Take a look at the lineup of four characters above. If you could choose three of them to be in your party based on looks alone, who would you choose? The spiky haired silent hero? The bulky, muscular bad ass? The waif female who is probably a white magic user? Sure you would. As cookie cutter as they are, characters like these are almost always seen as great assets to one's team, no questions asked.
But what about the cute guy at the end of the line? You would probably never choose him over the other three. Why? Well, for one, you may not like the way that he looks compared to the others. He may have an abrasive, too-cute personality that you just can't stand. He may not have a back story or anything to keep you interested in using him.
More likely, however, is the "fact" that there's a good chance he's completely useless.
But it's not his fault. Videogames, RPGs in particular, have had a longstanding tradition of having at least one character that is cute as all get-out but useless in battle, annoying, or a combination of the two. These unfortunate, long standing design elements should all be tossed out the window.
That is why I'm here.
First, let me explain what I mean by "cute". Human and humanoid characters, however big eyed and adorable they may be, don't count (sorry Tingle, though I still think you rock too!). I'm talking about all of those cute/weird looking nonhuman creatures present in the gaming world. Cait Sith, Quina and Mog of the Final Fantasy series are examples. Then there's Xenogears' Chu Chu, Shining Force's Jogurt, Tales of the Abyss' Mieu, Breath of Fire 3's Pecoros, and dozens more in RPGs. Heck, there are eight in Chrono Cross alone, and Pokémon stars almost nothing but.
What most of these characters have in common, besides being precious, is uninspired design. One could argue that some of them can be useful if leveled and used properly, but most naturally have bad stats and moves that make them a pain to use, even if the end result is supposed to make it worth the effort. It's not that cute characters are supposed to be this way, just that their creators always give them the shaft to make them fit the stereotype of the mascot or the comic relief.
And it sucks, because humans are boring. We are them in real life, so the chance to be something completely different is something that can be really appealing to gamers. That's where cute characters come in. They're sometimes the only playable deviant from human life in a game, and to make them nothing more than novelties just isn't fair to us or to them.
Take Cait Sith for example. Visually, he was one of the most interestingly designed playable characters in FFVII. But lots of people don't bother to use him because Square made him weak in comparison to everyone else. His Limit Breaks, though they can be powerful, rely solely on luck. His weapons tend to have plenty of Materia slots, but that doesn't change the fact that he had bad stats working against him. It's hard to find a reason to justify using Materia on him instead of someone who packs more of a punch, and more reliably.
The cute characters abundant in Chrono Cross were the same deal. Poshul, the big, pink "Wonder Dog" had high HP but was pretty useless otherwise. A cross between a knight and a vegetable, Turnip was one of the cutest characters ever made, but had horrendous stats. The adorable lab experiment Pip only became useful once you evolved it.
That's another thing about most of these guys: if they do have the potential to do something useful or cool, it requires a lot of unnecessary work or an evolution that drastically changes their appearance. Quina was made a Blue Mage, so in order for it to be of any use, you had to make it absorb the attacks of a bunch of different enemies. Jogurt always hit for 1 HP, but if you defeated enough enemies with him, you would receive rings that, when equipped, would make your other party members look as cute as he did. Pecoros had the potential to be one of the best tanks in BoF 3, but you have to spend a lot of time with him because he joins your party as an underleveled character.
As much as I love the Pokémon series, it is probably the worst offender of all. Its mechanics are deeply rooted in the misconception that cute, nonhuman creatures are weaker than those that are ugly or human. You may start out with an adorable Bulbasaur, but in order to make it reach its full potential, you have to let it evolve into a frightening Venusaur. Only then can the monster be taken seriously and kick some ass come time to fight the Elite Four. And they can't even do that without you, the human Pokemon Trainer.
Furthermore, the cute ones that have no evolutionary step up, like Chansey, or those who have cute evolutions, like Clefairy and Jigglypuff, never become quite as useful as the tougher looking guys. Again, there's a lot of bad stats and gimmicky/weak moves involved. I hate to sound like a broken record, but my point is that these design elements have been used for cute characters over and over and over again. If they're cute and in an RPG, they're almost guaranteed to be weaklings!
But the worst thing is that they're also purposely designed to lack depth. As games strive to become better storytellers, we're still stuck with a lot of one-dimensional characters, and nine times out of ten, they hail from the cute category. Meanwhile, human characters are given pasts, clearly defined personalities and major roles in their game's story to help turn them into more believable characters. I want RPG developers to stop doing this.
Quina is the specific character I had in mind when I originally thought of this Monthly Musing topic. As a young, impressionable child, Final Fantasy IX was the first disc-based FF game I had ever played. As such, the characters and world and cinematics blew me away. Everyone and everything was perfect... except for Quina.
I thought he/she/it was the most interesting creature I'd ever laid eyes upon in a game, and to have it as a playable character excited me even more. But with no prior knowledge of the way characters like it are supposed to work and no instruction manual (or Internet), I quickly grew exasperated with it despite my attachment. But at least I would get to see it grow as a character and do cool stuff alongside the others throughout the story, right?
Wrong. I wanted so badly to learn about Quina and the Qus, just as I had learned about everyone else's pasts and presents and futures. I desperately wanted a sign, anything that would flesh it out so that it could be on equal ground it its teammates. But it never happened. Like all of the others I would someday encounter, she was purely one-dimensional, popping in and out to say funny things about eating in broken English and nothing else. I was so disappointed in the way that Square handled its character that I could barely finish the game.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to all of these "rules". The Mother series is a great example, since it also bucks other less favorable RPG trends. In the beginning of Earthbound, Ness's pet dog King is one of the greatest allies he has, though for a short time. Mother 3 does it one better by having two cute little animal buddies, Boney the dog and Salsa the monkey, along for the ride. They're insanely useful and even play integral roles in the game's story.
FFVI's Mog stands out from the list of cute characters in that many players choose him to be in their parties, even though they have several other, human choices. Why? Because he was made to be useful right out of the box. Despite the fact that little bear-like creature is shaking his rump on the battlefield, Mog's dances are always worth having around.
Chrono Trigger's resident cute guy, Frog, not only has the ability to kick ass, but he's also a fully fleshed out character. He has the body of an amphibian and his throat puffs out adorably every time he has something important to say, but those things never work against his credibility. With an interesting story, a major role in CT's plot and a believable, interesting personality behind him, he is as developed and serious a character as his human peers.
But enough about RPGs; what about the way other genres handle these characters? It seems that they aren't as adverse toward the idea that big, serious things can sometimes come in small, cuddly packages. However, they are often lumped into unfortunate stereotypes on the other end of the spectrum to make them more palatable to the general public. There's the cute guy who is deceptively manly, the cute guy who is deceptively crude, and the cute guy who is deceptively evil.
Sometimes, designing a good cute character can be all about what is left unsaid. They don't have to be as cute as they look, nor do they have to shock you with how cool or violent they can be. They can just be, and our minds can fill in the rest.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a survivor of the Golden Age of Cute Animal Platformer Mascots, though I'm using the term "survivor" very loosely. But back when he was just an animal saving other animals, he sparked my love and appreciation for the non-human hero. He had an immense amount of depth to him because they left his character very open to interpretation. He symbolized friendship. He was a friend to Tails, to all the animals he busted out of their robotic shells, and to me, because I was just a lonely little kid who had nothing but a Sega Genesis.
After a decade of having his token attitude cranked to unbearable levels, he's been turned into a horrible example of how to design your cute platforming critter. Placing him in a world that is similar to ours and giving him human love interests, a evil-looking transformation, and a sword has just hurt even the biggest Sonic fan's ability to take his character seriously anymore. There's too much fluff, and sadly, he might have a lot to do with why other cute lead roles don't appeal to a lot of people anymore.
So who does it right? HAL Laboratory does, with their little pink creampuff of a mascot, Kirby. Namco also has a contender in Klonoa. These two are part of a small group of non-RPG characters who are unapologetic about how adorable they are, because it makes them no less capable of kicking butt or being backed by a meaningful story. To be honest, the ending to Door to Phantomile was one of the few times in my life where I was moved to tears by a game's story. That cute little rabbit cat's story made me cry! Klonoa should not be the exception, but the rule.
What's the reasoning behind all this? Well, human instinct makes it hard for us to take cute things seriously. Most of us turn into squealing babytalkers when an infant or animal is presented, so it's only natural that we act the same way toward a creature that is a composite of the two. I mean, that's why the American covers and commercials of Kirby games still depict him as uncharacteristically tough or angry.
But that's not a good excuse. The worlds depicted in videogames are often not our own, so who's to say that things work using the same ideals? Why should cute equate to novelty when the supposedly "serious" humanoid hero is capable of carrying a sword three times his size?
What I'm asking for is a little more equality. Cuties should have a fair shot at being better characters, if not more useful. Give them a powerful special move that isn't dependent on luck and decent stats. Make their personalities and lives as rich and colorful as their appearances. They deserve so much better than to be screwed over design-wise because they are often much better captors of players' imaginations than human characters. To have that childlike wonder squashed every time they walk in only to say their catchphrase is a horrible thing to do.
I care because I like these characters a lot. Not because I'm a girly-girl and I want everything to be cute (though that may have something to do with it), but because I think they often have way more interesting designs than those who are not cute. I would like to be able to play as someone more interesting looking than a human and not become disheartened because they're specifically designed to be weak and one-dimensional.
The idea that cuteness somehow makes a character inferior must die.