Human after all: why have console games swapped characterful cartoons for ‘realistic’ art styles?

Recall the console chart shelves of your local game store in the latter months of 2011. On one row you might have seen the silvery silhouette of a soldier with an orange glow defining his right side. Another featured a stubbly adventurer on sand dunes, a wrecked airliner behind him. A bit further on you’d see a monochrome version of a comics icon atop a gargoyle with a splash of blood across his fist. And nearby would be a gnarled hulk of a man leaning on a gun as the amber-hued spires of a ruined world loomed behind him. Many games had a three in the title, but that’s not the throughline; all of these boxes depicted the playable human characters inside. Not strictly realistic humans, perhaps, but grittily realised, with dirt under their nails and driven by steely determination.

Blockbuster console games are similar today. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, however, they were primarily filled with the effigies of a whole menagerie of beasts and cartoon heroes. Sonic The Hedgehog, Donkey Kong, Crash Bandicoot and Alex Kidd were the ones who graced boxes back then. What changed, technology, the industry, or players?

Before the mid-’90s and the advent of consoles powerful enough to render characters made of polygons, sprite limitations were the be all and end all of character design. Mario’s mere 16×32 pixels and tight colour palette in Super Mario Bros made him a direct product of those limitations. Talking to Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells, it’s clear technical constraints continued to play a role in early 3D games, too. He explains how they informed the look of original PlayStation star Crash Bandicoot: “We had to pick characters that just had very easy shapes. That’s why you wound up with characters with big heads and big eyes. You might only get a pixel to represent the pupil of an eye, and you want to make sure that you can read expression on [them].”

But when the time came to develop a new series for PS2, the extra processing power on offer gave the team the option to move towards free-roaming, fully 3D worlds and put more detail in character models. Extensive tools development and the influence of Mario 64 resulted in Jak And Daxter, which paired a humanoid elf with a half-otter, half-weasel sidekick. “We wanted to take a step towards human,” explains Wells. “[Jak’s] an elf, so he’s kind of human-esque. We felt we could render a humanoid character pretty well and convincingly. The head size could shrink and we didn’t have to go as fantastic.”

By 2003’s Jak II, Naughty Dog had realised that the market had shifted. Darker, more mature themes were selling and console gamers were getting older. It decided to alter Jak to suit, giving the once-quiet hero a dark, bitter side. In explaining this new take on the elfin protagonist, co-founder Jason Rubin said at the time: “Gamers like me are still playing. I’m 33 and what I want now is very different from what I wanted ten years ago. Ten years ago you didn’t have the choice to play Grand Theft Auto. You played Mario because Mario was what’s available.”

Some of his words are mirrored in the Entertainment Software Association’s reports on videogame consumer demographics. By 2011, they claimed the average age of a game player had reached 37, a figure that had gradually risen across the 2000s. As a point of reference, the average age in 2005 was 30. As Rubin said, older players don’t necessarily want to play as helium-voiced animals; they want games that mirror the sensibilities of the films and TV they watch, and the books they read. To play a game that’s pitched at their level also helps affirm their interest – it’s hard to admit to friends that you spent last night bouncing around a forest as a squirrel collecting acorns – and realism’s also a good way of showing off the power of the hardware in which they’ve invested.

But there’s more than just demographics at work. Insomniac Games, for example, has a long history of working with cartoony heroes, including Spyro The Dragon and Ratchet and Clank. It made the shift to realism for its Resistance series, which kicked off in 2006, and has been used to promote Sony’s hardware ever since. Its villainous alien antagonists, the Chimera, were initially more reptilian than humanoid, but were made more like us to elicit a better response from players.

“Arguably, you ascribe more intelligence to a more human-looking character than you do to one that looks more animalistic,” says CEO Ted Price. “[That] helped us give these Chimera more personality, even though they don’t really have personality.”

Concerns of player empathy can define a look as well. “I recall The Incredibles was coming out around then,” Wells says of the design of Nathan Drake, star of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted, which debuted in 2007. “So we looked at some chiselled chins and some exaggerated brows and things like that. The team ultimately decided that, realistically, Drake’s final character design needed to be simple to forge a player connection.

“A lot of [characters you see in games are] these big, bald, buff space marines. We wanted to our character to be wearing plain clothes, and that’s much harder to render and expose some of the subtleties of human emotion than when you’ve got big, bulky, hard-surfaced space armour on. We wanted to render hair, we wanted to do animation that really brought out human emotion.” In that statement, you can also hear the software engineer celebrating the giddy challenge of reproducing reality.

When we visited the Osaka-based Platinum Games recently, Bayonetta director Hideki Kamiya and president Tatsuya Minami talked about the west’s preference for realism, and why Minami believed the Japanese style would have to move towards it. Developers, he said, could no longer afford to focus solely on the domestic scene. With production budgets inflating, putting pressure on titles to be globally successful, the predilections of one of gaming’s largest markets will affect the kinds of games we see gracing the console charts.

It’s hard to underestimate the impact of Call Of Duty, which has dominated sales records and the very image of modern gaming. It’s shown us that teenagers, who might once have been satisfied with Banjo-Kazooie, now desire more adult content (21 per cent of respondents to an IGN survey on the M-rated COD: Black Ops II were between 13-17). With $40 million-plus budgets like COD’s at stake in modern game development, the conservative money clearly lies with a similarly realistic style.

Not everyone agrees, mind you. There’s Team Fortress 2, for instance, while Epic – long renowned for Gears Of War – is pushing its new engine tech with Fortnite, which nods to TF2’s cartoon style. As principal artist Shane Caudle stresses: “That’s totally different from something you’d normally expect from Epic. It’s really cartoony and cute and colourful, but it’s pushing the envelope on kind of the look of that style as well. We let the game dictate what the art direction’s style is going to be.”

Perhaps such games are outliers, exercising the power in subverting expectations to stand out among a rash of near-identical fellows. But there’s a general sense of change in the air. The rapid growth of mobile games and the rising prominence of the indie scene has forged a new culture of production, one of smaller teams and budgets, which bring new limitations. And it’s hard to argue the cartoon game character is in anything but rude health in the face of Rovio’s Angry Birds, which has continued to push the idea of the mass-market game out from the console mainstream and into the population at large. Such success is already feeding back into the console world, from the first retail disc bundles of App Store titans to cannily stylised indie games. Perhaps the faces of gaming will diversify again as its audiences and developers do the same.

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