You Gotta Have Faith: Does Style Beat Out Realism Earlier this month Kotaku posted a pair of images of the lovely Faith from Mirror's Edge. One was the official rendering by Swedish dev DICE of the parkour-inspired, Asiatic heroine - and the other was a reinterpretation edited by an Asian fan, imagining what Faith would look like if she had been designed according to what he says are Asian standards of beauty. The post spurred more than 500 comments and touches on something quite a bit deeper than the obvious - and less-tangible - question of "Asian tastes versus European tastes." The question that many of us really seemed to be ruminating on is a simpler one more germane to the world of video games: Do we want our characters to look real?Dragging Out The Old Film Chestnut Again In the animation industry, no one complains about unrealistic characters. That's because cartoon and CG films have the luxury of prioritizing art and aesthetic over realism - they have their counterpoint in live-action film, which has trended away somewhat in recent years from portraying solely dazzling actresses on the heels of increasingly successful "everyman" films. But while we might love to hold up games alongside film to search for parallels whenever we're championing games' artistic validity, it doesn't quite work here. Animated films can safely rest as an offshoot of the proper film medium, but in video games, animation's all we've got. And games currently have few serious live-action character titles that can be used to counter-balance the aesthetic flair of stylized, idealized ones (no, Red Alert 3 does not count). We also have few, if any, games that deal simply with grounded human dramas and subtext; our most "lifelike" games tend to be crime-driven street tales that call for hyperbolic, larger-than-life brawlers and gunmen - ironically, closely inspired by the character archetypes that have worked for TV and film. It could be argued that many of the characters we see in games today are modeled too closely on characters from other forms of entertainment - which brings into sharp focus how different films and games really are. And even when games try their best to experiment with genuine humanity, their efforts to produce real empathy and connection with players can be hampered by this divide - games often ape the archetypes of character, interaction and theme that work for live-action media, while still being bound to the visual language of computer-generated CG and the details of gameplay. But the advantage that animated film has over its live counterpart is that it's able to create visual effects, events and character performances that would not only be impossible in reality, but wouldn't be as exciting. In other words, animation is visual art in a different way than straight film is - and when we see a character design as beautiful as EA DICE's Faith, we see that games have the potential to be visual art in that way, too. C'mon, It's Just Pretty To Look At Because even the "realistic" Faith is quite a bit more stylized, more idealized, than a real woman would be. She might be a more possible ideal, but she's still impossible - if you plunked down in Asia and strolled around, how long do you think you'd have to walk before you saw a woman quite like that? In fact, where in "Asia" is Faith from? Her world is fictional. When we say we want "realistic" characters in games, I don't think what we're saying is that we want to strip away that animation-inspired, lush visual language, or even the idealism. People often say they'd like to see more "normal" characters in games - I posit that a game that's wholly a realistic experience, even if that realism is solely visual, wouldn't necessarily be a whole lot of fun. At least not at this stage of gaming's evolution. I think what gamers are saying when they express a preference for DICE's original Faith design is that they'd like a character that it's possible for them to identify with. And while the stylized, cartoonish Faith might be more "beautiful" - or, at least, might resemble what concurrent anime and manga fandom might have conditioned hardcore gamers to consider beautiful - the less exploitive Faith has far more visual touchstones to concepts we respect. To test this, I'd like everyone to try an experiment. Regardless of which Faith picture you prefer, check out the fan-adapted Faith design and list five words - nouns, verbs, adjectives, whatever — that come to mind while you look at the image. Then check out DICE's actual Faith and list five more words. Hypothesis: The "stylized" Faith list may feature words related to what you find attractive, but the "real" Faith list will feature words related to values you admire. …But We Want To Respect Who We Are In Games In other words, "real" game characters act as visual representations of the values, concepts and ideas we'd like to step into when we play a game. They're perhaps symbols of the people we'd like to become. They might instead be representations of the concepts and ideas that work best with the game's plot. When we as gamers react with offense to oversexed or unrealistic game characters, we're not so much offended that the characters are hyper-beautiful or impossible - we're unhappy because we're getting meaningless eye candy dangled at us in lieu of substance. It's not that we hate big boobs. It's that we don't get why someone who represents values we admire would need to flaunt her breasts around. Because here's the big difference between film and games - film-watching is a passive experience. Games are intended to be engaging, personal experiences. We don't just watch them, we play, and because of that, game characters must be more than visual art - we must be able to connect to them, or the experience is hollow. So while your character preferences will always have telling clues to whisper about who you are and what you're attracted to, at the end of the day, it becomes about who you'd like to become. Of course, game characters don't necessarily need to look "admirable" to be appealing avatars for our play experiences. I've written before about how Haunting Ground's environment and story are supported by the fact that it's protagonist, Fiona, seems so sexualized, vulnerable and objectified. In that particular situation, it's appropriate, not meaningless. And there's very little to admire about the looks of Silent Hill 2's James Sunderland - but those who've finished the game understand that there isn't supposed to be. When it comes to Faith, the fan redesign might have tapped into an aesthetic preference that works for static art —but while what you look at on your private time is your business, I think it's safe to say no one wants to become a little girl with her nipples showing. And did you try the "five words" experiment? If you did, list yours in the comments and any thoughts you have on them. [Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, reviews games at Variety,and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]