Has better graphics lead to less iconic character designs?


#1

When I was reading the Halo feature at Waypoint, I started to think about how the simpler designs of Master Chief and things in that universe like the Warthog or early Covenant designs compared to more recent games such as Destiny made them more memorable to me. While I’d usually ignore this as a case of nostalgia taking precedence, I think the fact that I’ve only played one Halo game (Reach) sort of makes me apprehensive to boil it down to just that.

It got me thinking about other recent games, and I feel like the extra detail of modern graphics stops me from thinking of their designs as iconic. I have difficulty conjuring up the look of characters from Uncharted to Horizon: Zero Dawn to even Persona 5, as distinct designs rather than just seeing them as people in cool outfits. There’s the cliché of newer characters from franchises like Pokémon or Sonic actually becoming more disjointed and forgettable as they increased in detail (though I somewhat disagree with this, the sentiment certainly has some basis in reality).

What do you think? Could this be a case of the test of time only remembering the iconic characters, so the era seems more memorable in retrospect (and the same effect will happen with games today as time goes on). Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that when developers are restricted (whether technically or by choice) in how detailed they can get, the results end up being more memorable character designs? I’m undecided on it which is why I’m making this thread.


NieR Automata Character Design
#2

Most recent games doesn’t feel like they really put a lot of effort into making their flagship character memorable. Iconic poses are no more, or very cliché. Nothing that really stands out. Nor they have to. I think the impact stems more from what the character is, and what they want us to expect the character to be in the lead up to the release, rather than making a striking impact where the simple sight of a silhouette is enough to know who is the character behind it.

I find some of Overwatch’s design pretty bad and uninspired but they succeeded at making them stand out through expectations (we know that the generic space cowboy is going to play like) and backstories and capcom-esque dynamism in their design. It’s more efficient, they have more ways to convey what they want, they don’t have to aim to strike players instantly anymore.

I don’t think graphics plays a role, just shifting goals.


#3

I think it’s certainly a lot of survivor bias (think of all the characters with less detailed graphics which you’ve forgotten - surely far more than you still remember - and so you’re comparing the ones that did survive to all of today’s designs rather than just the ones that will survive in your memory in 10-20 years).

Also I find it hard to believe that Mr Green Space Marine (Doom guy? Halo mans? Wait - is Halo mans just Doom guy without the gray helmet? Wait, they made the helmet green in 2016’s reboot so… the visor isn’t gold-tinted - that’s the only difference now?) is more distinctive than the cast of Persona 5. Sure, that’s your opinion but I’m having a hard time finding a foundation for that onto which this “older graphics were actually more iconic” is being fitted.

Now, after saying I don’t agree, I will also say I find some truth in there. Think of the ear-worms of older music - because of the simpler music chips then you could only make a ditty, you couldn’t just make anything. Those constraints have made those older compositions specific. Maybe not more memorable (again, survivor bias - the full orchestral score to Total Annihilation which had no limitations on composition is still something that I can switch on in my heard at any point; Persona 5 has incredibly catchy tunes, like all the recent Persona games) but there is something distinct about stuff created with limitations that will make it stand out compared to the (wider) range of things being made today.


#4

Overwatch is a good shout. It didn’t come to mind since I haven’t played it (or paid much attention to it since release).

I hadn’t really thought of it as a side-effect of changing focus from the aim of what a character design is intended for. Thanks.


#5

I think it really just depends on the type of games you’re looking at. Games like Uncharted and Horizon are shooting for realistic, human-looking people. In contrast, I strongly disagree about Persona 5, and Nier: Automata and Breath of the Wild both have very distinct character designs.

If nothing though, we’re definitely still getting iconic hats.


#6

I’d say Master Chief/Halo Spartans are more iconic than Doom Guy because you rarely see the entire design of Doom Guy. You see Master Chief a lot in cut scenes. Also looking at pictures of Doom Guy and Master Chief, they only really look very similar to me with DOOM’s most recent incarnation.

I brought up Persona 5 because I really like the character designs, but I’m hard pressed to draw them in my mind of exactly what they look like. Even with the help of their kill screens being distinct poses, I struggle to fill in the details of accessories or anything. I think if I saw the sullouette’s of the characters, I’d find it difficult to identify them without a hint such as knowing they’re all from Persona, or a game this year or something. Whereas Iconic characters to me, can be brought to the front of my mind even if I haven’t played the game.

I agree that the Survivor Bias is a huge part of this effect, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. An example I’d give that makes me lean to graphics being part of the picture is Nintendo characters. As Nintendo consoles have become more powerful, I’ve found it more difficult to envision characters in their more recent form. I find it easier to think of early 3D Donkey Kong over later Smash Bros. appearances despite the fact I’d never played a game he was in until Melee, and have played a lot more of the Wii and Wii U games. But as he’s gained more accessories and detail, his design has become less memorable to me.


#7

My usual test on whether a character has a memorable design (necessary for a character to be “iconic”) is whether a 6 year old could draw them in crayons and I still would know who they are.

Persona 5’s cast might not hit that with their regular outfits, but sure as hell does with their Phantom Thief outfits.

A lot of newer Pokemon designs (but moreso Gen 3 & 4, actually) fail this test because of that complexity and are why they are less memorable than the original 151 (which p much all passed this test).

Master Chief met this, mostly because of his colouring and angular look.

Characters in Horizon: Zero Dawn beyond maybe Aloy? Not really.


#8

I was thinking about Breath of the Wild, and honestly, I’m having trouble picturing characters there too. Ignoring Link’s outfits for a minute (which, the fact you could mix-and-match them sort of holds them back for me), but characters like Sidon, who I’d say is the most iconic new design, is memorable because of his flexing pose and smile. I couldn’t tell you what Fish his head is shaped like. How many fins does he have at his waist. What clothes does he wear?

Maybe I’m focusing too much on the details (in fact, I definitely am), but I feel like the fact that the character models have more things to remember, means I struggle to picture the whole thing even having played BotW for hundreds of hours. I haven’t played Nier Automata yet though.

Also, yes: there’s never been a better time to want hats in games. Especially hat rewards in lottery systems.


#9

In the artist’s world, a way of saying your 6-year-old analogy is “could the character be drawn in a much more simplified art style and still be recognisable?”. For instance, I’m pretty sure I can tell with Final Fantasy characters are more iconic based on how easy it is for me to pick them out in the Theatrythm Art Style:

The number of Chibi-fan art would probably prove me wrong then. Haha.
This was just a topic on my mind since I read that article yesterday, and I sort of just needed to make a thread to get it out of my head.


#10

It might be more down to the status quo shift that happened as graphics tech started to improve at a decent rate, where the traits that made characters “iconic” become considered “childish”. There’s definitely correlation there, but it’s a few steps removed from being a DIRECT result of better graphics. People wanted more realism because they wanted games to grow up with them, which meant less exaggerated traits among lots of other things, so for ages the things that made characters stand out and appeal ended up being seen as remnants of the old things that lots of folks playing games at the time had put aside.

You can still apply the rules of creating iconic characters to more “grown-up” designs though. Dark Souls does it well with it’s NPCs and armour designs, especially in 2(the best one). Distinct colour palettes, exaggerated features, strong associations with “props” of similar design(weapons, shields, spells etc). Just takes a bit more work to reign it all in in the right places.


#11

I mean, Persona 5 effectively has a squid kid hacker in it. So two new franchises that even share a very iconic look, one done in a more realistic style (as a human with glasses not a squid kid).

If you didn’t already know the characters, I don’t think you’d say those chibi characters are less recognisable as they move towards newer FF games. You are just better acquainted with the earlier accessories and hairstyles of the earlier characters.

An analogy: the McDonald’s M is iconic because it is everywhere and you are extremely familiar with it. It is so deeply embedded in pop culture that you have to think of it as iconic despite just being a colour combo and a curved single letter. There is nothing inherent about the design that provides it with that status and any other design that was used would also provide the same cultural significant if it had always been that way. Earlier FF characters are just more deeply embedded into pop culture at this point so you find them easier to recognise the simplified design flairs that you associate with them. Lightning is no less inherently iconic due to the deign differences from the different tech available.


#12

I think a lot of it has to do with design trends across genre. Graphics improvements haven’t necessarily stopped isometric RPGs from using character portraits on the UI rather than the character models themselves, for example - possibly because it maybe didn’t work out so great in neverwinter nights 2. That’s a design trend that I think did lend itself well to some pretty sweet portraits in Torment: Tides of Numenera earlier this year so it might depend on what’s going on artistically in a genre. Probably also the differing demands of AAA versus indie.


#13

I don’t know if better graphics means less iconic character designs, but when characters in a game can only be a crude approximation of their original design, there is probably more reliance on their illustrated versions in marketing. When I was a kid if I thought of Mario I didn’t picture the block of pixels that kind of looked like a squat little man but the image that was on the box and everywhere else.
But it could also be a matter of saturation. So many appealing characters will start to blur together.


#14

I didn’t mean to imply that earlier Final Fantasy games were more/less iconic. I’d probably argue that the Second more iconic Final Fantasy character is Lightning from XIII (behind Cloud from VII) because of your McDonald’s advertising analogy. I wasn’t counting characters from games I hadn’t seen much of (so, for instance, I ignore XI characters due to never playing the MMO). I just posted that picture as the best image I could find of the art style (I didn’t mean to imply whether they were or were not the iconic ones).
Also, I try not to take into account how much I personally like or dislike a character. Tidus is my favourite Final Fantasy character, but he’s definitely not the most iconic character from Final Fantasy X (that would probably be Yuna or Auron).

Nevertheless, I don’t buy whole-heartedly the idea that familiarity is the most significant cause of iconic characters. Were that to be the case, wouldn’t I find the characters from games I’ve played and spent the most time with to be the most memorable? Why do I find it so difficult to picture recent characters from games I’ve played this year than older ones that I didn’t even play at the time. For instance, I find it difficult to picture exactly what features Trico from The Last Guardian has, but I can more easily picture that of the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus despite playing that game for the first (and only) time towards the end of the PS3 life cycle. The lower detail of the (admittedly up-ressed for PS3) PS2 models just seem easier to picture than the many-feathered look of Trico. And that’s even taking into account how you spend the entire game with Trico whereas each Colossi only appears for a fleeting few minutes.

I don’t know, I’m conflicted on the familiarity aspect.


#15

These are too great points. I hadn’t really thought about the disparity in what was advertised and what was in-game (and how the two might contrast in which was more iconic). Certainly the official drawings of early Pokemon are more iconic than the hideous early sprites. Though they aren’t mutually exclusive, a good character designer must be aware of how much a game could render when designing a character.

The latter point though, on the glut of appealing characters leading them to be less memorable is more interesting to me. Especially with how quickly the focus jumps to the next game, it’s even harder for a character to become iconic.


#16

I think the survivorship bias explanation is a large part of it, if not all of it. I think it’s also worth thinking about what makes a character iconic though. In the case of master chief, I don’t think his design itself is very notable, but the way the character was used in the game – given a voice and a story in a genre that often doesn’t, and then the popularity of the franchise, is the reason his design is iconic. Also, even if you don’t play those games, they are marketed and featured heavily (the familiarity explanation).


#17

I couldn’t tell you the difference between green, helmeted Doom Guy and green, helmeted Halo Guy. Not without lookin’ up pics.

Neither series have ever held a special place in my heart, but both have been marketed to me extensively, and yet.


#18

I think better graphics means the odds of great character design has been diluted in substitute for realism. However “art” and “graphics” are different (good character design comes from good art not good graphics) and there are a lot of devs that care enough about art. Like fighting games such as Street Fighter for example some of the newer entries like Necalli still look great. Also Overwatch is another good example. But if you’re talking about more iconic mascot characters I think indie devs and Nintendo are both still doing great. Skull Girls and Crypt of the Necrodancer have great character design; indie dev’s devotion to great new art techniques have gotten better over time. AAA Entries like Splatoon and the new ARMS have phenomenal character design as well.


#19

Actually your avatar just reminded me, NieR Automata is a recently example of some very striking character design (also I’ll take any opportunity to talk about that game)


#20

While it can certainly be argued that limitations in tech have often created really spectacular work as creators struggle against the wall to make something excellent it doesn’t mean that the increased power has been the reason some design feels more generic and less inspired.

If you look through all eras of gaming you can see the generic or terrible designs that followed whatever was either the visual design or marketing zeitgeist. The “Mascot Platformer” era produced a ton of horribly generic animals with “tude” most of whom were forgotten or are not remember for being iconic designs but more for being a big bag of arse.