Written in a flurry, in response to Chad Concelmo's article "Brown Hair and Stubble: The new face of modern videogames." Because it is too long for a comment, I made it a blog. Mind the typos and the mild Toy Story 3 spoilers.
I've always believed it was as result of gaming's insecurity to film that so many of our main characters subscribe to a very similar pallet. Once we could start designing playable characters to look like actual humans (for the most part) I believe that, like how a lot of big budget games are focused on making playable version of big budget movies, there was an assumption that gamers would want their characters to look like Hollywood types too.
Except that, for the most part, the most popular video game characters of all time weren't Hollywood types; they weren't even human. Playing as a super-speedy blue hedgehog or a pink blob that sucks up foes has never ruined a game for me. These are video games, and I like playing as a video game character. The idea that Kirby can swallow his enemies and use their powers for his own translates into a better gameplay experience for me nine times out of ten than the limits imposed on a "real person" character, who can only jump so high, or fight back with only fists or guns (sometimes more primitive weapons as well).
But that's not to say that I only want games like Mario, Sonic or Kirby, where the experience is focused on gameplay with no significant story to speak of. Sometimes I like a narrative to feel real to me - I will never turn down a good story that can move me emotionally. But Hollywood has this problem as often as games do, where they confuse an exciting story with exciting situations, but no relatable characters to make me interested in the outcome. Making a character I can relate to isn't, like so many people think, about making them as common as possible. For me to care about what's happening in the story, I need to care about the characters too. So it's simple: make their wants clear and their motivations relatable, or easy to understand.
Does it matter to me that Nathan Drake has brown hair and stubble like the majority of video game protagonists? No, not really. But it does matter that his character was flat and without clear reasons for his actions. If you want to argue that this was so that I can place myself in his shoes easier than a fully-fleshed out person, I will argue that I would rather be wearing a nice pair of elegantly built wing-tips than some one-size-fits-all beach sandals. And what I mean by that is that I will sooner become immersed in a very believable character with real emotions and desires than one that is blatantly uninteresting. To reference another brown haired character with stubble, John Marston felt like a real person to me because I knew what he wanted and why he was there, as opposed to Nathan Drake, who makes up for his lack of characteristics with an arsenal of smarmy quips.
But John Marston was a very realistic looking person who, as pointed out by Chad's article, lacked the risk-taking design that could have elevated his person to someone much more iconic than the brown-haired cowboy of the west that he was. Rockstar likely went in this direction because they operate on a big budget and have to sell a hefty sum of copies to make up for all the costs of producing such a large and expensive game. Similar to how Hollywood deals with a $300 million dollar movie, they feel that they have to appeal to as many people as possible. And to less creative designers and marketers, this means fitting in - not standing out.
It seems obvious to most people right away when you consider that you want to be the needle in the haystack, not the haystack. But this doesn't stop the big productions in Hollywood going to movies like Avatar
, where the main character, Jake Sully, is played by the industry's latest action-star type, Sam Worthington. Brown hair and stubble; check. Now a movie like Avatar
cost $300 million dollars to produce, so it's expected that every single element of the film was tailored to generate interest from the largest amount of people possible. But I could write an entire article (or four) on exactly how Avatar
took no risks to earn back it's budget (and then some) by playing it safe with how the aliens were designed, the antagonists' temperament and, yes, the character of Jake Sully.
So we all know where it came from and why it persists. But can anyone pull away from the Hollywood effect without also sacrificing a grand success by doing so? I insist that you can, and that video games are easily the best avenue for pushing more interesting character designs across the board, even when some relatable protagonist is needed to drive a story. When I said earlier that it matters to me first that a character is believable - that isn't skin deep. It's much deeper than that, in fact. Look at the cast of Toy Story, for instance. Can you think of a better trilogy than those films? With better characters, a better story and a more important message? I can't. And audiences, as well as myself, loved these movies and the characters in them because they felt real
. They didn't look like real people, they were toys! But because we could relate to how they felt - Woody struggling with being replaced, accepting the inevitability of his own mortality, and finally, saying goodbye - it was a very real emotional experience that felt drawn to and sympathized with.
So who says the next great action game needs some tabula rasa character? Who says that moments of great drama are best achieved when the characters look real but lack reality
? You can't fake it, but you can apply it to even the most abstract and unreal of scenarios, and still get that connection with your audience. If you wanted, you could tether a drama to a character like Kirby, as long as your story was built to sustain that kind of thing. Some of us are still waiting for it, but it has been done before. So can you guess what game I'm anticipating this year most on the basis of its story? Epic Mickey, for sure.
VIdeo games have the advantage over film right now when it comes to our characters and they way we can connect with them. While studios like Pixar will keep pushing family films with unparalleled attention to their characters and stories within animated movies, there aren't so many doing the same with games right now, despite that our medium of choice gives us more freedom with what our characters can look like and what kind of worlds they live in. We can raise the bar every time we try because our standards are still aping off Hollywood. There are so many things cinema excel at that games can't do as well, but that goes both ways. Games, and the worlds they introduce to the player, have such potential for creativity, with any kind of resolution or fidelity, that there is no reason why we can't set our own goals. Don't you want to feel a natural, emotional connection to something that isn't real, and, unlike film, be able to interact with it? Then go on an adventure with it and endure a story of unique struggles and challenges in a way that films are unable to replicate?
Or maybe I'm just describing The Last Guardian