Representing Characters

 
 

I had an interesting revelation; I was reading Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” and came across the part where he explains the use of comics to represent concepts. He realized an interesting truth: the more abstract the character in the comic, the more we can fill up our own details on that character, and thus the greater we can empathize with that character. Upon reading this, I realized why Disney's movies moved me. Disney movies generally feature protagonists with rather abstract features— the people look a lot more “cartoony” than they would in real life. It isn’t that the technology to create life-like characters does not exist, the real genius lies behind choosing not to represent characters that way.

 

Don't we all know at-least one real person in our lives who embodies the character "Joy" from Inside Out? What if "Joy" looked like a real person? Would we still associate the person with the idea the same way?

Don't we all know at-least one real person in our lives who embodies the character "Joy" from Inside Out? What if "Joy" looked like a real person? Would we still associate the person with the idea the same way?

Carl from 'Up' represents not a singular old person, but the  idea of  old people 

Carl from 'Up' represents not a singular old person, but the idea of old people 

This revealed to me another interesting thing about myself. The reason I love reading books is that they allow the best form of abstraction. The characters could look like anyone I want them to look like, they could sound or do things in the manner I want them to. The characters are only a sequence of words which can be molded in any way and this allows my brain to empathize with these characters. This is not just a good idea for designing comics, but any piece of art! Things that do not need to be empathized with could be drawn in photorealistic detail while those that do need to be empathized with should leave room for abstraction. 

Games developers need to make a conscious decision on how to represent the player. If the game is about the player feeling something, the game should refrain from giving the avatar a photorealistic look or a specific sound. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is a good strategy. “Gone Home” does not show the player’s avatar. This means that even though the story may be far removed from what a player experiences in their own day-to-day lives, the abstraction allows the player to step into the shoes of the character, live the lives of this character and learn from lessons arising out of the character’s interactions. On the other hand, a third-person shooting game somehow builds a wall between the character and the player controlling the character. I feel that in that situation, a player would feel more like an observer than an actual entity within the universe of that story. 

The character that the player plays in "Gone Home" is only shown in pictures hanging off walls but never as a character the camera is following

The character that the player plays in "Gone Home" is only shown in pictures hanging off walls but never as a character the camera is following

Contrast that with 3rd person shooter games which create a boundary between who we are and who we represent in the game

Contrast that with 3rd person shooter games which create a boundary between who we are and who we represent in the game

The next question then becomes: How abstract should the character be? I don’t really have an answer to this question, but I’m going to experiment and try to come up with something soon. In the meanwhile, if you haven’t read “Understanding Comics”, I strongly suggest that you grab hold of a copy as soon as you can and start reading! It’s a seminal book on the subject of comics and will add to the understanding of your own medium as well.