Saturday, December 13, 2008

Two Faiths

Faith - Original Faith - Edit
This is Faith, protagonist of Mirror's Edge. On the left is the original character design, as she appears in promotional artwork and in the game itself. On the right is a fan-created edit.

I've got a lot to say about Mirror's Edge, but I want to take a moment to talk about Faith. And about why the fan-created edit is better.

The key changes in the edit are that Faith has wider eyes, rounder cheeks, a larger bustline, more textured hair, a cleaner face, and the makeup is gone. The edit is better.

It's easy to misinterpret here. It's easy to think the question is, which Faith is more attractive to a male audience? The answer to that question is also the edit, but that's not what I'm talking about here. The edit is better.

It is excellent that the developers made Faith female. I've played through Mirror's Edge, and female was the right choice, on any number of levels. It is also excellent that they saw her as a strong female protagonist, and they carry this through inasmuch as is possible during the appallingly bad storyline.

Another thing that is awesome: they gave her a realistic body shape. That bustline on the edit isn't exactly fantasy, but it's unnecessary and not really ideal for someone who's going to be doing as much jumping as Faith. The original design for Faith includes some good calls, and they are to be commended.

Where they went wrong is the face. And the reason they went wrong is this: Faith's face is closed.

She's the protagonist of the game; more than that, she is the player's avatar. The player needs to be able to instantly identify with her, be welcomed into her world, and feel in tune with her motivations. Instead she's got this... face. In the picture above she's sneering; in game you only see her face a couple of times but it's got an almost robotic detachment to it. Either way, her face is closed - her squinty eyes and dirty skin and ludicrous make-up all come together to make a character who doesn't want you to get to know her.

Faces are icons. Humans, it turns out, are ridiculously good at idenitfying a human face.

We take our cues from the layout of the eyes and mouth. We've got a whole bunch of subconscious stuff going on when it comes to these parts of the body. Eyes which are large in proportion to the head evoke concepts of children, stimulating our urges of affection and protection. Eyes which are open and interested provoke engagement in the viewer (we tend to copy the expressions of people we want to engage with). Eyes with clearly defined edges are more iconic - they more loudly say "human" and therefore allow us to better project on a face; lines which break the outline of the eye make faces look more "alien".

This is basic psychology. It is the sad truth that when it comes to designing faces, there are ways that are better. The edited Faith has a sharper, cleaner face and is therefore measurably more effective at drawing the player into her world.

So, yes. Make realistic characters. Give us achievable female role models. Give us strong women doing awesome things who don't care whether or not they're impressing men. But, seriously, badly designed is not the same thing as interesting, and well designed is not the same thing as pandering to the masses.


Scott Leis said...

While I agree with your comments about faces in general, I mostly disagree on the comparison of Faiths, and prefer the original version.

I don't see her as either sneering of squinting - the narrow, slanted eyes just make me think she's of Asian descent. The look is a little unusual, but I don't see anything wrong with it.

The only obvious makeup is the pointy bits around her right eye. I see that as just another quirk of the character, like the tattoo on her arm.

I can't comment on the appearance of her face in the game. I've only played the tutorial and prologue so far.

Greg Tannahill said...

Well, see, the Asian descent thing shows that they HAVE understood a completely different lesson about facial design, which is that studies show people on average think faces of blended ethnicity are more attractive than "pure" faces. You can see this philosophy most clearly in the character designs for Disney films, or in the Afro-Polynesio-Latino-Caucasian protagonist of Heavenly Sword. Blended features not only maximise your cross-market penetration but make for a measurably more eye-pleasing character.

So after going that yard to get a West-meets-East character it baffles me all the more that they got the rest wrong.

Ultimately there are different tastes, and this was a deliberately provocative post, but I'd still stand by assertion that by following some basic laws of design they would have on average pleased more people, sold more copies of the game, and done it all without compromising any key artistic element of the game or giving up their idea of an strong independent female character.

Actually I could do a whole post about facial make-up. Every sort of face make-up signifies something, whether intended or not, and that kind of eye marking would generally match up to either a status insignia (eye markings would probably mean a lower caste or outside precisely because of the "alienising" effect) or war-paint (again because it makes the face look inhuman). Scars that cross the eye socket are used to denote villains so commonly that they've become a cliche, and it's again because of that way that it breaks the icon of the face.

When it's used for a protagonist they're universally an anti-hero. It works for a character like God of War's Kratos, where the question of his humanity is front and centre of the plot, but Mirror's Edge is trying for more of an "us against the world" feel and it's essential that Faith be someone who doesn't shut the player out.