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Opinion: Bravo to Niantic and Blizzard for their simple characters

There’s a lesson to be found in Overwatch and Pokemon Go: you don't need to develop a story-heavy game to create characters that people can get very deeply invested in.

There’s a lesson to be found in Overwatch and Pokemon Go: you don't need to develop a story-heavy game to create characters that people can get very deeply invested in. The much ballyhooed reveal of the Pokemon Team leader artwork, by the talented Yusuke Kozaki, certainly confirms this--within a matter of minutes, detailed fan art, fanfiction, and characters were projected onto these three portraits en masse, larding one’s team choice with a sudden third dimension of import.

Depending on your perspective, this is either heartening or dispiriting. It either points to a beautiful new minimalism in character design that can make even the simplest games meaningful, or to a shallowness that has long been cultivated in gamers where a thumbnail sketch can take on the same meaning and emotional resonance as a Dostoyevsky novel. 

There is a bit of truth in the latter--truly good characters are hard to come by in games and the fact that so many of them seem to demand this level of player input in order to create meaning for the characters is something of an indictment. What the developers were unable to provide, players urgently fill in with a cavalcade of stories and memes, simply because like all humans we yearn for stories that reflect us and our own complexity. This argument, which I’ve seen expressed by many of my colleagues, justly holds that in the case of games like Overwatch, it is the players who deserve credit for giving such life to these characters--giving them stories and personalities that could fill a pulp trilogy, from only the meanest of elements provided by Blizzard.

My own view is a bit more complex. I think there’s much merit to this argument that credits player communities--videogames as art are nothing without people to play them; they are inert and, most importantly, incomplete without the player’s intervention. This was the point of my digression on the link between videogames and modern art a few months ago, to point to a trend of audience participation in the constitution and completion of works, art where we all have a hand in the authorship. But this, then, is precisely why I give much credit to both Blizzard and Yusuke Kozaki's work for Niantic (even if the latter company could stand to improve elsewhere). Is Yoko Ono any less of an artist because her works can only come alive through the participation of others? Similarly, was Blizzard’s character design lacking because its true depth of meaning required player intervention to be realized?

There’s an important point to be made here: player interaction with a game (and thus their constitution of the game) is not limited to control inputs but to how they engage with the language--visual and otherwise--of the game itself. In other words, how players engage with the characters is a credit to the skill of the writer. Gaming is indeed replete with ciphers who may as well be nameless; gunmetal grey and desultorily dull characters who blend into their games’ grimdark backgrounds. There’s a reason Overwatch stands out and why Pokemon Go’s trainers sent fandom into overdrive: the characters were sketched minimally but with skill, and that should be acknowledged, if only to pay proper credit to the writers and designers who created these characters.

Overwatch’s characters are a masterclass in visual communication. Just looking at each character says something about who they are. Mercy, the indulgent doctor; Pharah, the dutiful soldier; Tracer, the rogue with a heart of gold; Mei, the shy scientist; on and on. Such characters are relatively simple--but they stand out, both from one another and from their rivals in other games. There’s just enough detail in the canon of the game to give players something to, well, play with.

In Pokemon Go, meanwhile, the trainers’ artwork, combined with the threadbare self-promotion they give you for each team at level 5, has led to a surprising subculture of fiction about these characters. Candela is the fiery warrior at the heart of Team Valor; Blanche, the well-coifed, contemplative researcher; and Spark, the loveable dork who’s just really into Pokemon. Fanart and comics abound; if you’re a gamer on Twitter you can’t help but see at least some of it.

Players care; they want to empathize and relate with their games, not as a substitute for reality per many dystopian musings, but as a way of keeping them going with a particular title and giving them a way of relating to other players. Stories are the silk threads that tie communities together, after all. Comics that make fun of Spark are a way for all Pokemon Go players to commune with one another in a shared language and system of meaning. But it takes a certain amount of skill to, if you’ll pardon the pun, light the spark in the first place. If a game is barren, people just move on, as the impenetrable piles of bargain bin games attest to. 

This is important not because it can act as a substitute for deeper, more complex and meaningful characters (I write about those at great length) but because it can provide meaning in otherwise simple, non-story-based games. That’s an unabashedly good thing. A game like Overwatch was never going to be a particularly story-heavy title; it’s a TF2-style shoot-em-up and little else. But the dressing matters because of how players react to it. Who knows? This all might someday lead to an Overwatch RPG that is laden with narrative and reams of prose.

There is obviously enormous skill in writing detailed characters, but also a perhaps underrated skill to sketching the kind of world players can build their own universes of meaning in. The skill lies in creating a vessel players can fill with their own sense of personality; like Shepard in Mass Effect but with just a touch more detail.

These investments on the part of players should not be read as a new nadir for taste and literacy but a testament to a new kind of crowdsourced art that, I think, only gaming could create. There will be ethical considerations around this, of course: who owns the labor, at what point do players get to have a material stake in these worlds, et cetera. But for now, this serves simply as a testament to the creativity of our communities, not how docile or culturally-deprived they are.

ARTISTS: Candela art: Obsy3; Spark art: Pooplorf; Tracer art: Elsa Chang; Lucio: Raychio33

Edit: Since publication, the author changed the thesis statement of the article to be clearer. Also added the name of Pokemon Go's character designer.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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