Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-08-01 06:41:06
The Decline of the Animal Protagonist
Modern games, as a general rule, tend to strive for realism. The 7th console generation brought with it the ability to finally make games that verge on being life-like. One look at a game such as L.A Noire or The Last of Us is enough to suggest that we're getting close to putting actual human beings into video games. Given that games can now create realistic characters with human-like facial and bodily animations, we are seeing the rise of protagonists such as The Last of Us' Joel and Watch Dogs' Aiden Pearce - characters who are so real that we can marvel at the technical brilliance of the developers in bringing these characters to life.
Alas, the rise of realistic protagonists naturally results in the decline of more cartoony heroes. Back in the 5th console generation, the animal protagonist in particular ruled the gaming roost. You need only scan your Playstation 1 and Nintendo 64 gaming collections to see a trend: Crash Bandicoot; Spyro the Dragon; Croc; Banjo; Conker - these characters became the ubiquitous heroes of that gaming generation. For me, when I think of the original Playstation and its mascots, I think of Spyro and Crash. When I think of the N64, I think of the multitude of furry critters invented by Rare and Nintendo.
These games were often of a similar style - action-platformers that featured gameplay that was as varied as it was enjoyable. Games in the original Spyro series could see the player in a single level take part in a race, take on a first-person shooting section, engage in an ice hockey minigame and navigate precarious platforms. This was the era where gaming heroes were deliberately cartoony and were thus full of personality: Crash Bandicoot was a playful mute; Conker was a foul-mouthed squirrel; Gex the Gecko was a suave pastiche of secret agents. They didn't take themselves too seriously, which allowed for the games they featured in to thrust the player into wacky and wonderful scenarios with little regard for realism.
The next generation continued the trend, to an extent, with heroes such as Ratchet and Clank and Sly Cooper. Again, these were games where animals were used as a way of suspending realism; despite the situations these characters found themselves in often being quite serious, there was still a healthy place for humour. The Jak and Daxter series nailed the balance, being both incredibly amusing and featuring the same sort of action-platforming jack-of-all-trades gameplay of the best Playstation 1 titles before it. Other mascots such as Kao the Kangaroo may not have been as popular as their contemporaries, but they proved that there was still a place for the animal protagonist whilst stepping further into the 2000s.
Sadly, in the 7th console generation things changed. While there have been some excellent games this generation, very few of them feature animal protagonists in comedic, light-hearted adventures. Nintendo still bring their A-game with titles in the Donkey Kong and Kirby series (and remain one of the few companies who still use animal protagonists frequently) but for the most part the days of the action-platformer with the animal main character are dead. Ratchet and Clank still trundles along and Sly Cooper had a game out recently, but these titles and characters are rarely considered the faces of the modern systems.
The best-selling games this generation have been titles in series' such as Gears of War, Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, Halo and so on - these are the games that receive the most sequels and generate the most profit for their developers. In all of the above examples, though, the player controls a human - players expect the main characters, therefore, to demonstrate human emotions, and as a result the writing in these games needs to be spot-on or else people will cry foul. In a game such as Spyro, however, we accept that the main character is not a human, and thus we don't expect them to behave as a human would - this allows, arguably, for more silly and exaggerated situations.
I do miss the animal protagonist. I miss booting up games on my Playstation 1 and knowing that the main characters aren't brooding, emotional constructs with hyper-realistic facial animation. I enjoy listening to Conker swearing his arse off in Conker's Bad Fur Day; I find it endlessly entertaining watching Gruntilda's nefarious plans brewing up in Banjo-Kazooie. Call it a technical limitation if you will, but I miss the days when games were silly rather than serious. The 5th generation of consoles couldn't replicate realistic graphics, and so they didn't attempt to: they used the technology at the time to make comically exaggerated action-platformers that put gameplay first and featured colourful casts of animal folk. The games, I feel, benefited as a result.
When I go back and play games like Spyro: Year of the Dragon, I ask myself what the modern counterpart is. I end up coming up short and return to playing the game. In the pursuit of realism, I fear that we have lost a part of the fun and excitement that came with games released on the last couple of console generations. Even 6th generation releases such as Beyond Good and Evil had something wholly unique and playful about them, and I feel as if animal protagonists are largely responsible for this (Jade may have been human in BGaE, but many of her companions were animals). Ultimately, we may have succeeded in making games look better, but human characters are limited by human emotions; I pine for the return of colourful, bouncy worlds filled to the brim with non-human characters who are full of personality. Realism in games is great, but it is the suspension of realism that accounts for why I came to enjoy playing video games in the first place.