Editor's note: I think Ben makes a great point here: modern video-game characters have lost a lot of the charm of their pixel-art predecessors. When I think of characters with memorable designs, nearly all of them are from classic games. Perhaps this forms part of the appeal of retro-styled games. What do you think? -Jay
The Lemmings, those stricken beasts from the game of the same title, were famously the result of a disagreement over the minimum amount of pixels that could be used in an appealing character (eight by eight, it turns out.) Such debates occurred because of severe hardware limitations including restricted color palettes, memory, and disk space. The desire to extract optimum performance and use every byte as efficiently as possible forced contemplation of the best way to represent characters onscreen, and an analogous streamlining. Rather than focusing on the amount of data it was possible to fit into memory, developers pursued the amount of personality it was possible to fit into a sprite.
Mario’s design was similarly driven by limitation — his cap and mustache helped avoid the problem of animating hair and facial expressions, whilst white gloves aided in distinguishing what his arms were doing. Clearly, limitations catalyse resourceful design, and the result of this desire to achieve more than the sum of the available parts has left gaming with a rich and diverse character roster. The lemmings, Mario, Link, Sonic, Ryu, Blanka, Samus, Bomberman, Blinky, Pinky, Inky, Clyde and even Cannon Fodder’s cannon fodder barely scratch the surface of memorable video-game characters. Compare the number of unforgettable protagonists in today’s games to those of yesteryear and you'll find that, with a few notable exceptions, the most striking characters are reiterations.
It is possible, of course, for nostalgia to cloud objectivity. It is also all too easy to find yourself lamenting the fact that everything from Curly Wurlys to cartoons are not as good as they used to be, but it is difficult to imagine Blinx being fondly remembered in 30 years time. Ape Escape’s Specter and associated primates were examples of great design, but what of the rather forgettable hero, Spike? Even Uncharted's Nathan Drake, stripped of Nolan North's memorable performance, is surprisingly generic. Design today often focuses on technology, rather than appeal. Covering a charmless character model in physics-enabled trinkets or clever cloth dynamics is simply lipstick on the face of a gorilla, and no amount of superficial decoration can make up for an inherent lack of personality
Even so, a classic character’s appeal, despite its legacy, can still be diminished through overcomplication — play Pac-Man World or sit through the 1993 film Super Mario Bros. again for a painful reminder. However, for the most part, good design elicits an immediate positive response. The more prosaic mainstream market’s tastes have diminished variety (at least, commercially successful variety), and this has led to an over-reliance on steroidal marines with impossibly proportioned weaponry. Yes, this type of character has long existed, but who would argue that Marco Rossi doesn't have more personality per pixel than Marcus Fenix can muster with the entirety of his heavily post-processed triangles?
Thankfully, all is not lost. Perhaps the greatest triumph of modern character design is Media Molecule’s Sackboy, from LittleBigPlanet. Simplistic in design, and brilliantly suited to his environment, Sackboy’s appeal is ever-present no matter what ridiculous combination of clothing the player has bestowed upon him. In a time when console mascots have lost a great deal of their importance, Sackboy has succeeded in becoming the unofficial poster boy for Sony.
Many other great examples of charismatic design can be found today, and thankfully plenty of talented artists who know what is important in a good games character. The limitations of Flash have led to some memorable pixels (Meat Boy, Spewer et al) and Q-Games' Pixeljunk series is re-exploring the 8-bit and 16-bit landscapes with creative hindsight. As long as we remember the lessons learned before the Uncanny Valley's far side came into fuzzy view, we can still hope that character design will remain exciting, and players won't be driven to hurling themselves from a cliff.