Tom of Gameland

Written 14/12/2011. First posted here.

Max Payne 3

If, like me, you’ve been gazing at that picture of Max Payne in faint bemusement (possibly wondering where his suit went and what asshole slipped him those steroids), you might’ve been too busy to notice similar imagery in other games. To sum it up: butch is big, and so are the male character designs.

Max’s transformation from a whiny angstbucket in cheap polyester to Interchangeable Gritty Mercenary 375 is disappointing, but hardly comes as a surprise. Games design has been heading down this track for a long time. If they’ve got muscles, put muscles on top of those and if they don’t, re-write the character until they do. Gamers are, apparently, incapable of enjoying a character who couldn’t moonlight as a bungalow.

This is bullshit.

Older games prove we’re brighter than that. Uber-macho characters have always existed – series like Quake and Doom are an integral part of games history – but the art and writing style didn’t always dominate the big titles. Halo: Combat Evolved’s dialogue co-existed with No One Lives Forever, and Serious Sam’s jaw line was contrasted by Morrowind’s everyday proportions, but over recent years the testosterone levels have been creeping up. Using Elder Scrolls to illustrate, you can see how the basic male body design has ballooned in recent years:

Morrowind, 2002. Oblivion, 2006. Skyrim, 2011 (bulkiest male build).

Bethesda hadn’t yet jumped on the bandwagon when they released Fallout 3 in 2008, but when Skyrim rolled around it took a hairpin turn onto Beefcake Highway. The female bodies are tiny by comparison; like a Shetland Pony beside a Shire Horse. Huge hulking dudes combined with waify women isn’t new, but it’s intriguing how one seems to beget the other. Bulking up the men often goes hand in hand with shrinking the women, like there’s a finite amount of body mass in the world and Marcus Fenix needs to fill out his 52W, 44L jeans.

The scrawniest dude in Skyrim is an average Wastelander, but the most muscular woman…

The bulging musculature is a heinous crime against anatomy, but the real atrocity is how ugly it is. I’m all for stylisation in character design, but when you’re starting to look like some of Games Workshop’s more unfortunate artwork this is a fashion that’s gone too far. Steroids McManly should be able to put his arms at his sides without them clipping into his body (even fictional characters are entitled to some basic self respect).

To get the full affect, picture this guy naked. Now stop clawing at your face.

I’m tempted to call the style Tom of Finland-esque, but that would be insulting to a good artist. He produced classic gay iconography; the games industry’s aspiration seems to be ‘Rob Liefeld, but without the pouches’. Right now, Tom of Finland is across the room, sipping a martini and shooting you distrustful glances out of the corner of his eye.

Sorry, Cable. You were too damn tall for this picture.

The art style isn’t to my tastes, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. Unfortunately it often is, but where it gets truly painful is the writing. Action clichés get substituted for dialogue and ‘he’s a stoic sarcastic cynic’ is used to patch over the gap where a developed character should be. It’s an excuse for writers to churn out stale one-liners, and dramatic raaaaaage is easier to animate than genuine grief.

Settings don’t get off lightly either. There are entire game worlds populated by grunting proto-humans[¹]. who’ve never seen colourful clothing and would probably pronounce it gay if they did. Whether a pre-existing universe fits the new style is irrelevant; it can (and often will) simply be retconned or ignored, with varying degrees of brutality. Hence Max Payne inexplicably becoming a mercenary in Brazil, or the mythology-based political intrigue of Morrowind being replaced by the gritty dragon-fighting of Skyrim. (Which is great if you happen to like those flavours of grimdark, but the destruction of old properties to produce them seems a terrible waste of a world.)

The trend’s laid down some pretty deep roots, but to be honest I’m not interested in how we got here so much as why we’re staying. It’s a writing style which favours the lazy, but I can’t believe that’s the motive of every game designer doing it.

(Admittedly, this is probably self-delusional. Never attribute to malice what you can to stupidity.)

One reason might be that it’s a power fantasy seen in everything from comics to rock bands. Being unstoppably badass is an idea we can all get behind, and popular culture often links that with heavy musculature. Unless it’s a female character, in which case physical strength is symbolised by wedge heels.

Another is game companies massively underestimating the intelligence of their consumer base. Not to say that liking macho characters makes you thick, but developers often aim for what they consider to be the lowest common denominator and ‘guns, gore and none of that writing shit’ about sums it up. I don’t think gamers are sissyphobic dickwads who need to be placated with action film clichés, but how many companies do?

The last is that this is really, truly the most popular character type in gaming. If this is the case we might as well end it all now, but I don’t believe it for a second. The vocal fanbase for Thief’s Garrett, Half Life 2’s entire cast, Portal’s GlaDOS and Wheatley, Broken Sword’s George Stobbart, Monkey Island’s Guybrush Threepwood, and approximately eight million more which I won’t keep listing says otherwise.

My theory for the visual style is simple: many sins can be laid at the door of too little outside influence on games. When you spend day after day looking at these images your sense of reality quietly shifts until Solid Snake becomes your pattern for a standard male body type, so when you want to make a character look strong and imposing you make him a little bigger than the ‘norm’. Over time, the baseline standards creep up and up like an arms race; each competitor inflating his biceps a little more each round.

As for the writing? I don’t know. I’m hoping you can tell me, friendly readers, because my best guess is a mixture of a common enough power-fantasy that developers can coast by on it, how easy it is to write, and an inexplicable worship of brainless power tops.

Whatever the cause, exaggerated masculinity in games has reached the point where it’s borderline fetishistic. Characters force War Is Hell platitudes out between their gritted teeth, redshirts die, and ‘aw shit’ is used as both the punchline and its build-up. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so goddamn bland.

¹ This was ‘Neanderthals’, but my pre-history archaeologist flatmate informed me[²] that they were actually remarkably intelligent.
² Bleated at me all day.

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