OK, enough about a future. Let's talk about right now. Namely, let's talk about why so many videogame characters today look similar, and why that sucks.
It's certainly not a new idea for videogame character designers to borrow from the "Hollywood leading man" archetype. Like I mentioned in the video, Pitfall Harry brought his brand of Indiana Jones stylings to the gaming world long before the creators of Nathan Drake were out of short pants. Things got even more Hollywood in the '80s and '90s.
Konami really excelled at the co-opting of Hollywood actors and movies in the pre-PS2 days. The original Solid Snake looked exactly like Rambo, while his nemesis, Big Boss, was played by a sprite-based Sean Connery. A different Rambo look-a-like starred in Contra, also from Konami, but he was paired with an Arnold Schwarzenegger clone. Almost the entire monster squad of the original Castlevania was lifted from classic Universal Pictures horror films, and that's just the list from their bigger games. Konami was even bold enough to change Solid Snake from a Rambo-type guy to a Kurt Russell-type guy, starting with Metal Gear Solid on the PS1. Just as several actors might end up filling the same role over time, we've already had multiple virtual actors take on the role of Snake (four in total, if you count the Rambo-styled original Snake, the Michael Biehn-inspired art on the box of the original Metal Gear, Kurt Russell-Snake, and Sam Elliott-Old Snake).
Using characters that look like Hollywood actors in videogames was different in those days. For one, it wasn't as common as it is now. "Hollywood" games were the outliers, whereas purely gameplay-focused games were the face of gaming. Developers also tended to use more interesting virtual actors back then. Konami worked hard to utilize specific virtual actors for specific virtual situations, as opposed to the "make a generic handsome brown-haired guy who vaguely looks like Paul Rudd/Ben Affleck/Ed Burns/Chris Klein and have him shoot guys" character design technique that we see so much of today.
Perhaps more importantly, back in the '80s and '90s, there was still heavy use of abstraction in the creation of these "realistic" characters. Even Snake's depiction in Metal Gear Solid involved mosaic-style texture maps, and heavily stylized ink-and-brush portraits in the codec cutscenes. There is an inherently expressive component to these two art styles. As I know from experience, when you're limited in how many pixels (or lines) you have at your disposal, the pixels you choose and where you choose to place them say a lot about you and how you see things.
I'm not sure I can say the same thing for the way that Nathan Drake, Alan Wake, the Shadow Complex guy, the guy from Heavy Rain, and the multitude of other nondescript, "realistic" characters of today are designed. Sure, they're all written in very different ways, and they have a variety of different facial expressions, but in terms of the way they look from a design perspective, they express almost nothing.
Looking at these characters reminds me of a dream that a friend once had. In his dream, he went to work in his car. He drove there on his regular route, perfectly recreated in his subconscious mind. In the dream, he arrived at his regular cubicle at the regular time. Then he played some Tetris while sipping his coffee, still feeling pretty tired and not up to working. After an hour or so, he got to work on his data entry. Then he took a long lunch break, played some more Tetris, got freaked out that he was going to get caught goofing off at work, finished his data entry for the day, and went home.
Then he woke up.
After telling me about this dream, he looked at me with a very serious face and said, "Jonathan, did something happen to me? Did I somehow become... boring?" I told him not to worry, that this was probably just a fluke, and that tomorrow night, he'd be back to dreaming about Grimace from the old McDonald's commercials levitating upside down and pooping lasers at him while a horde of robot zombie hookers tried to French-kiss him on his armpits with snake tongues.
It was easy to tell my friend that he's not boring, that his "realistic" dream was just a fluke, but I'm not sure that I could say the same thing about the game studios churning out all of these "realistic" games today. I understand that next to motion controllers and new online features, the biggest selling point in gaming today is replicating the "blockbuster" experience. I understand that all the segments of gaming (developers, press, and players) have often felt like the red-headed stepchild of the film industry for a long time, and now that consoles and PCs are powerful enough to outdo Hollywood, developers can't help but want to show the film industry that they can beat them at their own game. I get all that.
My question is, do we really need to get rid of the red-headed stepchildren (and Native Americans) of gaming to prove that we're not the red-headed stepchildren of the entertainment world? Did Ryu really need to go from being a crazy-eyed ginger to just another average-haired, average-faced, average karate man in order to win over the public?
The issue speaks to the inherent sense of inadequacy that game developers (and gamers) are often stricken with. It doesn't help that so many game developers make a fraction of what filmmakers earn, and that the amount of bad press that games still get on a regular basis is staggering. The list of reasons why gamers and game developers feel like second-class citizens is far too long to get into here. Suffice it to say, I think we can all agree that a lot of game developers, reporters, bloggers, and players have bought into the idea that gaming isn't as legitimate and respectable of an art form as film, books or music.
Personally, I think the way to show that videogames aren't a lesser art form is for developers to play to the strengths of the medium. Realism is not, and never will be, a "strength" of videogames (or any computer-generated imagery, for that matter). Still photography, motion pictures, and of course, real life will always look and feel more "real" than videogames do. Of course, there's no harm in trying for realism, if that's what you're truly interested in. Just as there is something to be said about the pursuit of painting the perfect still-life, there is something admirable about the pursuit of crafting a perfectly realistic polygon-based character model. That said, anyone who tells you that the greatest use of paint, a brush, and a canvas is the pursuit of depicting a realistically shiny fruit basket doesn't know a hell of a lot about painting.
As for how videogames could play to their strengths better, that's not so easy to pin down. Videogames have so many strengths as a medium that it's impossible to pick just one. I guess we could start with the way that the medium allows you to feel as though you have physically entered the imagination of another person, providing you with the opportunity to get to know them from the inside out. As I mentioned in today's episode, the way that videogames break down the barriers between on-screen characters and off-screen characters (off-screen characters meaning "you") is arguably the one thing that videogames do better than any other medium. Because of the way that videogames give us a mainline into the world of the game (and therefore, the internal world of the developer), you don't need realism in order to form an emotionally charged connection between you and the on-screen world. All you need is a controller in your hand, and the will to play.
This allows for game developers to provide almost any kind of content to the player, with the guarantee that we'll be able to relate with it on some level, so long as the controls are good and the game world is engaging. In short, you can make a game about anything, and as long as it's interesting and fun to control, people will play it. We live in a world where the most popular game series of all time has practically no written dialog, and stars a fat, baby-bodied plumber who stomps turtles to death while eating mushrooms that he finds stuck in brick walls. That kind of wholesale surrealism isn't likely to gain mainstream acceptance in other media. It's only because the Mario games came to us in videogame form (and because the games are so fun to play) that the franchise has gone on to become one of the most powerful forces in the entertainment world.
As usual, I've prattled on for too long, but I'll close by saying that just as female videogame characters don't need to be sexy or sexless in order to appeal to the mainstream market, male videogame characters don't need to be bland, standard leading men. Videogames is the one form of art where your only limitation is your own imagination, and absolutely anything (from enraged, white-skinned, bald, god-killing men to round, fat, pig-hating birds) can go on to gain critical and financial success.
There is no reason why the greatest form of expression yet devised by human beings should ever be trapped in the same boxes that confine film and other, lesser forms of art. That's just silly, right?
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