When it comes to games, airship-shaped biceps and a slim waist are the rule of thumb. In this tasteless world of virtual protein shakes and characters that seem to exist only on digital ground turkey and kale, the plus-size gaming hero doesn’t stand a chance.
As someone who grew up slapping seven shades of shit from Ryu and Ken with E. Honda in Street Fighter 2, the lack of tall gaming heroes bugs me.
Frankly, that’s bullshit. It’s also an area where Hollywood — barely the stronghold for portraying realistic body types over the years — does somehow a better job with positive portrayal than video games.
Recently, an obscure little indie hit theaters and, in its five days open, broke just about every box office record. In this movie – for spoiler purposes, let’s call it…. oooh, Revengers: Final Match – an established character appears in a form we’ve never seen before.
Consumed by the guilt and emotional trauma of past events in that certain cinematic universe, said hero resurfaces in a far less svelte form than audiences are accustomed to. They fall into the classic video game slob stereotype to begin with – all beer and pizza, dragging fellow gamers to a stained couch. But you know what? Rarely at any time does this new volume – which is admittedly achieved through prosthetic work – affect their ability to kick all ass.
Once this character regains his head in the game, he stays at that heavier weight and continues to act as heroically as he ever has before. They are not the butt of big jokes; they don’t suddenly start gorging themselves on fried chicken; and they are no less useful in rendering justice.
It’s almost like you can rock a 40-inch waist and still be as heroic as the kind of silver-screened gym-goers with more abs than fingers.
Now, while Hollywood still has a long way to go in terms of representing positive plus-size models, this is a step further down the road than your average triple-A title.
In games, favored body types usually come in two distinct flavors. Either you’re dealing with Ricky Roid Rage and his ridiculously vascular forearms, or you’ve got a tiny waist and heaving chest territory. Neither is a particularly healthy image to promote to impressionable young players.
As a mischievous dude with arms the size of knitting needles, I’d much rather see a diverse range of physiques that promote body positivity. Give me GTA 5’s Michael De Santa and his bank robber dad body on Nathan Drake’s flawless pecs any day of the week.
As far as Nate goes, at least Naughty Dog has learned from past nasty mistakes when it comes to fat-shaming. After acting like an unlockable deaf in the PS3 Drake trilogy, the developer wisely ditched the Donut Drake skin for Uncharted 4, with director Neil Druckmann commenting that he thought the studio had “matured beyond that”.
While plus-size game characters are still too rare, there have been a few notable exceptions this generation. Watch 2017’s Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. While Sigrun Engel may be just a memorable cog in a well-cast and varied package, she’s still a brave ally who shines in the face of bigotry and harassment – including the most come from his sour-tongued, fat-shamed mother.
Nor does the accumulation of pounds in last year’s biggest game have any real negative effect on how his antihero is treated by the world around him. Choose to gain weight in Red Dead Redemption 2 – an RPG-like mechanic resurrected from GTA: San Andreas – and Arthur Morgan is a no less valuable or effective member of his Wild West gang.
Unfortunately, many character designers still have a lot of work to do if they want to provide a balanced variety of realistically proportioned body types – you certainly won’t find a plus-sized Guardian in Destiny 2. A more recent culprit is The Division 2 Ubisoft’s online open world happily gives you hundreds of tattoo options to ink your soldier’s arms, but there’s no slider to haul extra wood around your survivor’s belly.
Are publishing executives really so obsessed with image that they think the idea of a plus-size hero will negatively affect sales? Would you really give a damn if the next Call of Duty had a beefy Marine in the lead role? Even in 2019, the most important plus-size video game characters are normally relegated to quirky sidekick status.
Can big-boned Birdie and his punk rock kicks deal as much damage as any timely Hadouken in Street Fighter 5? Shit yeah. When it’s time to hit the GTA 5 headlines, there’s no brilliantly intriguing mind I’d rather have with me in the trenches than Lester Crest. And if we’re talking mastery of spot mechanics, I’d pick Ellie from Borderlands 2 over Cindy from Final Fantasy 15 and her eye-rolling outfit all day long.
On the latter, Gearbox has publicly stated that it deliberately designed Ellie’s lines so that players wouldn’t feel the need to poke fun at her. In an interview with PC Gamer in 2012, a spokesperson for the studio said, “We wanted to make sure that through her dialogue and her visual design, we would never put her in a light where the player is encouraged to have pity, laugh, or make fun of her because she doesn’t look like Jessica Rabbit.”
Advocating for more relevant secondary characters in video games is not the same as glamorizing obesity. After all, it is a societal problem that is increasingly straining health services.
Yet in an industry obsessed with promoting unrealistic images of what men and women should look like — even if those representations are digital — there’s surely a place for more heroes with love handles and a beer casing.