Are Modern Videogame Characters Screwed?

Jamin Warren, the founder of Kill Screen Magazine, announced the other day that he’s been working with Kornhaber Brown and PBS Digital studios on a new YouTube channel, in “the spirit of manic intellectualism,” for videogames in a show entitled PBS Game/Show.

While I believe that PBS Game/Show will be great for the overall conversation videogames desperately need to have with the people interacting with them, its duration is perhaps too brisk to reach the depths of its subject matter, at least in the first episode (I’ve not yet perfected the ability to see into the YouTube future, unfortunately).

In the first episode, Jamin Warren explores which videogame characters will stand the test of time and why:

Mario, Link, and Sonic have been popular forever. Why do they have such staying power, when modern game characters rarely last longer then (sic) two or three titles? Are they just that captivating, or are there other factors in play? Some say that they endure because they were there at the beginning, and have etched themselves onto our hearts and minds. Others think it has something to do with their in-game stories and character development. Either way, it seems that classic characters are more powerful than modern characters. Will Master Chief and Commander Shepard always live in the shadow of Mario, Link, and Sonic?

Warren presents two reasons why Mario, Sonic and Link will still be talked about in 2511, while Sam Fischer and Master Chief probably will be buried under dusty copies of unsold expository novels.

The first reason is a marketing principle called “the first-mover advantage.”

The theory goes that first movers facilitate an early popularity, which allows brands to sink their teeth into the marketplace and never let go. According to Al Ries and Jack Trout’s “Immutable Law of Marketing,” the Rule of Leadership states that being first is more important than being better. However, as Industry Week points out, first-mover doesn’t always mean last man standing.

If that were true, we’d all be anticipating a brand new Atari this fall. If you’re too young to know Atari, then you’d Yahoo! it right now instead of Google it. Maybe you’d even update your MySpace status with a link to this article (and we appreciate you too).

The first-movers advantage is actually incredibly hard to achieve, and with marketing, its advantage is cemented by three things: scarcity of resources, high cost of switching brands, and the difficulty of imitation. Are these reason enough to keep these old school characters in our collective minds, rather than, say, Nathan Drake?

In a word, yes. The first-mover advantage does apply to Mario, Sonic, and Link. Mario and Link both represent Nintendo, while Sonic represented Sega. Today, the game makers don’t rely on one or two mascots to brand their console, but instead create a rich, storied universe of multiple characters. So we have the scarcity of resources, because only in the past where Mario, Sonic, and Link come from, can such simple mascots exist to represent an entire platform.

As Warren states, these characters are now “locked in,” and the decades of investment we’ve collectively given is too much to lose (especially for Nintendo and Sega). In other words, there’s a high cost of switching brands. These characters are also difficult to imitate. Each one is an archetype of core game mechanics, pioneered and/or mainstream-ized before any other game.

Warren’s second reason is story structure. Mario, Sonic, and Link, Warren states, “have a story structure that is kind of hard to find in a lot of modern games.” He cites the hero’s journey, a narrative pattern coined by Joseph Campbell, which goes like this:

  • The Ordinary World
  • The Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies and Enemies
  • Approach
  • The Ordeal
  • The Reward
  • The Road Back
  • The Resurrection
  • Return with The Elixir

His argument is that what resonates with the human condition is the story of transformation. This may be true for Link, but Mario and Sonic do not experience the hero’s journey.

For instance, Sonic begins his journey already as Sonic, a superfast hedgehog who hates oppression. He ends his journey as the same character he began as. Sure, he goes through some of the hero’s journey, namely a call to action and tests, allies and enemies, but he does not experience the hero’s inner journey, such as having to overcome fear or accept the consequences of his new life.

The same goes for Mario, whose prime mission is simply to rescue a damsel in distress. The hero’s journey, and inner journey, requires the nuanced subtleties only modern games can provide, such as The Last of Us – Does Joel not go through the hero’s journey more than Mario? Sonic?

At any rate, I’m on board with Game/Show, and look forward to dissecting many an episode!