Perhaps it's just because Coelasquid's comic brought it up recently, but even before it came out I remembered reading about how Nier -- an action RPG being published by Square Enix -- was doing something that I found rather strange: they were drastically changing the appearance of the main character of the game depending on just where the game was being released. Let me show you:
Everywhere outside of Japan got the Nier you see on top, the musclebound hulking man. The story behind him is that his daughter is ill and he's trying to find a way to save her life. People in Japan got the Nier on the bottom, the bishounen who has to save the same girl, except now instead of being her father he's her brother. The stark contrast between the two of them really sets an example in regards to aesthetics and the way they are played out in games. The question this leads to though is whether such choice (in this case having two drastically different character designs for different regions) is a good or bad one.
Coelasquid comes down firmly on the side of it being a negative for a few reasons:
"it could be argued that they’re just trading one cultural stereotype for another (the token action hero for the token pretty-boy), but I think this really is a case where casting the hero as a pristinely coiffed teenager is a shallow choice that makes the story suffer for it. On one hand the brother-sister dynamic is a completely different relationship than the father-daughter one. While it may not be unusual for a boy to be overprotective of his sister, it brings a completely different perspective to the story when it’s a single father fervently protecting his only child. And on the other hand the musclebound Nier is… well… Frankly, not exactly an attractive person. He’s a grizzled old hunter who starts the game as a veteran monster-whacker in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, he looks like a craggy, tired middle-aged man. He LOOKS like someone who devotes every waking moment to manual labour and fussing over his sick child. Pretty young Nier looks like the kind of guy who has to wake up at dawn to meet his team of stylists. It’s a flat out bad character design, as in, it removes the character from the story for the sake of sex appeal."
I believe that she brings up some good points here. Certainly while Square Enix had the right to do whatever they pleased with the character much like Capcom can do whatever they like with Mega Man, in this case going with the younger, brother Nier was certainly an easy choice for them to make when marketing to Japan, but easy doesn't equate to good. The point I'm trying to raise here is that while aesthetics are important, shouldn't things like a character's motivations, overall journey, growth, and background be equally as important?
People out there are saying that games should be taken seriously, that games are art in the same way that a good movie or classic literature is art, but if we can't move past the visual representations to see what can be made of the characters, setting, and plot underneath all of that then we are missing one of the highly important elements towards saying "yes, games are serious". Square Enix seemed to think that the fatherly version of Nier wouldn't have done well in Japan, and maybe that is the case, but at the same time would it not be a profoundly interesting challenge to take a character that doesn't look visually appealing but still make him relatable and have him gain the sympathy of the audience through his words, actions, and journeys rather than simply going for the easy fix of making him into the image that the audience desires whilst divorcing him of some of that much needed characterization?
FAIR WARNING: I'm about to veer a little into the topic of sex, sexuality, and gender in games. This is a topic that I've considered for a very, very long time, and while I am talking about it here, what I'm saying is nowhere near exhaustive. I could devote a week, or hell, a month or even a year to this topic and still not do it justice. It's something I'm considering tackling down the line. For now though, just bear with me here, okay?
Nier is of course not the only game that has done this, although none have perhaps done it to such a degree as to create two specific versions of a character. Still, take a look at say, any fighting game roster. There might be a little more variety to the men in terms of body shapes and sizes, but the main type will still be the musclebound badass; with the women there is even less variety. Has there even been an ugly woman in a fighting game? I know a vast majority of the characters from a lot of franchises and I'm honestly coming up blank. The example I'm going to particularly pick on here is Dead or Alive. I actually like DoA because I enjoy the way the countering system works, but lets face it every single female character in the franchise with the exception of the crossover Halo character is pretty much exactly the same: pretty face, large breasts, and for the most part ridiculous outfits. I do realize that looking for a cohesive story in a fighting game is like somewhat akin to looking for ice in a desert, but bare with me here.
Look at Kasumi, arguably the main female protagonist for the series. Most of the audience would be able to tell you that "she kicks high" from that god-awful advertisement they ran when Dead or Alive 3 came out, but there's actually a decent story behind her: she entered the first tournament to get revenge on someone that hurt her brother, and actually succeeded in doing so. However, since she went against clan directives she spends pretty much the entirety of the rest of the series running for her life from assassins that her own former clan has sent to kill her. Could you tell any of this from the way any of her costumes look? Of course not. She's just a redhead who shows an enormous amount of cleavage and looks like she could just as easily be on a run-way than running away for her life.
I'm not asking that Team Ninja go to the opposite extremes and make her and every other female member of the cast just look average or downright repulsive, but when all of the characters pretty much look the same doesn't that sort of "spectacular beauty" kind of vibe end up becoming the average anyways? If you want to actually give the characters some oomph and -- heaven help us all -- actual characterization then you're also probably going to have to give us a reason to actually look beyond the surface.
If I haven't made myself clear enough, Bob "MovieBob" Chipman frames roughly the same assertions I'm trying to make here more eloquently in this video, it's worth a watch.
I do realize that I'm probably being unfair, since like I said picking on a fighting game for its lack of story isn't exactly a fantastically hard feat in and of itself. The thing is though that it's not limited to that sort of thing either, and it's not limited to women. We've all seen the generic "hyper tough guy" look that the non-Japanese Nier is just as guilty of, likewise with the guys from Gears of War, Duke Nukem', God of War, and countless other games ascribe to. I know that these characters are supposed to be larger than life, but I honestly think that a little more variety wouldn't do any harm either. Defy the expectations once in a while, make a guy that looks like he could pound the crap out of you the pacifist and healer, make a wispy character an actual rogue or acrobat rather than giving him a sword that looks like it outweighs him pound for pound, put some friggin' sensible clothing on the women for a change. Who knows, maybe it will actually happen, eventually.