing to it in a somber yet astounding set piece.
10 Resident Evil 4 Remake
In Resident Evil 4, the iconic duo Leon and Ashley each gain an extra companion in the form of a Las Plagas parasite burrowed inside them. Leon gets one injected into him when welcomed by the Big Cheese, Bitores Mendez, after freeing Luis from a bag in the basement at the end of the game’s first chapter.
As the chapters progress, you can see the Plaga’s effects on both of them, Ashley and Leon coughing up blood, their black veins becoming visible, and suffering from occasional hallucinations. When finally reaching the surgical chair to destroy the Plaga during the final moments, Leon is barely alive, and his whole body and face are consumed by black veins that feel like he’s about to turn.
9 Tomb Raider 2013
Crystal Dynamics’ soft-reboot of Tomb Raider is a coming-of-age tale at its heart. Maybe not your typical teenager-navigating-the-trials-and-tribulations-of-puberty-and-growing-up-heart-warming-film type of coming-of-age drama, but it’s the story of a young woman growing into the confident and capable person we know she can be.
That is why it is so fitting that as she explores and searches for a way off of Yamatai Island, you see the effects of the harsh weather, brutal encounters, and struggle to stay alive affect her character model. She obviously gets a lot of cuts and bruises as she narrowly avoids violent fates, but her fight is best encapsulated in her iconic tank top. In the original games, this pristine white top never looked anything other than immaculate as she killed tigers and dinosaurs, but in 2013 the fabric is torn, bloodied, and probably just needs to go in the bin when she gets home.
Hideo Kojima usually isn’t a man for subtlety. If he wants you to know something he usually has a 40-minute cutscene ready to go and if he has subtext to deliver he usually uses a sledgehammer to get the message across. However, while Metal Gear Solid 5 might only have a few cutscenes because of its troubled development, it also means that the auteur developer was forced to deliver the story with a lighter touch.
You might not notice during your first playthrough, especially, if you mainly use non-lethal force but if Venom Snake kills too many enemy combatants then the metal shard lodged in his head will begin to get bigger. Yes, the ever-growing devil horn imagery is about as subtle as Snake launching his robot fist at you but for Kojima, this feels restrained.
7 Mass Effect
Speaking of games that aren’t especially subtle. The entire Mass Effect series contains a galaxy (or two, if you include Andromeda) of world-building and lore. These species and planets have complex, morally grey histories revolving around wars where everyone is at fault. That’s why it’s somewhat strange that the choices Shepard can make in these games are usually portrayed in a binary good/evil way.
This extends to your character as your morals affect how they look. Act as a paragon of virtue and Shepard will remain the very model of a modern Major General, however, the more you engage with renegade activities the more scared they will become. Go full anti-hero and by the end of the third game, the saviour of humanity’s skin will look like a cracking molten mess.
6 GTA San Andreas
San Andreas was many gamers’ first exposure to the idea of a character’s appearance changing depending on how you play. If you work out, cycle everywhere, and take care of yourself the Grove Street alumni will get jacked. However, eat Cluckin’ Bell for every meal and never get out of the car, and he will start to gain a few pounds.
This isn’t exactly the deepest life simulation or anything, but it was the first time a major triple-A managed to make people feel like their minor actions were affecting the character they controlled — even if that just meant growing out a beard by never shaving. This won’t be the last time a Rockstar game will appear on this list, as the studio seems fascinated by this concept.
5 Until Dawn
Everyone in Until Dawn is just having a very, very long night. The game’s events impact some characters more than others, but Supermassive understands that a vital part of sending these campy archetypes through the schlocky horror wringer means showing the effects of the night on them.
In a game where your choices matter, it’s important you see the repercussions of your decisions, and Until Dawn does a great job of just that. While everyone has a hard time of it, and can even die, a special mention has to go out to Brett Dalton’s character, Michael, who really takes a beating throughout and can even lose a finger to a grisly bear trap.
4 Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line is an oft-forgotten about cover-shooter from an era where every second game had waist-high walls. The further you play, the less Captain Martin Walker, and in turn you, feel like you have any control over the chaos unfolding in the sand-swept Dubai. As the mission goes further and further sidewise, not only does Walker and his crew take a visual beating, but a mental one.
By the time you get towards the end, your character will have gone from being a confident leader ordering his troops around, to a barely intelligible mess. Since it’s a squad shooter, you can give commands to your crew similarly to the Mass Effect games, as the final battles approach they’ll usually ignore you or tell you to shut up. It’s a brutal game, that deals with uncomfortable subjects and only pulls it off because you can witness these people slowly falling apart.
Maybe one of the cleverest implementations of a game mechanic affecting a character’s appearance is that of Sifu. Each time you are defeated in combat during your quest for revenge you don’t die, instead you age exponentially.
This actually makes the game much harder the more you die, as the older you are, the frailer your body becomes. This turns the game into hard as nail rogue-lite as you try to clear the game’s five areas before you are too old to go on. It’s a smart way to combine a character’s aging into tangible gameplay differences, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
2 The Last Of Us Part 2
The Last of Us Part 2 does a much better job of showing the passage of time than the first game. In that entry, Joel and Ellie traveled across the entire United States and the only thing that ever seemed to change over time was their outfits. However, The Last of Us Part 2 not only shows the effects of Ellie’s brutal three days in Seattle, but the effect time has on a person.
Simple things like haircuts changing and scars partially healing during the game’s time jump is one thing, but much more impactful is the final act of the game. Here Ellie tracks down Abby and Lev, who are being held as slaves by a terrifying group of survivors. The once musclebound Abby has become scarily frail from the overwork, while both her and Lev’s skin is blistered from the harsh heat of California. The final encounter between the two is hard to watch for many reasons but seeing how shattered both Lev and Abby are is maybe the most upsetting.
1 Red Dead Redemption 2
It’s subtle at first, a light cough. Nothing a grizzled cowboy like Arthur Morgan can’t shake off. Sadly, though there is no powering through this. By the time Red Dead Redemption 2’s protagonist collapses on the street of San Denis, it’s clear to see he’s not long for this world. He is a defeated man, and as each mission passes he becomes more of a spluttering mess.
The game plays against expectations, by giving you control over Arthur’s fitness and physique early on, but no matter how much you run there’s no escaping his tuberculosis. By the end of the game, the poor man can barely stand, and all we can do is watch as he tries to help his friends escape the life he’s been cursed to see out to its bitter end.
Next: Moments In Games Where You Know It’s All About To Go Wrong