Last week on XP I wrote at length in a rather unsympathetic tone about the appearance of a Darksiders collectible figurine representing the main character. It reminded me about something else I’ve wanted to talk about: Special Editions. That is, pricier versions of games in big unwieldy boxes that usually come with an art book, a soundtrack, and inevitably, a big toy. It’s like the McDonald’s Happy Meal of game sales, and judging by the ubiquity of figurines, they probably cost as much to make.
This sort of thing just keeps getting more and more common. Darksiders, of course, had that figurine. Dark Void’s special edition came with a fucking massive big thing that depicted a jetpack man in mid-take-off, jet stream and smoke clouds lovingly rendered in resin, and which probably took longer to paint than it takes to finish the actual game (SPOILER WARNING). And, of course, Bayonetta’s special edition (or “Climax Edition,” which kind of gives the whole game away) came with a rather ineptly-painted replica of one of Bayonetta’s guns. Now that’s missing a trick. If there’s one aspect from that game that nerds could be trusted to put on their desks and stare at while sweatily knocking one out, it probably wasn’t the main character’s gun. Unless they live in Texas.
There’s something awfully cynical, I think, about the whole collector’s edition thing, as it stands with videogames. I’m not against the concept. Increasingly, retail game sales have to rely on that section of the audience they still haven’t lost to digital distribution, who prefer their games to take up space on a shelf with some kind of physical weight, the weightier the better. And yes, there is a certain breed of person who always buys collector’s editions for their own sake. They’re the same kind of people who make faked-up DVD boxes with glossy printed-out artwork for their pirated anime DVDs.
But I always thought that a special edition (which, significantly, used to be called a Game Of The Year edition) was something you only did for games that had proved themselves to be good. Or more accurately, games that have gathered a fanbase. Because fans are the only ones who would be interested in owning special editions. “I enjoy this game,” they say. “I enjoy it so much that I am willing to share my living space with a mass-produced resinous sculpture of the main character. To sit on my shelf and meet my gaze every time I enter the room like my very own scowling, armoured wife. I like this game so much I want every member of the opposite sex I bring to my house to feel a little bit weirded out by it.”
These days, however, special editions for games are released on launch day at the same time as the standard edition. That strikes me as an act of legendary arrogance on the part of the publisher. “No-one’s even played this game yet,” they say. “But we believe that people are obviously going to go so nuts for it that we will cut out the middleman and bring out the Game Of The Year edition right now. That’ll save a bit of time, won’t it, you figurine-buying tards. Now, bleat! Bleat like little lambs! You’ll like whatever we tell you to like!”
And increasingly this happens with games that are pretty dodgy. The special edition impulse buyer ends up with a lot of big ugly figurines for games they hate, with no purpose but to take up space on the office desk and give your co-workers the wrong impression. Suddenly the retards and the star pupils are all getting the same participation award. What I’m saying is, can we go back to a time when Special Editions were reserved for games that were, y’know, special? As it stands we just have a load of “collectibles” of interest only to collectors of shit.
After last week I asked on Twitter (ooh, getting into the swing of things now) for other examples of good character design in games. A lot of people took this as an invitation to just list characters they like. But someone did link me to Jack Monahan’s interesting design blog, which I spent an enjoyable few hours reading. At time of writing the current post is a re-imagining of the characters from Clive Barker’s Jericho so they’re not, you know, total shit.
Anyway, let’s examine some examples people put forward on Twitter:
Bayonetta herself: Fair enough, she does have a very distinct silhouette. It’s just that you’d be hard pressed to identify it as the silhouette of a human being, rather than one of the Elder Things from the plains of Yith. Besides, my reading of elegant character design is how many elements I need to add to the default ZP character before the character is recognisable, and with Bayonetta I could only stop at the glasses, the ice cream cone hair and a jumpsuit with a moon-shaped cleavage.
Big Daddy: Definitely very good design. Monstrous but still recognizable as a deep-sea diving suit. In itself, indicative of Rapture as a whole – once human, now reduced to this filthy, monstrous thing with only the vaguest suggestions of human intelligence. Also easy to spot with the bright glowing lights on the face, but that does strike me as cheating a bit.
Mario: I dunno. Certainly very brightly-coloured, iconic, and simple, but I think the laws of Mario’s universe are a bit too arbitrary for character design to effectively communicate much. I don’t look at Mario’s appearance and think “turtle-hating high-jumping twat.”
Agent 47: Another good one. 47’s a good example of stark, contrasting colours: Black suit, white shirt, bright red tie, away we go. With those alone you could be forgiven for thinking you’re looking at a dude on his way to work at the offices of Scowly & Sons, but it’s the simple addition of black leather gloves that imply a bit of menace that lets you know you’d better keep your baldy jokes to yourself. I always thought the barcode on the back of the skull was overdoing it a bit. It made me picture some kind of underworld assassin/slave market where transactions are made with a supermarket checkout scanner.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.