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In an ideal Ayn Rand-ian world, the good guys are pretty, and the bad guys are ugly. The internal beauty of virtue and wholesomeness manifests itself on a perfectly flawless external visage.
Conversely, the baddies have scarred, twisted features. The rare smile of a villain is not a product of happiness but malice. Games used to be this clear-cut. Games used to be this black-and-white.
Now, however, game developers have the technology to make their characters actually look human, as opposed to being mere embodiments of ideals. This helps gamers empathize with their increasingly realistic in-game avatars; but this shift away from a black-and-white game development ideology did not happen overnight.
The increase in character detail is a direct parallel to the increase in graphical technology. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, we didn’t have photorealism; we didn’t have epic, larger-than-life enemies. Sometimes, we didn’t even have sprites that looked human. We barely had physics.
In Space Invaders, the protagonist was a laser-toting spaceship – the glorious pinnacle of humankind’s technological prowess – while the aliens were about as far from “human” as late-70s graphical technology could muster. The goal was simple: destroy all that were different. The aliens’ goal was mankind’s destruction, and they looked evil. There were no shades of morality – you had to kill the bad guys before they killed you.
Fast forward to Mario. He was a typical guy with a typical blue-collar job: plumber. He was fat. He had a mustache. He was relatable. A regular guy in an irregular scenario, Mario had to save his princess from the evil Lord Bowser. You could tell Bowser was evil, because he was scaly and blew flames from his mouth.
“Scaly” wasn’t an adjective associated with heroism until the days of Spyro the Dragon, and even Spyro killed to survive. Perhaps the relationship between scales, snakes, Medusa, and heroism just doesn’t mesh historically and mythologically.
The 8-bit generation of video games was the first to allow characters to have actual features. Just like an author injects their own personality into their stories, game designers gave their characters traits that appealed to them. Still, technology held games back from a full realization of the human condition.
Mario had a mustache because it was easier than animating a mouth. He wore a hat because hair was difficult to detail on the primitive NES architecture. Mario was as real as technology would allow.
As gaming grew, however, Mario retained his same basic charm. He didn’t evolve as time went by like Sonic the Hedgehog did (to disastrous results). Mario has been a short, fat, Italian plumber stereotype for over twenty-five years, and that’s okay. His games have retained the same basic formula, as well, with the only major upgrade being the shift from 2D to 3D with the debut of the Nintendo 64 in 1996. Mario is Mario, and he will always be Mario.
Sitting at the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Solid Snake. He’s from the NES/MSX days as well, but his latest games continue to stun with their originality and powerful storytelling. Unlike many protagonists, Snake has aged. Snake has scarred. Snake has grown old, weary, tired, and battle-worn. But Snake has grown. He has become older, almost in real-time, from one game to the next since the original Metal Gear.
Snake is a shining example of a human character. In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, he is one of the only non-stereotypical “get off my lawn”-types of senior citizens in all of gaming. He is old. He is wrinkly. He is almost disabled. But we root for him. Solid Snake, despite his incredible stealth skills, could very well be a real person. Mario… not so much.
A lot of the suspension of disbelief comes, not only from Kojima’s oft-convoluted, yet still riveting, storyline, but also by the way Snake looks, acts, and talks. This is entirely superficial, but it adds validity to his character as a whole. He looks and acts like a person – flaws, wrinkles, cynicism, and all.
However, Snake’s development from soldier to mere man over the course of two decades is unique in the industry. New characters in the current generation are released into an entirely different atmosphere than the 1980s gaming environment. Today, we have Marcus Fenix, Faith, Altair, and Eddie Riggs. They have their flaws, and they have their good points. They are people.
Now that gamers have discovered that they are not just playing as characters, but as themselves, they will hopefully become more forgiving of little shortcomings. Maybe we’ll be able to see other flawed individuals as unique, instead of repulsive. Instead of faults, we’ll see character traits. Instead of ugliness, we’ll see beauty.
The next generation of video games may look as good as real life. How will we take advantage of that power? Will we use the technology for good or evil?
Is there even a difference anymore?