In 1986, the SIGGRAPH computer technology conference hosted a short film called Luxo, Jr. Directed by a young animator named John Lasseter, Luxo, Jr. showed a desk lamp clumsily chasing after a beach ball while a much larger, parental-looking lamp looked on. The piece was groundbreaking (and was eventually nominated for an Oscar), not only for its impressive visual effects but for the emotional clarity that Lasseter conveyed through a faceless household object. (One attendee asked Lasseter whether the “older” lamp was male or female.)
The little lamp would become the symbol for Lasseter’s new company, Pixar. While the animation behemoth has no deficit of resources these days, Luxo, Jr. still exemplifies what the company stands for. While there’s nothing “real” about the characters Pixar creates, Woody, Wall-E, and the Incredibles are nonetheless vibrant and compelling.
Video-game characters don’t usually have that type of resonance. Rather than giving us reasons to love (or hate) the characters we control, developers spend millions to ensure their games have the highest polygon count. Big-budget games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Tekken 6 may capture the physics of gunfire and the way skin glistens with sweat, but they do a woeful job of creating empathy.
As games increasingly come to emulate the aesthetics of Hollywood films, game designers are still figuring out which parts of the movies are worth repeating. At least one game company has discovered that emulating Pixar can be a pathway to success. Twisted Pixel Games, a tiny studio based out of Austin, Texas, that sells its games for around $10, doesn’t boast the technological might of its rivals. It does, however, have a knack for producing memorable characters—a feat that most big companies can’t match.
The plot of Twisted Pixel’s first title, The Maw, is simple enough. You play Frank, a juvenile alien who has been imprisoned for his telepathic abilities. Aboard his captor’s ship, he discovers and eventually befriends a creature called Maw who’s been tagged “the deadliest organism in the universe.” Much like Audrey II and Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, the friendship between Maw and Frank is both adorable and problematic. When their ship crashes and they escape, the duo jaunts through the alien countryside as Frank feeds Maw other animals. Maw gladly consumes them and increases in size exponentially.
While there’s much to love about these two characters, it was one design flourish that won me over. Maw, with his wagging tongue and single eye, is brainless and must be led around on a leash. When I lost sight of my monster friend, I was able to call him back with a long, doleful bray that brought him bouncing back to my side.
That tiny bit of voice-acting made me feel both desperate to find my companion and aware of how much I needed him to survive. It was this connection that vaulted The Maw to an audience-choice award at 2008’s PAX 10 game conference and propelled the game to sell more than 100,000 units.
It’s these small touches that make Twisted Pixel’s characters so much more evocative and memorable than the creatures that skulk through most big-budget games. In Twisted Pixel’s follow-up to The Maw, ’Splosion Man, the title character is a bundle of giggles, hooting maniacally even when standing still. ‘Splosion Man is a lab experiment gone gaga who wants nothing more than to eat cake and blow stuff up. Sometimes he pretends to be a monkey. Other times he spreads his arms like an airplane, as if he just scored a game-winning soccer goal. This kinetic energy is infectious. I laughed when he laughed and felt elation whenever he discovered a hidden piece of dessert.
Although Twisted Pixel’s games don’t reach the cinematic realism of their multimillion-dollar competitors, that’s actually not a bad thing. At this stage, the bar for “AAA” titles—the game equivalent of tent-pole films—is reproducing real life. At bigger studios, there are artists toiling away to refine every bush and shoelace. Dedication to minutiae is not necessarily undesirable—after all, it’s worked for Pixar. But unlike its deep-pocketed counterparts, Twisted Pixel isn’t burdened by the expectation of perfection. Maw and Frank don’t have to look spectacularly lifelike. They just have to hold my attention and make me care.
Twisted Pixel doesn’t have a monopoly on good video-game character design. Kyle Gabler, the designer of the puzzle game World of Goo, gave his goo balls sad expressions to make them “as vulnerable as kittens,” he says. In developer Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet, the main character Sackboy’s innocent, obsidian eyes evoke the attachment one might feel for a childhood doll.
But these are childish cartoons!, you might say. What does this mean for other games—say, the ones with machetes and shotguns? It’s true that we have more empathy for doe eyes and fluffy fur, and that it’s tougher to create an emotional pathway to a hard-nosed criminal. Still, video games writ large can learn a lot from Twisted Pixel. Designers should keep in mind the old newsroom adage of “show, don’t tell.” Realism isn’t enough to make a story pop—you need the right details and context to make a story come together.
How do video games get from their “tell” period to the “show” era? Rockstar Games had the right idea in Grand Theft Auto IV, giving a different sheen to each of the game’s episodes, meaning that GTA’s playable characters all see New York City in a different way. It can also be as simple as letting players take a break from the firefight to play a game of rock-paper-scissors, as in Army of Two: The 40th Day.
Every great character has its own tiny strokes of genius. In Luxo, Jr. it was the slight tilt of the head and the rusty squeak of the lamp’s joints. For The Maw, it was his eyeball; for ‘Splosion Man, his jubilation. In Twisted Pixel’s third game, Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley, the studio hopes the hook will be the relationship between the insecure captain and the talking star emblazoned on his chest. (The repartee has a distinct 48 Hours feel.) The results have yet to be seen, but judging by the iconic moments in Twisted Pixel’s past work, the giants of the gaming world will have a lot to live up to.