March 17th, 2008

Like a lot of people, I first heard about LittleBigPlanet at last year’s GDC. I don’t own a PS3, and I don’t intend to own one anytime soon, but I couldn’t help but fall for the game. It’s not so much the idea of user-created levels that got me, or even the cooperative play–it’s totally the aesthetic. LittleBigPlanet is, if nothing else, adorable. The strange thing is though, it’s the game’s awesome graphics that make it so darn cute.

In a Slashdot article a couple years ago, I argued that there’s an innate split between style and realism in game art. Stylization often means cuteness (i.e. a “feminine” sensibility), whereas realistic graphics often mean perfectly rendered macho characters and their perfectly rendered guns (i.e. a “masculine” sensibility). At the time, the screenshots from Twilight Princess were still exciting news. Lots of traditional fanboys were psyched to see the realistic Link beat out the “cutesy” hero of The Wind Waker. Cute and realistic clearly didn’t go together.

When we think of games with cute aesthetics, that rule normally holds. Katamari Damacy, for example, uses blocky characters and lots of bright, solid colors. MySims gives us super-deformed avatars with blocky legs who might as well be preschool toys. And LocoRoco wins our hearts with simple yellow blobs.

But LittleBigPlanet breaks that mold. It’s both highly detailed and highly squeezable. In fact, I’d argue it’s the fact that we can see every stitch of the characters’ skin that makes them so cute. Because we can imagine them as real little creatures, or even just as real stuffed animals, we have a much more sympathetic and tangible response to their aesthetic. And it doesn’t hurt that we’re seeing these creatures up next to everyday objects: oranges, bits of wood, etc. Katamaris we have to bake into cakes and knit into hats before we can interact with them. These guys are already super easy to imagine picking up and hugging!

Tags: aesthetics, cuteness, new games

9 Responses to “Does Cuteness Get Cuter with Better Graphics?”

  1. Courtney Taylor Says:

    Is it bad if my first thought is how tempted I am to pull that little zipper open and see what they’re stuffed with…?

  2. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Seriously! I’d say candy, but that wouldn’t make them very squishy :).

  3. soulofaqua Says:

    Am I the only one who thinks these cute little buggers look like gimps, thank god for the high detail or they would look even more like gimps. Atleast now I can see very detailed knitting

  4. Courtney Taylor Says:

    Hmn… perhaps they’re like beanbags? You unzip them and hundreds of tiny little foam balls come spilling out and stick to everything? lol

  5. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    That’s the perverse spirit, soulofaqua!

    I don’t know, Courtney, I’m rethinking it now, and I have to go for straight-up stuffing. Then again, it could be all that time I spent working at Build-a-Bear that’s gone to my head :).

  6. Courtney Taylor Says:

    But stuffing is so… conventional. However, you’re probably right. lol

  7. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Ah, but then you’d unzip them and it would be like, “Ah, zip them up again, their stuffing is coming out!” or something dramatic like that :).

  8. Darkpen Says:

    Well… I guess ultimately, it’ll be a question of style. In this generation, we’ve come across two, thanks to LBP: realistically cute, and stylishly cute (Wind Waker).

    That’s not to say we’re going to stop seeing stylishly cute, though I wish the Namco team that’s in charge of Katamari would be a bit more stylish, instead of keeping a deathgrip on the original PS2’s graphics :(

    (Acid trip visual filter? Drippy oil-painting? Next-gen flare? Aged paper/canvas filter with softer browned colors? Yes please!)

    At the same time, though, all this talk of cute next-gen graphics makes me look at the Wii with a face of depression and scorn. It just brings back the question of “What if Nintendo titles had PS3 caliber graphics?” “How different/better would Metroid Prime 3 have looked?” The humans would’ve probably still looked crappy, but at least the level design would’ve been even more gorgeous.

  9. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    I hear you on the Katamari aesthetic. Unfortunately, I think the most promising thing to do in that camp is just wait for a new series to introduce interesting new graphics–while that one stays busy trying to re-live it’s past cuteness glory.

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