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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.

Ugly Pretty screen 1

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.

Ugly pretty screen 2

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.

Ugly pretty screen 4

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?

  1. That was an interesting read Nick, but I think people have always been able to imagine beyond the graphics, that’s why we have strong memories of characters from early videogames.

    The better graphics get, the less we have to think about a character and the more likely it is that our natural prejudices will shine through.

    The example I’d give would be the Usual Suspects’ ending. People underestimate him because he acts like a cripple. It could work in a new game because of good graphics creating an appropriate Verbal Kint.

    In a modern video games storytelling will be the only way that we see past our flawed viewpoints.

    I don’t want to keep going on, so I hope I have partially got my message across.

    • avatar Mido

      You’re skipping Worlds 4 and 7 besuace they’re secret Worlds. To get access to them:How to get World 4: Beat the World 4 boss with Mini Mario. Good luck on that. (recommend wall jumping when the boss will appear at the other side of the room)How to get World 7: Beat the World 7 boss with Mini Mario. Slightly easier.References :

  2. I’d have to disagree Austin. We more than likely have strong memories of characters from early video games because that have a NOSTALGIC appeal to us now that we’re older….(much like how you might have loved Power Rangers as a child, like I once did….but now you look back on it and realize how outrageous it was…and yet still look back on it fondly…)

    A graphically inferior character would leave more character development up to the player’s own imagination, because you’d have less information to absorb…

    however, a more graphically detailed character might help the developers to get THEIR vision of the character across to us, rather than leave that up to the players….(and of course, this could be very effective in the actual storytelling of the game) Overall, this might invoke MORE thinking about a character because they are much deeper than we originally think, realizing this only as the story progresses.

    I think it’s much more difficult to try to understand a character that someone else created than one we create ourselves…and that’s why narratives are so intriguing, because we have strong desires to understand the characters within them.

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