More Than Meets the Eye: Character Design PART 2

The recent E3 conference in Los Angeles showed off a fair few new games and titles (and not so new games and titles) that made fans both excited and hesitant, as well as solidified a big name Hollywood actor’s career renaissance into the meme-o-sphere.

I myself have a few games I’m looking forward to but for the purposes of this write-up I want to address some of the hype, reactions, as well as backlash at E3 that relates back to a recent deep dive topic around here: character designs.

I’m going to discuss two games that received two very different reactions from fans in regards to their respective designs in order to further help give possible context and insight into why these choices were made and what impact they actually have on the final product.

Halo: Infinite
Last year’s announcement teaser was just that, a teaser, and it revealed a direction in the art style that was going back to the Halo 3 design for Master Chief’s armour.

At this year’s conference, Microsoft showed off a new, more in-depth trailer, giving us a better look at how Chief will apear…

Just a quick history lesson: Halo 3 was the final game in the “main series” of Halo (in terms of telling Chief’s story) before its developer, Bungie, left Microsoft. After that 343 Industries (with many of the former Bungie staff) took over the Halo franchise beginning with Halo 4. With that game, 343 introduced a slightly new art style as well as an updated look to Master Chief without a canon explanation as to why (he was stuck in cryo sleep adrift on a derelict ship in the middle of nowhere since the last title). Visually, it was an indicator of a new direction and a new story and it was implied/hand waved that this was always how the armour looked.

Sadly, many fans didn’t like this new direction and have been crapping on 343’s output ever since. Yet when this new trailer dropped they were all ecstatic. To them this signalled a “back to form” to the “glory days of Bungie” before Halo supposedly went to shit.

Here’s the thing: I seem to be one of the few people who LOVED Halo 4. Before that I really enjoyed the series but it wasn’t until playing this game that I fell in love with this series and it’s two main characters and a major reason for that is the main campaign’s story (I talk about it here in an old video about my cosplay).

So this “going back” made me a little nervous because what does that actually mean?

Now I should clarify, I really like the new armour. It’s a great mashup of not only the Halo 3 design but also the suit that was first seen in the animated anthology Halo Legends and then reappeared in the live-action Forward Unto Dawn.

What’s interesting is that the new suit leans more into the FUD version of Chief’s look in terms of bulk and major lines. It maintains the “walking tank” silhouette from Halo 4 and FUD that a 7ft tall Spartan should have rather than the somewhat leaner earlier versions.

And yet, many fans were vocal about how much it looked like the Halo 3 design, when in reality it’s a minor allusion to such in some of the lines but mainly because it’s the Halo 3 helmet added almost untouched and a lot of people are unable to see past that. And I think that’s the point. It’s meant to make fans excited about the “allusion” of going back to the version they loved without going all the way.

My own reservations comes from what this all means in regards to a “spiritual reboot” as 343 have claimed: Is it purely the art style as a way to assuage the whiny gaggle of fanboys or will it abandon the fantastic story established in the last couple of games (including Cortana’s rampancy, sacrifice, and subsequent villain turn as well as the reuniting of Blue Team in Halo 5) because of the aforementioned fanboys?

I never agreed with the complaints about Halo 4 because for me it was a fantastic next chapter in not only gameplay but also a personal, mature story that stood out amongst the usual macho, testosterone-fuelled first-person-shooters. I can concede that Halo 5 may have been a misstep in certain aspects but overall that game was fine and playable (enough).

There is a difference between what you don’t like and what genuinely doesn’t work. The complaints levelled at 343 allegedly “ruining the series” sounded on par with a child complaining that their lunch was served on the wrong plate.

343 Industries have said that Infinite will be continuing the story threads from Halo 5, so you expect any previous complaints about “bad writing” or story direction would be ongoing… and yet they’re not, fans are excited about this “going back”. If it’s about the gameplay or multiplayer components I’m not sure why that is resolved by the Chief looking like he did in Halo 3 but also not really looking like he did in Halo 3.

When fans complained that Blue Team “ruined” Master Chief because he’s always been a “lone wolf” you can tell they never really paid attention to the games or the books and other media that establish in the lore that was rarely the case (the story of Chief’s past was already set out in the book ‘Fall of Reach’ during Bungie’s tenure even before 343 adapted it into a movie). And also multiplayer campaigns have been a part of Halo since the very first game so I don’t know why that was suddenly a problem in Halo 5.

That’s even before you realise that for the majority of the Halo series, Chief has had his BFF Cortana in his ear guiding and telling him what to do most of the time! So he was almost never alone, which is what Halo 3 planted the seeds about and Halo 4 expanded upon.

I just wanted to get some of that off my chest.

I should add that a small contingent have complained about the new suit saying that it’s not “practical” or that it would be to uncomfortable for cosplayers. This is amusing to me because as a designer it’s never about “realism” or “practicality” it’s about making something visually interesting as well as convincing. As a cosplayer going on 12 years with many more years of building and making on top of that all I can say is we manage and adapt.

Hell, if this new suit is taking many of its cues from the FUD design then I don’t think it’s a major issue considering they built an ACTUAL suit for an actor to perform in, which included performing stunts.

Make improvements to a gameplay that was already good… okay whatever, if that was ever a genuine complaint. I have my theories about the new game but I just think it’s odd that a design (which may I remind you I really like), a visual element has instilled such a massive positive reaction from so many who were previously negative about the story and gameplay.

Marvel’s Avengers game
I must admit I don’t recall if I knew and forgot or just had zero idea that there would be an Avengers video game so I was genuinely surprised when I saw this first trailer.

It didn’t click with me.

That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to an Avengers video game or just plain curious. After the success of the Spider-Man game for the PS4 I was hoping for something similar (the fact that it would be an ongoing live-service rather than a standalone game prevents me from being properly excited). It’s just the trailer didn’t spark anything for me and that’s okay.

But of course the internet… geez!

Instantly people were complaining about the designs of the characters, how they looked weird, throwing in “uncanny valley”, saying the designs were bad. Then they began lumping in other complaints onto the pile like criticising the “bad voice acting” or the “crappy graphics”. And it all made me wonder if we were watching the same trailer?

There is a lot to parse with this trailer but honestly many of the complaints I’ve come across really are just dogpiling in an effort to outdo one another with hyperbole. While the trailer may not have thrilled me personally, it wasn’t as offensive as most have claimed.

But let’s first tackle the most obvious aspect of this game: it’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s easy to say in hindsight but it was never likely to be an MCU-based game. The developers have said that they never even entertained the possibility of making it such from the very beginning of the project. And while I can accept that on face value, a part of me reckons the reason for this is perhaps because doing so was actually not feasible.

The Marvel movie franchise is now worth billions of dollars, they have a loose road map on how those stories are meant to unfold. What’s the bet that either Marvel Studios said no (to a developer they cannot completely control) in using the likenesses of its actors, or that doing such would cost way too much in license rights to the game developer?

So it makes perfect sense for them to want to “do their own thing” but are they through?

They’ve said that because they’re all taking from the source material, of course there will be similarities and echoes of the MCU but there’s just a little too much that resembles the movies for that to be an honest take. For instance this line-up of Avengers is not the original founding team in the comics, nor was it ever an iconic line up in said comics over the decades of Marvel Comics. I’m not going to claim outright that it’s unique to the movies as I’ve never read EVERY Marvel comic to make sure but the correlation is suspect.

There are other ingredients too that more than smacks of trying to replicate the flavour of the MCU without outright copying it and it’s that mix that has people feeling like things are “off”.

But at the same time, the timing of this game (or at leas the announcement) is somewhat unfortunate. As implied before, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the biggest properties in the world right now. After 10 years, it culminated in a massive tent-pole major movie event that people are still feeling to their core and for many fans the MCU is their only exposure to these characters and stories, so comparisons were always going to be made.

That’s always going to be tough but it also make sense to want to ride on that wave of current popularity, however, you also run the gamble of not impressing when you do slip up in any capacity.

Said slip up does exist though, which is what people have picked up on even if they’re going overboard with how they’re articulating it.

The designs do feel off for a couple of them. For instance Thor’s costume “feels” more Grecian that Norse and Black Widow looks like the stock photo from a Rubies version of a cosplay. However Bruce Banner and Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit all look fine if not that inspiring.

The most egregious design mistake is indeed Captain America and his SWAT-style, “riot gear” look that appears to be a result of a design edict that wanted things to be “grounded” and “realistic” (yup, that ol’ chestnut).

The designers forgot a variety of things when designing Steve Rogers:

  • He’s a superhero, at the very least a super soldier. He should probably appear heroic. That means an outfit that doesn’t have to look like “hockey pads” (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?).
  • In the universe they’ve created for this game there exists technology for the Helicarrier as well as a high-tech suit of armour that flies with a helmet that disappears at will. Steve’s outfit therefore doesn’t have to be “realistic” in any shape or form.
  • One of the more popular outfits Chris Evens wore in the MCU was the Stealth Suit. It kept the colours and jingoistic elements to a minimum and yet still looked heroic with it’s lack of armour instead opting for strategic padding as well as implying the presence of Kevlar.

When The Punisher was designed for the Netflix series, his look was based on an already grounded aesthetic. Yes, those Netflix series were originally meant to be an offshoot of the MCU but the context of them also was that these characters don’t have access to a Tony Stark. So Frank Castle’s iconic look was going to resemble that of tactical gear because not only was he an ex-soldier but also it was about what he had access too. Steve Rogers doesn’t have this excuse.

So it understandably put people off. But of course, the way the internet behaves, sadly the criticism didn’t just stay focused on actual missteps. If the developers had simply been honest in their effort to be “it’s own thing”, simply by saying that they can’t get the likenesses of Robert Downey Jr, etc then that would go a long way to ease people’s expectations.

Who knows, at the end of the day it could be a fantastic game and fans will all have forgotten their outrage.

(By the way, I’m somewhat galled that at E3, the audience applauded when it was announced the game wouldn’t have loot boxes. That’s great news but they got cheers for doing the BARE MINIMUM!).

(also it’s just occurred to me that both Master Chief and Steve Rogers are super soldiers in their stories, which was a coincidence).

Fans put a lot of stock in the visual appearance of their favourite characters, their designs give an indication as to the visual direction of an overall project. If they don’t appeal then it’s a tougher time to look past that to enjoy things. If no one likes the design then it’s also less likely to be cosplayed by fans, meaning less publicity for said property.

These characters are the “face” of said projects, they are used as part of the marketing, they are what draw people into a property. So their success hinges upon how well audiences latch onto them.

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