An Analysis of the Use of Scars, Cuts and Injuries in Video Games

I’ve been replaying Spec Ops: The Line recently for some achievement hunting (got the 1000G, FUBAR difficulty has some odd difficulty spikes), and on this playthrough I only just realised the smooth transition of scars and clothing of the main characters changing. When the game starts, our main character Captain Walker and his subordinates Lugo and Adams are clean cut and dressed in brand new combat fatigues. But as the game goes on they develop wounds and their clothes get distressed, until by the end of the game they are completely unrecognisable (just look at the right hand side of the banner photo for this post). Obviously I saw the change on the first playthrough, but it was only on this repeat go that I noticed how seamless the transitions are.

But an idea sprouted from going through Spec Ops: The Line, I wanted to have a look at how scars and by extension injuries are represented in games. So let’s peruse the games of yesteryear and see.

“These bruises make for better conversation” (Bruises by Train) – How injuries are used in games

Let’s start with Spec Ops, as I did open the post with it. The scars are a simple visual way of depicting Captain Walker’s change through the game. Where he was at the start, a clean, square-jawed, all-American Delta operative, by the end he is bruised and scarred and nothing like the man who entered Dubai. After nearly every major event in the game; the fall into the pit, the White Phosphorous scene, the water trucks, more injuries are added to his model, with each “bad” act turning him less and less human. By the end his face is split in almost Two-Face fashion, with one side disfigured, highlighting the duality that is at play during the game.

By the Epilogue scene, if the player doesn’t die, you see the complete destruction of Walker in full daylight, and with his final line, “Who says I did [survive]?”, adding to this idea of visual markers as narrative. Mass Effect 2 did a similar thing, with scars either fading or appearing on the player character Shepard, depending on whether you choose Paragon (Heroic) or Renegade (Ruthless) options in the game.

In Tomb Raider 2013, a build-up of scars was also used on Lara Croft, but not for narrative. As Lara goes through the game and braves the wilderness of the island, she develops a series of cuts and bruises, with a prominent injury adorning her side, which she has to cauterise around the midway point of the game. Instead of narrative, I think those scars were meant as a mark of her character. As 2013 is a prequel-of-sorts, the scars indicate a “I’ve been through hell, I’ll get through this” that is a big part of the character we know. To see the extensive character redesign that the scars give her, have a look at this Reddit post that gives a before and after look with Lara. Her scars appear again in Rise Of The Tomb Raider, which is a nice touch (check out this video to see them).

Another character who “goes through hell”  in a similar fashion to Lara is Max Payne in Max Payne 3. We are presented with a bloody and broken Max at the start of the game in a flash-forward sequence, before reverting back to a more regular-looking Max at the start of his story. It’s reminiscent of Spec Ops, where we see the scars and cuts that Max collects on his journey through Sao Paulo, until he is unlike anything we’ve seen before. But, due to smart planning by the art team and believable situations in which he collects another injury, it’s an almost seamless change in his character design.

The first Assassin’s Creed used scars as a connection between bartender Desmond Miles and Holy Land ancestor Altair, with each sporting a perfectly formed lip scar. I would say this is to give a violent past to our protagonist, which both would have been a part of; Desmond being trained in his youth by Assassins and Altair being in an active warzone. Ezio also had a scar on his lip, however we find out this came about by a rock being thrown at his face. I would say that his scar is more in line with the Scarlet Pimpernel/Monte Cristo/Zorro pastiche that he was, as a duelling scar (or fight in this case) indicates the character as a badass. The scar was dropped with Connor’s design for AC3, as you can’t really inherit a scar or a disposition to getting punched in the face.

But with most of the scars, they are on the character from the start of the game and develop the character in the previously mentioned idea of “I’ve been through hell.” Cammy’s cheek scar from Street Fighter hints at her past as an assassin, Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston’s claw marks obviously came from the wilderness he dwells in, and Geralt’s in The Witcher fits his story as part of a contract.

Some characters have scars that tell us something about them, such as Nilin’s lip scar in Remember Me, Sagat’s chest and Zangief in Street Fighter 2 and Thermite’s arms in Rainbow Six Siege. Nilin’s comes from a personal tragedy she caused, and is a small totem that reminds her of the bigger effects one person can have on others. Sagat’s holds a memory of failure and spurs him on while Zangief’s tell us his history of fighting bears (no, seriously, that’s canon). Thermite’s can easily be related to his explosive, fiery operator bonus; mixing fuel, metal oxide, metal powder and C4 together, with the scars hinting there may have been some trial and error when first combining those ingredients together.

Anecdotal evidence aside, when I played Saint Row 3 and sampled its large character customisation, I used to give my Saint a large black eye and several scars as an extension of “I’ve been through hell.” At the beginning of Saints Row 3, the Saints have had their gangs hold on the city broken and been attacked by the trio of gang leaders and police forces, so it fits the narrative that the head of the Saints might have been in a fight.


So, to recap. Scars are mostly used a quick shorthand to give said avatar a history, a perfect example of giving a character a trait of sorts that feeds into their backstory without having to write pages of narrative.

Other times it’s used as a reveal for the characters trials and tribulations (sometimes to the point of it being tasteless). For example, with Tomb Raider 2013, executive producer Ron Rosenberg said that the new Lara is someone you’ll want to protect. Rosenberg said “[Players] don’t really project themselves into the character [of Lara].” So was the overuse of injuries meant to endear us to the character more?

This has been a sentiment from the start of the series, with former Operations Director Adrian Smith saying in an interview, “…[Players] wanted to nurture Lara…to make sure she was protected and…she could survive the ordeal that was facing her.” (4:19). This would make sense, but in the older games that Smith oversaw, they didn’t give Lara any injuries or scars, so giving 2013‘s Lara more bruising might speak more to the place of women in games rather than characters we are meant to relate to.

Maybe injuries have become prominent in games because of graphical fidelity? Let’s look at two games for comparison. Max Payne in MP2 had a large cut on his temple, but now that with have machines that crank out 4K resolution, giving Max more detailed features, MP3 went further with wounds dotted all over his body. Is this where the game industry is headed, increasingly injury-filled games just because we have the technology to render them with a high level of verisimilitude?

It’s interesting that most of the games I’ve mentioned are third-person, and most feature the injuries on the face of the character. Humans are hard-wired to connect to faces, so is this to subtly convey the injury, by placing it in the one place that creates the strongest connection between character and player? It would seem counter to play though, as we are behind the character for the most part in third-person games, and therefore unable to see the face of our avatar.

To end, can you think of any prominently scarred game characters that fit either the narrative or “I’ve been through hell” model of character design that I’ve missed? Or is there another reason why the character displays their injuries? Put your ideas in the comments.

Banner Photo Sources:, Game On: Max Payne 3, by Team Objection. Published February 27th, 2013., Grab The Popcorn : Tomb Raider Behind the Scenes in Multiplayer by Robert Bernstein. Published January 8th, 2013., Captain Martin Walker. Image used posted by “morrow”. Published October 7th, 2012.

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