Although some may not regard it as so, in my mind video games are just as potent an escapism as books, movies, or any other medium. Arguably even more so, as interactivity advances to increasingly detailed levels. Gamers have often dreamed, if even unconsciously, about being the powerful warrior, or the sharp-shooting bounty hunter, or the skilled street fighter they were presented with. Possibly the most treasured video game character in the world, Mario, serves as a template for a completely average person having extraordinary adventures. After all, how many focus groups sit down and say, “Hey, we’ve got this ambitious new idea for a huge platforming game set in a kingdom of mushrooms, let’s make it star a pudgy, 30-year-old plumber.” “With a mustache!” “Genius, Fred!” But the point was that if Mario could be the one having these adventures, anyone could be. While most people didn’t think of themselves as him specifically, as kids many of us felt like we were right into his place, feeling every shattering defeat and barely-landed leap as our own.
In a sense, Mario was a character that represented normalcy, but not in a way that specifically reflected the audience. He was an everyman, but one designed for the role, with his own fitting story, appearance, and attitude that developed over the years. And this is how most games designed their star characters, with a few exceptions (most notably some RPGs and dating sims). But when the Revolution came, this approach to gaming stars may have been the first against the wall.
Now, Nintendo did not invent the wheel here. They weren’t the first to come up with customizable user avatars, and it’s debatable whether their early Famicom experiments even make them the first at using a single avatar for multiple games. The bottom line is that Nintendo made Miis, made them iconic, and followed through with support of them in just about every major game they released for Wii, and even some for the DS, and will continue to support them on the 3DS. Miis are a major part of the experience, and designed with the look of a real person of mind, if simplified with cartoonish elements. There are large limits to the details you can apply, with no strange hair colors, scars, tattoos, and the other fun decorations that made APB’s character creator interesting. You were just you, or as close as you could make it, and while some people opted to be Adolf Hitler or Mr. Butt-for-a-Face, for most people Miis became a personal icon, a normalized caricature of yourself, playable in games that often opted for safe, friendly presentation styles. This by itself isn’t bad, but the trend has developed into an expectation of developers, and is starting to affect gaming as a whole.
As I said above, the Mii is a personalized avatar, and in most cases, you play as you. That’s the intent. Plenty of companies have jumped on the Mii Train since it first pulled out of Peter Griffin Station, following suit with their own Mii-toos. Most notably are Sony with their dull-eyed, soulless “Sony chic” inhabitants of Home, and Microsoft with their midget, vaguely feminine Avatars. The former has since tried to retrofit very normalized, human zombies with wacky outfits and props, which usually look awkward and terrible being clutched by an automaton in a freebie glowing E3 jumpsuit or half a Chun-Li outfit. Microsoft I felt actually got it right, as I’ve expressed before, even though it was clear they were last to the party and shamelessly cribbed notes off their competitors. Avatars from the start were designed to be extensible with new outfits that work in games past and present, better animation guidelines, and more unified integration with user accounts, online websites, and so forth. I particularly enjoyed some of the well-made props, overpriced as they were, and for the most part Avatars struck the right balance between cartoony and personal, while still leaving room for imagination and general wackiness. There wasn’t as much pressure to make some normalized expression of yourself, you could be a Crackdown zombie, or a Halo soldier, or even a Big Daddy, and that was a norm for the service.
With the release of the recent Fall Update for the Xbox 360, the official position seems to have shifted a bit, unfortunately. The changes are less severe on a technical level, even though I’m sure any programmer would tell you otherwise, as the Avatars were enlengthened slightly to better approach a normal person’s proportions, to lessen the feeling of disconnect while playing Kinect-based games. Some people prefer the change, I find it slightly less desirable, but not a serious issue. The more significant shift can be found in Microsoft’s promotional materials for the Kinect or the 360 in general, as Avatars are far more prone to being portrayed in very muted ways, usually direct reflections of the actors being used. While this in some ways is trying to get across a marketing message about being involved in the game, especially when talking about Kinect titles, it does strike me as a push towards the You = You concept Miis were designed around.
Even the popularity boom of Facebook gaming has added to this. There are other aspects I have issue with that I’d like to relate at a future time, but for now, we’ll focus on the fact that leads in many Facebook games are simplified, generified blobs of male or female, which you customize with different hair and hats and boots, but ultimately as a player, the game isn’t designed around your creation meaningfully, because they can’t count on what you’ve brought to the table. It’s very difficult to create meaningful single player content this way, because instead of assuming a role into a story, your character has effectively Mary Sue’d themselves into the world, sometimes as a clear clash with the fiction. While not all games should be taken this seriously, I completely agree, there doesn’t seem to be that much room for the games that actually do want to create something this carefully structured. The WoW-styled “The world is testing and giving quests to the adventurer” structure is often employed in these instances, but isn’t always the best fit.
Like many of the people reading this site, I grew up in an era where worlds were carefully, tightly crafted, where characters were designed to fit the series, whether it be the hero, villain, or even the random villager pacing the 4-square route of his/her torturous life. I don’t take offense to the concept of Miis existing or their use, but it’s undeniable that their popularity has increased, and they’re being shoehorned in very awkward ways, simply for the sake of including them. Publishers have realized their popularity, and are fully committed to including them as yet another bullet point on the box art and press release, and developers are often left scratching their heads how to integrate these bulbous noggins into their ideas. And doing so creates a whole new set of rules and challenges, because there’s no way you can let little Billy’s Mii uppercut Grandpa into a set of spikes. Avatars in particular come with a highly restrictive set of rules for their use, and while some of them have been relaxed and some ignored by the Indie Games side, for the most part including these personalized characters requires a safety bubble around them; Aermiith is never going to get a sword in her back from Sephmiiroth. (It would just be a paper sword, and she’d make one heck of a frowny face.) All this restriction and trouble and lack of definition to the experience just so I can play a little figure that looks vaguely like me.
To that, I proudly say: I don’t want to be me all the time, and I definitely don’t want to be Mii all the time. While I don’t always want to imagine myself as them, I want my heroes to be the heroes of the world they were designed for. I don’t want Barack Obamii to be tending the village shop, I want characters that have been created to best suit their roles and the universe filling my games. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for these Miivatars, but at the same time, developers shouldn’t be feeling the pressure to shoehorn them into any place they can find. I feel like it’s encroaching on the “packaged experience” of some games now, and I get the feeling that it’s only going to get worse from here. Developers need the freedom to create and manipulate characters and their world as they see fit, and they can’t do that if they’re always stuck directly addressing the player and treating his or her visage with kid gloves.
The unfortunate thing is, as I said, it’s going to get worse before the people in charge figure this out. They’ve smelled the blood in the water, and like sharks (possibly very lethargic sharks, given how slow a start there was), the publishers are circling in to feed. There is a time and a place for the “personalized” gaming experience, but they haven’t figured out what that is yet, and they’re going to keep throwing Avatars, Miis, and eventually some Sony equivalent against the wall until they stick.
This editorial was later revised for clarification and length since its original posting. The original post was written by the author for TSSZ News.