Last week, Chad Concelmo told you all about all the stubbly, brown-haired game protagonists that have glutted the gaming scene of late, and how we could use a few less of them. We’ve got nothing against stubbly Caucasian males, of course. Radical cartoon characters with attitude may have owned the gaming scene in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, but after the CD-ROM came along with its capacity for voice acting and detailed cut scenes, it was time for “Hollywood leading men” to take over games as well. That’s just the way trends work. They tend to beat things into the ground until they aren’t interesting anymore.
The Ben Affleck-looking action star isn’t the only visual archetype that has made the leap from movies to videogames. We’ve also got the busty leading lady, the funky urban sidekick/pimp/arms dealer, and the colorfully coiffed anime star, among many others. The closer that gaming gets to the mainstream, the more it’s bound to get infected by mainstream entertainment’s least interesting qualities. In other words, generic, lowest-common-denominator heroes are inevitable in any art form that’s made for profit.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there will always be game developers that make it a point to give us an alternative to that. Whenever there is a mainstream, there is a counter-culture, and gaming’s counter-culture protagonists have never been more interesting.
Here’s a quick list of some of my favorite atypical videogame mascots, none of whom look anything like Ben Affleck.
10) The Viewtiful Joe series
On the surface, Viewtiful Joe doesn’t seem that different from a lot of mainstream anime/action stars. He’s basically a super-deformed Power Ranger with a goatee and tight abs. It’s only when you see him alongside more standard game characters in something like Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom that it becomes clear just how weird Joe is.
Combining big-head-little-body cuteness with Western superhero muscles and a pink scarf is not normal. Made up words like “Viewtiful” are also not normal, and Joe exclaims them on a regular basis. Although it’s easy to trace the influences that went into creating Viewtiful Joe, it’s pretty hard to think of another videogame character that looks or plays quite like him.
If Ben Affleck played Viewtiful Joe, he’d have gone from a bizarre tribute to both Western and Eastern geekdom to being just another random superhero. There is no way his adventures would have been as memorable as “Viewtiful Ben.”
9) The LEGO series
The LEGO games get a lot of crap for being uninspired. That may be true now, but when LEGO Star Wars first hit the scene, it bucked a lot of trends. The game was released at a time when game adaptations of live-action properties were focusing more and more on realism. Then the LEGO series came along and turned that notion on its head.
Developers that are in love with the idea of making their games look “real” have to resort to creating lead characters that look like the primary demographic (Ben Affleck look-a-likes) in order to assure that their games will appeal to a wide audience. The LEGO games (and most Facebook games and Nintendo’s Miis) prove that developers who are willing to forsake realism can go on to appeal to an even larger demographic: everyone with two eyes and a mouth.
8) The BioShock series
I guess the general consensus is that BioShock 2 isn’t as great as BioShock. I could never get into either game myself, so I can’t really say. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to like them. Upon first sight, I really thought I was going to love the game, and that has everything to do with the series’ figurehead: the Big Daddy.
There was no reason to think that a game about gigantic deep-sea divers who live to protect creepy little girls would take off. Deep-sea divers are not what’s “hot on the streets” right now, and they never were. Ken Levine and company could have just as easily made the Big Daddy with a more time-tested enemy design, like a zombie or a Nazi, if they wanted to assure some mainstream comprehension of their work.
Instead, they stayed true to their Delicatessen/City of Lost Children influences and created the Rapture and Big Daddy that we know and love today. Good show, 2K Boston! If you’re going to rip off a movie, it might as well be something from Jeunet and Caro, sans Ben Affleck.
The star of Scribblenauts is a brilliant example of truly effective character design. He’s simple and easy to relate with, but still has personality. Though it’s likely that Scribblenauts would have gotten some critical acclaim regardless of how Maxwell looked, it’s hard to imagine that the game would have gone on to be as famous and profitable as it has without such a memorable and likable lead character.
It’s all in the accessorizing.
If Scribblenauts starred a “wacky” anthropomorphic animal, or a handsome leading man, or a generic anime protagonist, it would have had a much tougher time gaining people’s trust. Before you play a game, you have to have some faith that you’ll enjoy it. You have have to be curious about what it has to offer, while also feeling some immediate kinship with the game and its world.
Maxwell pulls all of that off, and he does it using just one thing: his rooster hat. It immediately tells us that he’s weird, he’s creative, and he’s up for something different. He’s the kind of little dude that most gamers want to be, and represents what a lot of us want our games to be.
Can you imagine Ben Affleck wearing a rooster hat? That might even be worse than Daredevil.
6) The Katamari series
Katamari Damacy is weird on every level. The way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it plays; everything. Given how drenched Katamari Damacy is with insanity, it’s understandable that its protagonist, the Prince, actually looks somewhat normal in comparison to rest of the game. Compare him to other videogame characters, though, and he he’s clearly doing something different.
The Prince lacks almost all of the features that are present in most “cute and cartoony” videogame characters: no funny sidekick, no catchphrases, and no arched eyebrows. He doesn’t have eyebrows, let alone arched ones. He barely even has eyes. No Pixar movie, no fast-food chain mascot, and certainly no big-budget videogame character would ever dare look like the Prince. Someone like him might end up on some bizarre Japanese stationery at best, or as a “common enemy” in someone else’s game at worst.
That’s what makes the Prince different; unlike almost every other central character, he’s totally unassuming. His games are never named after him. In fact, he’s barely seen for the majority of his own games due to the size of the giant clump he’s packing. Where most games make a point to constantly drive home the fact that their lead character is the most charismatic and personable creation ever, the Prince is lovable because he is truly an underdog.
That’s the real reason I’m happy that Ben Affleck doesn’t play the Prince. Big-chinned guys like him just can’t believably play underdogs. As a big-chinned guy, I know this from experience. People automatically assume we’re good at sports and can destroy planets with our bare hands. Affleck could maybe pull off the King of All Cosmos, but for the Prince, he’s a no-go.
5) The Meat Boy and Bit.Trip series
These two characters are about two very different things, but from a design philosophy perspective, they are similar enough that I’m lumping them together (also, top ten lists are always more enticing than top eleven lists.)
On the surface, Meat Boy and Commander Video both appear to be throwbacks to the forced-minimalism era of gaming: a time when games simply couldn’t give you characters that had more detail than two hands, two feet, a body, and a couple of eyes (or in Commander Video’s case, one eye). The difference with these two is, the minimalism here isn’t forced. The minimalism is part of their messages. Sometimes, these messages are obtuse and fuzzy; sometimes, they are crystal-clear. But at all times, they defy expectations of what a videogame mascot can mean.
Don’t believe me? Do you think it’s meaningless that Meat Boy is constantly expelling blood, and that Commander Video is always gushing rainbows? Then maybe it is for you. That’s the beauty of using minimalism and abstraction to send your message. It’s up to you, the player, to figure out exactly where the meaning is.
Would Ben Affleck work in the role of Meat Boy or Commander Video? Trust me, I’d love to find out. I’d love to play a game where Ben Affleck is constantly bleeding and/or shooting rainbows out of his ass. Sadly, though, that would probably get old fast, and wouldn’t work to express anything other than goofy good times.
4) The Chibi-Robo series
Chibi-Robo is a lot like the Prince in that he barely demands your attention, and he lives to make others happy. And like Meat Boy and Commander Video, Chibi-Robo is almost completely featureless. He’s got two eyes, a head, two arms, two legs, and a body. That’s it. No face, no color; nothing. He’s the very definition of un-design.
As for his adventure, it’s a journey into the world of minutiae. It is the anti-blockbuster. Where most games work hard to give you an experience that’s larger than life, Chibi-Robo takes you to all of the smallest things that life has to offer. Cleaning stains, washing dishes, and watering flowers; these are the big moments in Chibi-Robo’s world. These are the moments that define Chibi-Robo. These are moments that could only work with a character like Chibi-Robo.
Can you imagine a little Ben Affleck running around your house, cleaning up stains and picking up after your pets, with no quips to quip, no Phantoms to fight, and no Armageddons to Armageddon? I don’t think it’s possible. If cast as Chibi-Robo, I don’t think he could resist blowing up a giant meteor and/or mouthing off a few one-liners. A little Justin Bieber could maybe make it happen, but not Ben Affleck. He’s just too alpha.
3) The Okami series
I’ve been playing videogames for a long time, and Okami and its upcoming sequel are the only two games I can think of that star non-verbal, four-legged animals. Sure, there are tons of games that star anthropomorphic animals, or have “realistic” animal sidekicks, but Okami and Okamiden are the only games I can think of that star animals who are totally incapable of talking, walking on their hind legs, or doing any of the things that people do.
I’ve always thought that casting a dog as its lead character is the main reason that Okami didn’t sell that well. People may hear all about how great the game is, but when it comes time to put their money down, they just can’t wrap their heads around playing a massive action/adventure game as a non-human. The concept is just too foreign. People even balked at a few wolf-moments in Twilight Princess. A full-on wolf game was just too much for people.
This is one entry on the list that might have done itself some good by getting in on some sweet Affleck action. There’s no way in hell I would have preferred that the game star a handsome man like Affleck, but I bet it would have had a much easier time finding an audience (but only if he put some pants on.)
2) Retro Game Challenge
Retro Game Challenge is one of the only games that truly pays tribute to the gamer. While there are hundreds of movies about movies, and thousands of books about books, there are only a handful of videogames that are about videogames. Among those few, Retro Game Challenge sits close to the top of the list.
In the game, a guy in his late 30s named Arino relives his childhood by tasking his pre-adolescent self with playing a variety of fake videogames from the late ’80s and early ’90s. You play Arino’s friend, but in reality, you’re just playing yourself, hanging out with Arino in a virtual living room, and playing some awesome new videogames.
The game presumes that you, the player, love videogames more than other forms of entertainment. It’s not such a strange thing to suppose. Why else would you spend your time and money on the game in first place? It also presumes that as a videogame fan, you like videogame fans. Logical, right?
Sadly, if the game’s U.S. sales are any indication, the developers were wrong. In the United States, gamers aren’t always so proud of the fact that they love videogames. There is an ongoing chase on the part of many gamers to find a game that’s as legitimate and important as movies are, that closely resemble that more culturally accepted art form. Maybe that’s because most gamers have been made fun of for at least a portion of their lives, just for being gamers. That kind of prolonged mockery can lead to internalized shame that doesn’t go away overnight.
Personally, I love Arino. I love the gamer archetype, despite how many times I’ve been mocked for fitting into it. I think gamers deserve to be celebrated, more so than most athletes and movie stars do. That’s why I’m probably in the minority when I say that I think that Arino is much more awesome than Ben Affleck. That said, I still would have bought Retro Game Challenge if it starred Ben Affleck. The games it contains are too fun to ignore. In fact, I’d probably like Ben Affleck more if I could associate him with something awesome like videogames, and not something not-awesome like Reindeer Games.
1) The Uncharted series (no, seriously — hear me out)
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a fan of most Hollywood hunks. I’ve always been this way. The first time I saw Star Wars, I thought to myself, “Jesus, that Han Solo guy is a real dick. Glad I’m not forced to hang out with him in real life.” The first time I saw a James Bond movie, I thought, “Man, I hate guys like that, always pushing you around and making you feel small.” As you might have guessed, my real-life experiences with “the popular kids” have not been so great. Of course, there are exceptions to that, but in general, the super-confident, super-good-looking, super-outgoing men of the world have not been easy for me to be around. They may be fun to watch in a movie, but hanging out with them in real life can really suck.
That’s one of the reasons I don’t like the fact that those “leading men” are taking over videogames. The other big reason is that they’re just… boring. Seeing a good-looking, athletic guy climb a wall, beat up a bad guy, and get the girl is just so… expected. Of course he can beat up the bad guys! Of course he can get the girl! Just look at him! What can’t he do?
It’s much more interesting to see a regular guy, or a kid, or better yet, an irregular guy achieve the same goals. That’s why I love Donut Drake.
In case you don’t know, Donut Drake is the code name for a fat-guy mod created for Nathan Drake. Who’s Nathan Drake, you ask? That’s a matter of opinion. To me, Nathan Drake is the epitome of the dull, predictable, wanna-be Hollywood movie star that I don’t want to see in a videogame. Everything about the character — his look, his voice, his lines — is all textbook Hollywood, by-the-numbers mediocrity made to appease the lowest common denominator in the Uncharted series.
Once Drake gets fat, that all changes.
Sure, his dialogue is still pretty sitcom-worthy (in a bad way), but there is something about a 400-pound guy hitting on two beautiful women that I can get behind. Just add a thick layer of blubber, and Drake stops being Brad Pitt and starts being Angus. He starts being relatable. He starts being likable. More importantly, he starts being exceptional.
It’s a given that a good-looking athlete will get the girl, climb the brick wall, and take out the hordes of trained mercenaries. Seeing an action-movie star act out action-movie cliches is the antithesis of evocative. Seeing a 400-pound man do the same stunts (particularly the one about climbing the brick wall) is something else entirely. Even though I know it’s fake, it’s still amazing, inspiring, and exciting.
Yeah, I love Donut Drake. I want more videogame characters to be like him. I want more gamers to pay tribute to their imperfect selves, instead of dreaming of being the captain of the football team.
But will we ever get there?
It’s nice that certain games’ alpha males, like Solid Snake and Max Payne, have grown into more physically flawed, “human” characters, but that’s just two guys out of the hundreds of dull-but-pretty male bimbos that current populate the majority of non-Nintendo AAA games (the difference between Nintendo’s AAA games and everyone else’s AAA games is worth noting, but that’s probably best saved for another post). For the most part, it looks like the male-model game protagonist is here to stay.
How about you? Who do you prefer — sexy and predictable regular Drake, or fat and amazing Donut Drake? Do you want to play a game that pays tribute to you, flaws and all, or a game that stars characters cast by the values and standards of a Hollywood talent agent?