Ever since the dawn of video games there was a dream that one day graphics would allow for people, animals and entire environments to appear real.  Twenty years ago it was a distant and unobtainable dream, but over time we drew closer and closer to the point of being able to see it turn to reality.  As it turns out, this dream was actually a nightmare.  The efforts to make games appear more realistic began to distract from creativity and innovation. Characters and environments became stale and uninspired, causing some of us to realize that the reason we began playing video games in the first place is because real life blows chunks.

Think of 5 video game characters off of the top of your head.  Chances are they were all created before the year 2000.  The characters that we think of as iconic aren’t just iconic because they’re classics, but because they stand out as unique.  The moment that realism seemed attainable, most game developers aside from Nintendo strapped on their rocket shoes to join in on the race toward having the most realistic game.  Sadly, realism means mimicking real life meaning human characters and earthly environments.  The artistic creativity that once thrived in older games began to wither.


There is a clear distinction between ‘better graphics’ and ‘realism’ when on the discussion of this topic.  In some cases, they are one in the same, in other examples, such as the picture above, they are very different.  A space invader with better graphics, being the most extreme example, transforms a creature that could previously have been seen as cute into a horrifying monster that I’d personally love to take a crack at in a modern rendition of the game.  Sadly ‘modern’ means ‘human’.  There isn’t much room for cool, crazy aliens in today’s industry.  Some, but not much.

Artists in the 80’s and 90’s only had a handful of pixels to work with when creating characters and environments and as such had to focus on unique, defining features in order to make their characters or environments recognizable.  For human characters this often meant funky colors, patterns, accessories and exaggerated proportions.  It also meant more creative and somewhat bizarre backstories where even a human character such as Super Mario could identify as being far from human in the way that modern video game humans are human.  It also meant that creating non-human characters was a good way to make them unique.  A lot of inspiration was taken from aliens and animals which resulted in a varied cast of one of a kind characters, including my all time favorite – Earthworm Jim.


Jim is the pinnacle of character design.  He stood alongside many great characters during his era and managed to embody everything that was wonderful about all of them.  His proportions, though being humanoid, are exaggerated in just about every way possible.  His design takes inspiration from both aliens and animals while also incorporating sci-fi elements.  He’s a worm controlling a cybernetic hunk body, for crying out loud.  Jim also happens to be overflowing with charisma and charm.  He displays these qualities with a variety of exaggerated idle animations and victory poses, something that modern games have forsaken completely.


With an increasing emphasis on realism developers have steered away from giving characters a personality of their own.  They want you to feel like you’re the character.  Imagine you’re playing infamous as that one guy who nobody knows the name of.  When you think of him, you think of a white guy with a shaved head and perfectly squared jaw.  Wait, are we still talking about the protagonist of infamous, or the dozen other shooters this guy stars in?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see another musclebound, strong jawed stud with a shaved head and scruffy facial hair in any of my games.  I want to see a return to the roots of good character design.  I want to fall in love with iconic and interesting personalities.  I want to experience a new world full of unique characters and places to explore.  If we want to see that beautiful Earthworm Jim baby hatch from its egg we’re going to have to take turns sitting on it.  We’re going to have to let publishers know that we don’t want to eat what they’re feeding us anymore as we’ve lost out appetite for cheap garbage.

Not every developer has lost sight of good design.  There are a few who still push the boundaries of what’s become normal, but not nearly to the extent that older games have.  You’ll still see some solid character design in indie games like Shovel Knight, Octodad, Hotline Miami, Guacamelee and many more, but far less in AAA titles.   If you’re someone who considers yourself an artist or someone interested in making games, challenge yourself.  Don’t take the easy route.  Be creative and be innovative, but most importantly – be funky.



Space invader artwork by Tom Carruthers – Realistic Earthworm Jim by Soren Zaragoza 

About The Author


I'm into massive multiplayer online gaming communities. My online alter ego is 18 feet tall and has wings like an angels, but also like a demons. His name is Yogzula. Yogzula can fuck anything and he will and has. Women. Devils. Angels. Animals. If you meet me online by Grub's tavern, I will show you where the treasure is hidden.

11 Responses

  1. Yoshi

    I agree with you that games have been majorily suffering from weak character design but I don’t think the development of realistic graphics is the main issue. You make a good point that I didn’t think about, that developers were forced to make character models that were unique so they could stand out on the market. You also touch on what I believe is the big problem, that they want you to feel like you are the character rather than having a set character.

    Let’s take the most famous video game character of all time, Mario. Who is Mario? The design of Mario is instantly recognizable. But what do we know about him past the surface? Well, he’s a good person and… that’s it. He’s a hero, he has no defining personality traits, he has no clear weaknesses, he does not suffer anxiety or fear failure. I guess he likes jumping since he shouts ‘yahoo’ while doing it? Outside of the traits we project onto him, he’s got nothing. He is a hero and his goal is to save the Princess. We don’t even know the extent of his relationship with Peach, for heaven’s sakes.

    And that’s the problem with games today, while the art and design has continually evolved, the story and characters haven’t. This is the process of creating a protagonist today: create white male with lots of muscles, choose personality archetype of either Batman or Captain Snark, give goal of save the world or rescue loved one. Done, there’s your protagonist. It’s stagnant and boring.

    I think what has actually happened is that the art has hidden the root of the problem, the lack of interesting protagonists and a need to make you the star of every game. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions, but pick up a game from the store, 9/10 times you’ll find something I described above. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with the art, you just need to learn to innovate in other ways. You might be tired of the realistic style but I’m sick of same protagonist asking me to make them into a real boy. Sometimes, I want to play someone else’s story, not just play me.

  2. Luke VanTrieste
    Luke VanTrieste

    I agree, but in a lot of cases it really depends on the game I’m playing. There is a really effective way to make people feel like they are an involved part of the game and that is by allowing them to make decisions. This is something rarely done in games anymore and what’s even more rare is having your decisions permanently impact the world or the ending of the game, perhaps even the pathway you take to reach it as well.

    Spec Ops: The Line did a pretty good job at making you feel like your decisions really had weight eventhough it was mostly an illusion. As long as it feels like it matters, it does matter. Bastion also accomplished a few magical moments with the few decisions you were allowed to make, but I just want more of it. So few modern games allow players to make meaningful decisions.

    • Yoshi

      It’s true and I think the games you chose as examples show what can be done. You don’t have to resort to the same old tropes to make a game feel engaging. A character can have a life of his own and still be relatable. Spec Ops: the Line, in particular, bucked the trends of the first person shooter and made you think farther than just, this is the bad guy, shoot him. It made you feel bad after completing it, but it was compelling. You want to give the player agency, but you don’t want to sacrifice character development for it.

      What it really comes down to is laziness and stripping of good product. You try to make a protagonist that relates to everyone, you end up with a character that is lifeless. There’s a happy medium, but many times it seems like games are more interested in wide appeal rather than making a great game.

  3. Luke VanTrieste
    Luke VanTrieste

    It definitely has a lot to do with laziness. Publishers are also more business oriented than anything else and don’t give a shit about anything other than their products selling and making them money. I used to be a big fan of Blizzard but noticed a very obvious decline in quality after they merged with Activision who already had a pretty bad reputation.

    The larger a company becomes the more management is required. So the founders of a gaming company would have originally made the games. Once their team grows, they’ll start overseeing design instead of actually working on it. As they grow even more, they are overseeing not just game design but also a lot of other time consuming aspects of running a business and suddenly the focus of the company shifts to things other than just making good games.

    Game design becomes formulated and lacks intimacy. You’re right in saying games just aim to have a wide appeal instead of having the integrity to actually be a great game. There are countless examples like Madden, CoD, The mario games (pretty much any nintendo game) and closer to my heart, World of Warcraft. These are all franchises that date back over a decade and refuse to innovate any longer.

    There is a working formula so nothing gets changed. Reskin a few things here, create a few new generic stages to play on, add a few gimmicky features that have no real impact on the core gameplay and sell millions of copies at $60 a pop. It’s all about making money and staying “consistent” but being consistent means becoming stale and boring in most cases. Publishers simply want to play it safe. Playing it safe is the opposite of innovation and creativity.

    • Whitemoon

      I think it is somewhat understandable to be monetarily focused, at least for a time. All the employees have a family and bills to pay, they also are doing this as a career that they most likely spent a lot of time building the skillset for. However, big companies like Blizzard must seriously be in Benjamins up to their eyeballs by now. I would really like them to experiment with a game and really innovate once again. It might tank but they can take a loss, and since they have lots of experienced developers/artists now they could easily budget a great idea to be on the safe side anyway.

      Hearthstone was a huge success and I would say somewhat innovative. There is nothing new about TCGs but I think they implemented a very great system for it to be played on a massive scale. However, I don’t think it was innovative in a way they were taking a huge risk if the idea tanked, but they first mentioned it was like a side project of 2 or so guys and just flourished. If they had dozens of these side projects going, one of them is bound to be really creative and they should get behind it more, and the success of Hearthstone is something that could fuel them into making decisions like that. Decisions to press forward towards innovation again. I’m still waiting for the day they decide all of WoW’s story was a bad dream Thrall had and now he has to stop it from happening in Warcraft 4.

      • Luke VanTrieste
        Luke VanTrieste

        @Whitemoon – I’d be thrilled if blizzard starting funding a bunch of side projects. I think they have been putting too much focus on AAA titles and far too much emphasis on a casual widespread appeal. That’s fine in some cases, but it will never result in a truly amazing game that captivates people. Having everyone acknowledge a game as “yeah this is smooth, plays pretty good, now I’m bored” compared to having a few people acknowledge the game as “this is amazing, I could play this forever, instant classic”.

        That’s diablo 3 vs Diablo 2 for me. Lots of people played D2, but not everyone. Blizz made Diablo 3 for everyone. They marketed the hell out of it, threw it on consoles, dumbed down all of the systems that might have been considered confusing and just about everything else that they could have. That damaged the game and gave it a short lifespan for me.

        As far as warcraft 4 is concerned, I don’t know what the hell they’ll do. Same with the warcraft movies if those really take off and they keep wanting to make sequels. The lore has turned into “40 faceless heroes with the Jenkins title slay every major character in the world”

  4. Washell

    Let me point out the elephant in the room: in the hayday of the mascots that you describe, the industry was aimed and marketed to kids. Now, it’s aimed and marketed at 15 to 35 year olds. The state of the technology is irrelevant, the taste of the audience isn’t. You like Earthworm Jim, Mario, and all the others because they’re pleasant childhood memories. If they were introduced today they would fail to push your buttons.

    In closing, Nintendo is the only platform still somewhat aimed at children, but since they already have a large stable of kidfriendly characters (which are recognized by the parents who’re doing the buying), there’s little incentive to develop, launch and market new ones. Especially when characters like Sonic, who’ve lost their own platform, become available.

    For the final nail in the coffin, the complaint of blank, buff 30 somthing male lead is levelled at the current glut of mainstream movies too. Is that also thanks to realistic graphics?

    • Luke VanTrieste
      Luke VanTrieste

      I disagree with your first paragraph. Yes, the demographic has changed. There is no evidence otherwise that adults don’t like “mascot” characters as you described them. They’re unique. interesting and usually come with a matching world of bizarre and creative environments and enemies. There hasn’t been a single new mascot character created in over a decade. There hasn’t been a single game that has failed because of having a mascot character instead of a human character.

      There are plenty of well received indie games with somewhat unique characters, but those of course are only indie games and don’t have mainstream popularity.

      Minions are absolutely adored by children and adults alike, Jason Statham is not. Movies have been using real people for movies for over a century now because… we’re people. A more fair comparison would be special effects and the goal to make those look more real. A lot of movies have been ruined by a focus on creating more and better SFX just like a lot of video games have been ruined by a focus on creating better graphics.

      Gonna need to put one nail in the coffin before you try to hammer in that final one fella

    • John Lusky
      John Lusky

      How you can dismiss characters like Mario and Sonic as nothing more than relics of nostalgia is beyond me. These are characters that resonate with more than one generation of people. Are we to believe that there’s no more reason to try to be creative? Your point about similar complaints in movies even ties in well. Hollywood has been struggling recently to produce meaningful and lucrative films. Their methods of going the safe route on everything are starting to go sour. The big studios are milking every last cent they can out of what ever super hero’s story they can get their hands on.

      The biggest risk in recent memory was Guardians of the Galaxy because of it’s strange characters, lack of household name actors, and the uncharted territory of its source material. It ended up killing it at the box office.

      Realistic graphics aren’t the whole problem or to me, even really the biggest one. Perhaps the most troubling problem is the group of people content with the low-risk status quo.

  5. Washell

    “There is no evidence otherwise that adults don’t like “mascot” characters as you described them.”

    Just several hundred years of plays, literature, movies and other forms of entertainment where they never found success, outside of children’s movies, children’s tv, children’s books and children’s games. The fact that a lucky few appeal to young and old alike isn’t something a publisher can gamble a hundred million on, which is why you’ve seen so few new ones being developed in the past decade.

    I’ll give you this, the current state of graphics is responsible in this way: Mario, and many other similar characters of their day, thank a lot of their design due to the need of being visually distinctive with only a handful of pixels. With those restraints removed, designers can now bring the worlds alive as they envision, instead of what they’re limited to.

  6. Luke VanTrieste
    Luke VanTrieste

    Several hundred years of plays, literature, movies and other forms of entertainment that aren’t video games which is what this topic was about. I’ll entertain this point only briefly because it’s off topic, but puppets, costumes and masks were used commonly all throughout history. Puppet shows were common and often portrayed fantastical creatures, as many of them were based off of folk tales and stories that did the same.

    You’re using this as an example as to why we don’t see any innovation in the last decade? That’s completely irrelevant. Mascot characters have always been massively popular throughout all of history, even amongst adults, and are still popular today.

    Limitations breed creativity. I went to school for animation and design where we were always told to brainstorm multiple ideas. It’s incredibly common for people to stick with their initial ideas instead of pushing themselves to dig deeper. Even as I mentioned in the article, as people who perceive eachother in reality – our initial process of brainstorming a character probably will result in something human and relatively generic. We create based off of inspiration and most of our inspiration is our reality.

    I’m asking designers to dig deeper. Plenty of them have but many more struggle too as of recent because of great graphics and the ability to depict realism. Maybe it’s a gimmick or passing fad. This is new technology so everyone thinks it’s cool. Realism is something that’s never before been displayed in video games so publishers keep enforcing the newest, better graphics. That’s been the trend in consoles for over a decade and ever since character design went to crap. You can’t showcase realistic graphics with characters that are not inherently realistic. As such, we receive realism.


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