Take a look at this guy. Take a good long look at him. Notice anything out of the ordinary?
No, why would you? Super Meat Boy was one of the first, but he was hardly unique in a long line of indie game avatars. But there is something special about him, and it’s been tickling the back of my brain for the last couple of weeks.
Recently I read the excellent comic deconstruction books Making Comics and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. In Understanding Comics McCloud breaks down one of the reasons comic book art, particularly character art, makes us identify so much with those characters.
Imagine a conversation you are having with someone. You are looking at the other person intently. In fact, subconsciously, you are watching every facial twitch, every micro detail in facial movement, as those involuntary movements give away whether the person really thinks you’re funny, whether they like, love, despise or are bored by you. The details of their appearance and face are important, so we pay attention to them.
Now think about your own face. When we are having a conversation or in daily life our own face, our self image is abstracted. We see a mental representation of what we think we look like, because we don’t see ourselves nearly as often as other people. How is this relevant to Super Meat Boy? Because in those situations our minds fill in our mental image with iconic images, stereotypical features. Here, a picture may help.
Do you see? We equate the self with iconic images, and the other with the detailed real life images. So what does this mean for games?
A big problem in games is identification, literally getting the player to identify with the main character, to make her goals their own, and to see herself as driving gameplay. There are many solutions to this, but a solution must be worked out.
Some games give you a first person perspective, knowing that if you are seeing out of the eyes of the character, identification can begin instantly. It helps if this character is silent, so they don’t say anything the player disagrees with. This leads to narrative problems though, like why your psychopath of a protagonist never ANSWERS A GODDAMN QUESTION.
Some other games do establish a character who speaks and has a personality. In these games, the player is usually playing out some sort of fantasy. These are characters like Nathan Drake, or Batman. The fantasy of being a globetrotting adventurer or literally Batman drive these experiences. These solutions lean into characterization, but can sometimes feel more like a shotgun wedding than player identification.
Another way to go is the avatar route. Avatars like Steve from Minecraft are not so much characters as virtual renditions of players, more tools than characters. These are fine but perfunctory, as though a mouse pointer was your character. There isn’t much room for character growth there, but that hasn’t stopped some people from trying to give these things personality.
There is another way. Iconic characters can give us real identification without the morass of the other options. They allow for real characterization but because they are iconic, we abstract their features and superimpose them over our own. In short, their lack of detail makes them feel like us, and we can impose our own sense of self on them, because of that lack of detail.
This is something that games have been doing, consciously or not, for a long time. We give these avatars enough detail to make them unique and interesting as characters, but not enough so that they feel realistic and other-like.
This, by the way, is the same reason Funko Pops have taken over the world. The process of making a Funko Pop is this process exactly, taking something from the real world or media and making a cute, iconified cartoon version of it. It increases our identification with it and makes us feel more fondly towards it. The reason?
We see ourselves in the abstract, iconified character. Use it. Make more iconic characters.