Riot Games’ Character Design

Valorant, first announced in March of 2020 before its release three months later, is a free-to-play first person shooter game developed by popular League of Legends creator, Riot Games. Through numerous changes between its original release date up until now, Valorant has remained successful, maintaining a monthly player base of 14 million by the time of its one-year anniversary. Being an FPS game, Valorant is heavy on gameplay, while still managing to keep it diverse and entertaining, between not only game modes, but individual characters as well. Characters are sorted into their playstyles, but even individually they’re so dissimilar to each other, in terms of gameplay but just as much so outside of it. Having gone into the game with the impression Valorant was just your run-of-the-mill FPS game, the obvious effort put towards not only the technical aspects of character design, but in their stories as well, was not an unpleasant surprise. 

Riot Games began its growth in 2006, through the development of League of Legends, later released in 2009, and has not stopped since. Other games from the company, most of which are spin-offs of Leagues of Legends (a tactic most likely in order to pull more and more revenue from their hit idea) have continued to be successful, though on a smaller scale. To name a few, Teamfight Tactics, Legends of Runeterra and League of Legends: Wild Rift, while they are less recognisable and much less popular than the original, they have not failed in making Riot Games just over $1 billion in revenue from the three games combined. This amount of money however is made lame in comparison to League of Legends’ $1.75 billion from just the original alone.

With the growth in popularity League of Legends, as well as most of the gaming industry as a whole  received due to lockdown, Riot Games released its Netflix miniseries Arcane. Set within the fictional universe alongside League of Legends, the animated series shines emphasis onto sisters Vi and Jinx, both characters from the original game. Arcane received massive praise on all fronts, most notably its animation, but worldbuilding, storytelling and character development came into a tight second place.  The show explores the fictional world, and focuses mainly on the childhoods of two main characters, while still addressing real-world topics like classism, trauma and power imbalance. The characters are explored so thoroughly within the world, through past experiences and through their interactions with other characters, in a way that’s similar to piecing together a puzzle that makes up a big, steampunk piece of art. This show was an incredible demonstration of how Riot Games builds characters from the ground up in enough detail to get a general idea of a character, while allowing the imagination of the viewers to fill in what’s left.

Image: Netflix

Which then ties into Valorant. The game’s character development within the lore is done in such a way that pulls you further into the fandom rather than the game. While most of the player base are sweats who play for the sake of playing, the characters create a whole other aspect of the game that is largely more enjoyable than your basic PVP game. Each character, or agent, is labelled by playstyle; Duelist, Controller, Initiator and Sentinel. The Duelist is your classic DPS character, equipped with damage dealing abilities in order to lead the team to victory. Controllers are equipped with smokes, to conceal areas and guard the team. Initiators are in charge of pushing back enemies to support the rush, and Sentinels are your supports, ready to defend and protect the rest of the team. Not only do these categories control the gameplay aspects and expectations, but they also determine personality, lore and voice lines; the very building blocks that make characters unique. Most Duelists, as an example, are considered reckless and craving action, in cooperation with their ability to rush into battle, so on and so forth. 

Valorant characters’ in-game lore is very limited, meaning the most backstory is given through a voiceline hinting at a past experience or relationship, or a purchasable bundle referencing a major plot point. This by no means negatively impacts the game itself, it simply leads to an ongoing sense of curiosity and while, no, the lore is not revealed throughout the game, a quick shift over to YouTube reveals the untold stories in the game and gives so much more in the process. A series of short animations shows a few throwaway points in the lore that are otherwise unheard of, revealing stories behind game maps, characters and most of all the main story behind the game. With each of the newly added characters, comes a high quality animation showing the story and the intricacies within each personality. While the main purpose of these character trailers is to announce a new update and display the latest gameplay additions, the effort put into the characters really shines through in these animations, as it did in Arcane.

Agents in Valorant are carelessly diverse and inclusive, and are so well designed that, going into the game, I had no idea they would soon become some of my favourite characters across any kind of media. Notable also is the difference between the first characters in the game to the ones added more recently. Brimstone as an example, in the official lore, he begins as a soldier in the military before he starts the VALORANT Protocol and is recognised as more of a background character and leader, who runs operations from the sidelines. Compare Brim’s background to that of the latest addition, Harbor, the immense difference in detail is made evident immediately. To start, Harbor earned himself a full length animatic upon release to announce his introduction to the game. On top of that is the in-depth origin story, which like most of the lore leaves just the right amount of information in, meaning Harbor is still half in shadow, his character left with a small sense of mystery. 

Image: Riot Games

Harbor’s story follows his time in REALM, an organisation that works to collect artifacts from the black market and return them to their original homes. REALM’s trail is followed to Mumbai, where Harbor comes across an artifact: a series of rings and a bracelet. Upon approach, the artifact transfers from its hand-shaped pedestal and onto Harbor’s own wrist. With this comes the revelation that Greaves, Harbor’s colleague on the mission, is working for a secretive faction within REALM, and is trying to take the bracelet for himself. Accompanied by his new ability to create water from nothing, Harbor escapes Mumbai and joins the VALORANT Protocol. The animation does this backstory so much justice and I highly recommend watching it at least several times.

“The game itself is more like going to the local basketball court with a bunch of friends. We didn’t want to try and force in a storytelling format that felt like it was sort of a mismatch.” Creative Director David Nottingham says, and this idea is shown constantly throughout the game. “We could communicate the gameplay with just squares and circles and straight lines, but that wouldn’t feel good. We want these to feel like powerful, aspirational characters that make you go, ‘Damn, it’d be cool to be this person.’”  explains Character Producer John Goscicki, really summing up the valorant experience. The process when creating a new Valorant agent is to discover a missing component in the game and to fill this gap with a new and unique gameplay style. With, for example, KAY/O, a character that introduced an ability known as suppression into the game in June of 2021, the steps to development included determining if each new gameplay aspect feels good to play before beginning to build a character around its early-stage shell. For the release of Yoru, the idea of his character was the ability to lurk and use stealth to his advantage, this aspect led to the decision of a “better-than-you, smug, brutish character”, while also keeping the balance of personality among other agents. 

Image: Riot Games

In terms of personal experience, Raze is an absolute favourite of mine, for her aggressive gameplay style, but also her equally aggressive personality. She brings diversity to the game as well, being a person of colour, and rumours of her queer relationship with fellow agent Killjoy bring LGBTQ+ involvement into the game. Raze holds the top spot in my opinion, but with each unlocking of the next character brings equal excitement as to what the next character will be like, what their quips, voicelines, backstory, visual design and gameplay will bring to Valorant. Vi is another character that brings so much anticipation as to how she will unfold throughout each episode of Arcane. She’s closed off and aggressive and outspoken, just as she’s oppressed and short-tempered and sprinkled with trauma. Taking that step through the fourth wall however, shows how her design is so carefully thought out and how Riot Games once again outdid themselves.

Valorant has achieved something that most FPS games haven’t really even attempted before. A lot of games in the genre are one extreme or another: all gameplay or all story. Valorant creates a seamless middle ground: presenting an opt-in story at the same time encouraging players to interact with it, targeting the ongoing sense of curiosity that we all have. Valorant shows that characters and storylines can be subtle and still work to grab the attention of the player base. It shows that a story, whether it be that of a world or a character, can be intricate and attention-grabbing, while not having to be the driving point for progression within video games.

4 comments

  1. Another game that has fleshed out characters is Overwatch, some of their characters have so much personality it’s unreal. Also their animated shorts are really well made.

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