Are video game characters just functions?

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Real talk: I saw this header (sans my edits) on Destructoid a few days ago, and I thought to myself, “AHAHAHAHA!  Oh God, I HAVE to use this in a post somehow!”  I’m so glad I was able to — although I lament not being able to work in some birds for scale.  In any case?  Peter “Combofiend” Rosas?  If you and/or the rest of the Capcom crew are reading this, then bless your hearts.

So I might as well start this post off right.  It looks like it’s that time again, everyone: now I get to talk about improbably buxom fictional women.

So Valkyria Revolution is a game that exists — has existed in Japan for a while now, but just recently came out in the west.  It’s…not great, apparently.  It may not be unforgivable from a critical standpoint, but my guess is that history and the fans alike won’t be kind to it.  I can’t say that I’m too shaken up about it, given that A) I never intended to play it, B) my backlog threatens to drown me, and C) I still need to dust off my copy of Valkyria Chronicles 1 and finish it — which, for the record, I certainly enjoyed.  But I have had an interest in any new developments for the franchise, because I think it’s a fascinating one.

Anyway, I’m passing on Valkyria Revolution…is what I would like to say.  But as fate would have it, my brother came in on the game’s first day out on the streets — and not only tossed it into my hands, but also revealed that he’d preordered it ages ago and simply forgot about it.  I’m guessing that he went in blind and/or relied on name recognition (score one for marketing and corporate culture!), so it’ll be interesting to see his reaction in the days to come.  More pressingly, this means that I’ll have to give the game a fair shake. 

Someday I’ll finish you, NieR: AutomataSomeday.

Confession time: what I also think is interesting is the comments sections on gaming sites whenever articles like this one — with header images like that one — pop up.  Nothing brings out the creativity and hilarity in commenters quite like a pair of colossal bazongas, you see.  Plus I’d imagine that pictures like that are good for pageviews, so I’d imagine the writers of such articles are praising the lord for the myriad, vivacious vixens throughout the video game industry.  And it’s safe to say that Valkyria Revolution’s Brunhilde is firmly on that list, for obvious reasons.

To be fair, I’d wager that that first image’s show-stopping proportions are part of an optical illusion — namely that because of the camera angle, her chest seems even larger than it actually is.  That actually makes me wonder about the developers’ creative intent, though; on one hand, she looks relatively tamer in official and concept art.  On the other hand, it’s obvious that she was always planned to be pretty talented.  Plus, it’s not a stretch to assume that the artist did one thing, while the actual modelers and programmers did anotherlike ratchet her bra-busting potential up to eleven, and then to twelve for good measure.  It worked with Tifa once upon a time.  Well, it’s not as if Nomura wasn’t on board with that, but I digress.

What was the plan with Brunhilde, I wonder?  I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.  But I’m writing this post before I touch the game proper, so conjecture is all I have for now.  And having only seen a few snippets of gameplay, I’m not entirely sure how she fits into the game (though I’ve seen some spoilers which kind of explain some design choices — assuming you put stock in symbolism).  As one commenter pointed out, having someone who looks like her — in terms of attire, not just her form — in what’s ostensibly a serious war drama hurts the tone and credibility of the final product.  Will you draw eyes and attention like that?  Sure.  But you run the risk of doing it for the wrong reasons.  The sum is jeopardized because of one or two choice parts.

I mean, even in VC1 the similarly-chesty Selvaria strutted through the battlefield in a military uniform.  She commanded respect with her gargantuan lance/machine gun, and tore through foes with awesome power.  Speaking personally, I prefer that to Brunhilde and her giant scythe that leans uncomfortably far into anime territory; Selvaria may not be quite far behind, but she’s still part of the reason why VC1 had the character it did.  On the other hand, her debut game had side content that put a decent number of the girls in bikinis, with Selvaria herself getting in on that via the anime adaptation, soooooooooo…who the hell knows anymore?

In any case, let’s pretend for a moment.  Let’s say that there’s a guy — who we’ll call Guy — that hasn’t been keeping up with VC or VR news, but can still be pushed toward or away from a sale thanks to some choice elements.  And let’s say that the first thing he learns about VR is that it has a character like Brunhilde, whether it’s from some eye-popping header images or a few trailers scattered across YouTube.  Cutscenes, battles, whatever; do you suppose that that would be enough?  Could Brunhilde be the deciding factor in a sale?

Was she ever designed to be?  Is that her sole function?

I’d imagine that the devs weren’t so callous and cynical to assume that gamers could be won over solely by throwing in galactically-scaled breasts.  Also, let’s not pretend like Brunhilde was crafted as some desperate ploy; this franchise is no stranger to sultry supernatural warriors, and adding in another just means keeping up the series tradition.  Then again, questioning it means questioning the motivations behind Selvaria’s original creation, which in turn makes an innocent onlooker like Guy double down with Brunhilde — and the assumptions therein.  And yet, even the worst of assumptions can trigger conversations about the character, the subject, and the game overall.  If the mission was to get people talking about VR, then they’ve succeeded.  Even if she is a distinct, multi-faceted character in-universe, it doesn’t change the fact that on some base, primal level, Brunhilde has fulfilled a function.  Maybe not the function, but certainly a function.

So in that regard, isn’t Combofiend right?

Okay, hold your horses.  I’ll unpack this in a minute, but first we need context.  Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite has gotten a lot of people up in arms recently, and for plenty of reasons.  Its E3 showing was less than ideal, having revealed some…distressing visuals.  The story demo that should have laid all of the fighting game community’s fears to rest didn’t, because reused assets and movelists took some hype out of the perpetual hype machine that is Mahvel.  The way things are looking, it’s possible — if not likely — that the leaked roster is true — meaning that all but a handful of characters (barring DLC) are MvC3 standbys, and the Marvel side of the equation is keener on pushing well-worn MCU characters instead of left field surprises.  (Yo, when’s Fin Fang Foom?)   

One popular theory — and most likely the reality — is that in terms of the game’s superheroes, Capcom’s collective hands are tied.  Licensing shenanigans mean that even if the comics division has most of its heroes under one umbrella, their movie counterparts are scattered among the four winds.  Since Fox has the rights to the X-Men movies, Marvel Studios might be wary of featuring them any more than they have to; that would explain the glaring absence of mainstays like Wolverine and Magneto.  When called out on this, Combofiend’s response was that, because of their specific mechanics, properties, and playstyles, those characters simply existed to fulfill functions.  As long as there’s somebody with an eight-way dash, for example, fans will be happy and/or move on from Mr. Welcome to Die.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, and dramatically generalizing the statement.  But I get the core argument Combofiend is making here and…yeah, he’s not wrong.  He’s not absolutely right, at all, but there’s a kernel of truth to what he’s saying.

I’m a guy who puts a lot of stock into characters.  I’m not the only one who does; people may not consciously admit it, but I’d bet that a huge number of them are swayed or turned off by the cast in a given work.  Given that humans are hardwired to identify faces, it’s probably not a stretch to assume that characters are what they resonate with in stories before the nitty-gritty stuff like themes or technique.  I mean, when was the last time you heard anyone say their favorite theme in How I Met Your Mother was the eternal battle between will and reason?

Even if it’s a young and often frowned upon medium, the same holds true for the world of video games.  They have characters, and as such feature people, creatures, machines and more ripe for judgment.  The trick, of course, is that games are in a different position; there’s an active element there that’s missing in stuff like books or movies, where the audience is expected to participate.  So in order to create art — to have the player witness the devs’ creative vision in action — they need certain mechanisms in place.  They need processes.  Input and output.  And like it or not, that’s what characters are for.

Mario is a means to an end.  Whether it was thirty years ago or here in the present day, he exists to let the player do what needs to be done to clear a level.  Setting aside his myriad power-ups and game-by-game tweaks to his tool set, Mario can do two things above all else: run and jump.  It’s what he must do, arguably; he has to run to clear distances within levels (especially if there’s a time limit), and jump to clear obstacles (or enemies). 

True, technology back then didn’t exactly accommodate the portly plumber narrating a Homer-esque epic, but we’re certainly at that level now.  And the fact that he’s barely said a full paragraph over the course of the past decade — and that’s a generous estimate — means that Nintendo is content with letting him stay as a function.  As long as he does what he’s supposed to, then there’s no problem.  He doesn’t need anything else.  He doesn’t need to change, or prove anything to anyone.  He’s our avatar.  He does what we want, and we’re satisfied as a result.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that the philosophy behind Mario has leaked into a couple of other Nintendo franchises.  None of the popular ones, though.  That’d be silly.

But to further illustrate Combofiend’s point, let’s turn back to fighting games.  And I have to be honest: I hate speedy characters.  It has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t have the execution or reflexes to control them (*shifts eyes conspicuously*).  It just seems like, to me, high speed/rushdown tactics are the easy way out.  If I were to compare it to chess, then I’d say that on-point rushdown is the equivalent of taking eight moves for every one your opponent takes.  Of course you’ll break through your foe’s defenses if you never stop throwing shit at them.

I don’t like that function, so I choose the others available to me.  While it may not be the most glamorous or hype style, I really do have a soft spot for zoning-type characters like Guile, Axl Low, Yukiko, and the like.  Strong defensive play is a lot more rewarding for me because it truly feels like I’m outplaying an opponent — using all of my tools to counter all of his tools at the opportune moments.  It’s not just a matter of spamming fireballs, given that one misplaced plasma-chuck can ruin you no matter the game; it’s about controlling the field and the fight as needed — and making every move your opponent makes the wrong one.

And on the opposite end of the spectrum…

They may lack speed.  They may not have a fancy moveset.  They may consistently scrape the bottom of the tier lists.  But grapplers are hype incarnate.  You would think that picking the biggest, strongest member of a roster would guarantee an easy win, but you’d be wrong; grapplers can’t –and shouldn’t — rely solely on their special command grab, even if it does mean high damage.  They often have to fight their way in, weather the storm of their opponents, and stay in consistently enough to even land a single hit.  It takes a keen mind and iron will, as well as the ability to condition your foes.  You don’t know how many anti-air grab Supers I’ve landed over the years just by training my foes to jump — right back into my loving embrace.

The dirty secret I have is that — as an example — I never really planned on playing as Potemkin as much as I have throughout Guilty Gear Xrd’s lifespan.  Ky was the first character I ever picked in the franchise, so I had to stick with him.  Axl’s one of my favorite zoners in anything ever.  And I did have a pocket Venom, but then my brother started using him, which was the equivalent of him marking his territory over mine.  Potemkin was the only one I had left, and the infrequency of my training sessions meant that pitting any other characters against my bro meant hours at a time being filled with misery.  So I was stuck — but fortunately, stuck with a character that could, and still does, utterly shut said brother down.  So the big guy ended up filling a niche — and fulfilling a function — that I needed to have fun with the game.

That puts me in a chicken-or-egg situation.  Do I like Potemkin because he’s a cool character?  Or do I just like him because his utilities are exactly what I need to win?

I don’t have the fleet fingers needed to perform long, perfectly-timed combos, which means that my damage output is naturally limited.  To compensate, I need heavy hitters like Potemkin.  Furthermore, he’s a character that has several normals with massive range, super armor to blow through enemy attacks, a ground pound that causes a hard knockdown, and the ability to strip an opponent of all momentum in a fight.  He ticks a lot of boxes for me, so it’s no stretch to assume that I’m subconsciously linking “I win plenty with this character” to “I like this character.”  Function may be more important than form in this case.

I can’t speak for others in the fighting game community — be they pros or simple fans — but it’s not hard to imagine that they, too, need functions on their side.  On some level, that has to be the case for a game like Marvel 3; roles have to be fulfilled to maintain the perfect team synergy, build strategies, and extend combo potential to something more than a basic BnB.  Money is on the line in some circles of competition, and pride is on the line in others.  Given that, how many people out there gleefully added Sentinel to their teams because they actually like Sentinel, a character that could be mass-produced and destroyed en masse just as quickly?

So no, I don’t think Combofiend is entirely off-base regarding his comment.  It might even be truer for experts and pros that live or die based on the effectiveness of those functions.  With that in mind, I don’t think Combofiend is entirely right.  And to be clear, this isn’t a 50-50 split between right and wrong.  It’s a faux pas that rightly deserves to be mocked across the internet.

Here’s the thing.  Yes, video game characters are functions.  They’re masses of data that act according to the whims of the programmers that designed them and the players that wield them.  Brunhilde, Mario, and Potemkin may all exist in different worlds, but they’re in their games to fulfill the roles they were made to fulfill.  The key difference, and what helps video games become an art form instead of a mere past time, is that — assuming they’re executed properly — they can transcend their limits as mere functions

Though I always had respect for Potemkin, I started to really care about him thanks to using him in Xrd.  I can feel the power and weight behind each of his blows, to the point where even a flick of his finger can hit like a runaway train.  But thanks to his gameplay style and animations — to say nothing of his incredible theme song — I can get the sense that there’s more to him than just “the game’s grappler”.  He’s a soldier now; his nobility, sense of duty, and professionalism shine through as he takes on countless opponents.  He may have the body of a brute, but he’s no fool; he’s loyal to his principles and will carry out whatever mission is placed before him.

I didn’t pull any of that from the story.  I learned that just by playing the game.

Time will tell if Brunhilde manages to transcend and become more than a titillating talking point for Valkyria Revolution.  But no matter what she looks like, it doesn’t change the fact that she’s at least in a position to transcend; with the blood of a powerful race flowing through her veins, she has the potential to become the game’s most powerful and awe-inspiring villainess.  I’m of the opinion that we need more good villainesses, both in gaming and fiction in general (because a hero is only as good as the baddie they’re pitted against).  If we can get that from Brunhilde, then we’ll be on our way toward brighter days in Fiction Land.

And Mario?  Mario is a character that needs no introduction, whose popularity has eclipsed global icons like Mickey Mouse.  He hasn’t said much over the course of three decades, but that’s partly because he doesn’t need to.  His spirit and charm shine through all the time; what little snippets of personality we’ve seen are more than enough.  He’s a happy character who removes the filter between the fun in his world and the enjoyment we derive from it.  Because of his service, he’s transcended.  He does it on his own, but his iconic status pushes him even further — as expected from someone well over thirty.

And that brings us back to this glowing gem.

Various Capcom characters have been around for a long, long time; Ryu alone has been bumping around for a good 25 years, at least.  Time alone has allowed him to transcend his base-level existence as “Player 1’s character”; he’s a symbol that represents the purity, spirit, and joy of the fight — not to mention the worthwhile, if endless, pursuit of self-improvement.  I would think that Capcom understands this, which is why they’ve featured him prominently over the years…which makes the whole Marvel character situation that much more baffling, because they’re dealing with characters that have been around even longer, and for the public are often even more iconic.

The simplest explanation is the most obvious one, and the very thing that Combofiend and the Capcom Corps have to dance around: it’s really just a matter of executive meddling and legal red tape.  Time and quality alike have turned drawings into heroes (and villains) that the world has learned to love; the fact that there have been concerns at best and uproars at worst over the potential absence of decades-old mainstays like Wolverine in Marvel Infinite should tell the devs plenty. 

I don’t envy Capcom for the position they’re in.  If it’s because of Marvel’s interference, then it’s truly regrettable.  But to send out a sacrificial lamb like Combofiend to say that these characters don’t matter — that we’ll be fine with mere replacements, despite the love and potential baked into their very beings — means that in the worst case scenario, he’s exactly right.  When stripped of their potential and that quintessence, they really are nothing more than functions.  And that’s no way to live.

We’re getting dangerously close to the full release of Marvel Infinite, and I’m getting nervous about its prospects; I don’t want people to sling hate like they have with Street Fighter V.  I wish the game, and the company at large, the best.  I want them to do well, so that we can receive more quality games.  But what I want more is for people up and down the industry to realize the power they wield.

Characters create opportunities.  That’s true in video games — especially in video games.  When we all understand that — when we expect more from creators across the board — then we’ll go well beyond the limits of functions and roles. 

And who knows?  Maybe someday, we’ll all be infinite.

That was a really saccharine line to end on, but I’m gonna take the high road and NOT post a picture of Brunhilde again.  I already featured an edited picture where she seemingly had her own gravitational field.  You’ve had enough for one night.

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