Wind Waker and the Emotive Power of Graphic Design

The other day, Corvus at Man Bytes Blog posted an in-depth character design analysis of the Moblins from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Essentially, he tried to point out how exceptionally well such a relatively unimportant character was designed. The Moblins, and the various other members of the Moblin family, are essentially the grunts of the Zelda games. They are the enemies that you, as Link, repeatedly beat up on from the beginning of the game.
The Moblin's single-minded nature makes them easy to defeat, but they are an essential part of the Zelda mythos. As Corvus shows, despite their blunt stupidity, their character design in Wind Waker shows a painstaking attention to detail. Both their simplistic intelligence and attack animations are perfectly married with their lumbering, cartoon-y visual style. This consistency of design further applies to their facial expressions and limited emotional range, most often of confusion.

Corvus' description of the Moblins reminds me of games like Mass Effect and movies like The Polar Express. One recurring criticism of Mass Effect is that while it does have many cinematic qualities, the dialogue sequences are relatively sparse, with boring framing and a pinch of creepiness. While the game has a great story and dialogue, the emotive power of the characters is handicapped by the limits of the graphics engine. Bioware's attempt at realistic graphics is admirable, especially in their focus on realistic wrinkles. Unfortunately, realistic realism is incredibly difficult to pull off, and is likely beyond the power of current computing technology. Imperfect realism often creates a disturbing sense of creepiness.

For a really good example of this, watch the CGI film The Polar Express. I admit the graphics are breathtaking, and the story is sickeningly charming. But something about the hyper-real characters leaves a bad, bitter taste in my mouth. I concluded that it ultimately has something to do with the eyes of the characters. Looking into their glistening eyes reveals no hint of life or feeling, just emptiness, a void.

Games like Wind Waker, with their decidedly fantastic and unreal style, usually don't have this problem. Thanks to the cel-shaded graphics, the visual artists are allowed to explore a broader range of possible feelings, instead of trying to replicate a single realistic look. If you look in Wind Waker Link's eyes, it's natural to instantly recognize his sadness, confusion, or sense of wonder, often because that is exactly what you are feeling. Part of the reason Wind Waker's graphics work so well is that they allow me to closely empathize with Link because his expressiveness is often a mirror image of my own. Realistic graphics are currently unable to replicate true human emotion, partly because the vision of the artists must be focused on a single kind of representation of reality. They are unable to explore and experiment with different ways for characters to express the same thing.

As you can tell, I think stylized, unique graphics are vastly superior to attempts at photo-realism. Similarly, I think Wind Waker is one of the most beautiful games I've ever played, despite the sometimes too lengthy sailing expeditions. Lastly, make sure to check out Corvus' thoughts on narrative and game design at Man Bytes Blog. He has a lot of brilliant ideas, and I really enjoy reading his posts. Plus, he's dedicated enough to post pretty much every Monday - Friday, which is a rare treat.


Corvus said...

I'm thrilled that you're enjoying my blog, Korey. Not to mention quite flattered that I've inspired a few posts in the recent days. Please consider joining in the Round Table at some point, I'd love to read your take on the topics we cover!

Korey said...

Thanks for your comment. I just discovered your blog a few days ago through the Brainy Gamer. I really enjoy reading it. I'll try to contribute to the Round Table sometime.