It's easy to argue that gaming has 'grown up with the gamers', but that's a fallacy in my opinion. New people are born all the time, and people buy them games. Children are - and likely always will be - drawn to appealing characters, and yet - somehow - almost all of the stars of the 1990s are gone or at least insignificant today. Crash Bandicoot, Pac-Man, Dynamite Headdy (joke), Jak & Daxter, Rocket Knight, Spyro the Dragon, Ristar (also joke) Mickey & Donald, Sonic the Hedgehog (haha… oh)… But if you think it's sad that character mascots for children died out, consider this:
Some of gaming's biggest grown-up heroes, like Nathan Drake, Lara Croft, Solid Snake and Master Chief might not be around much longer either. For different reasons, they're all hanging around by the door, ready to duck out like that annoying mate at a party. And I don't see a line of newcomers ready to take their place. I'm convinced the era of AAA character mascots is just about done.
Right now the future of several of the biggest, most widely-recognised video game characters is in jeopardy. Firstly, brilliant though Rise of the Tomb Raider is, it hasn't sold very well at all. It was absolutely destroyed at retail by some sleeper hit called Fallout 4 (I say sleeper hit because clearly nobody at Microsoft saw its popularity coming) and I very much doubt Microsoft will publish another Tomb Raider sequel now, even if they have said they're happy as has been suggested. And since Square-Enix was already displeased with the far higher sales of the reboot before it, the series' future might be in more jeopardy than we realise. It's a fantastic game, and critical reception has shown that, but Okami proves that plaudits alone aren’t enough. Will the PS4 crowd really buy Rise of the Tomb Raider in droves in a year's time? When Uncharted 4 is already out?
Which brings us to Nathan Drake. Quite simply, we've been told by Naughty Dog that his story is being concluded with Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, so that's that. Solid Snake's story has been told too. That's three.... Sackboy never really captured the public imagination, and has gone rather quiet since the series he’s officially attached to has become less and less of a draw, Marcus Fenix is hardly hot property any more - though Gears will likely continue without him and could give us a new hero - and Rayman… well. Rayman has successfully returned from limbo (not the one with the spider) to deliver some superb games, but has he ever been a true star? Microsoft still has Master Chief, although the law of diminishing returns has definitely started to kick in with Halo. And so we go through the list, ticking off former icons like they're going out of fashion… because they are.
Only Mario still sells systems on his own (to a lesser degree than he used to, granted) and that's because his core games have always been impeccably designed and produced. Mario himself is a practically featureless character. What character traits does he have? He's happy, he saves a princess.... he has a brother. And a moustache. Fascinating stuff, I'm sure you'll agree.
But that's where we come onto the interesting thing about Mario. That's why he works so well. It's very hard to hate something so benign. Mario isn't really anybody except you. You make the leap into his world and the story is whatever you make it. You impress yourself onto this blank canvas. And now, modern games as a whole are following that thinking, only a lot more literally and in a far more complicated way.
I believe that, indirectly, the prevalence of first-person gaming has made it that way. When you don't have a character on the screen all the time (aside from their hands), it's far harder to stamp their personality onto the experience. That's probably why we haven't had a first-person Batman game. You want to see Batman being Batman because that's a massive part of the game's appeal. Uncharted and Tomb Raider make Nathan Drake and Lara Croft come to life because you can always see them. You aren't being Nathan Drake; you're along for the ride with him.
Kids' gaming isn't really about that sort of experience any more. It's very telling that the biggest game in children's lives (to the point where it can become all they want to do or talk about) is a game about creating and sharing experiences. I feel like some crazy-haired old man when I say this, but Minecraft's full-screen, first-person view of a world of infinite possibilities is like a field of dry corn to the fire of a young imagination. And it will undoubtedly shape the industry's future. If the biggest game in the world is all about the player and what they want to happen, and its core userbase is under 12, that's inevitably going to have a profound effect on gaming in ten years' time. Future gamers and developers will have unconsciously conditioned themselves to expect gaming to be all about them.
But that's not even the future. Look at the biggest games right now. Even preset characters are now malleable. Mass Effect lets you choose a good or bad path for your character, Fallout 4 has dialogue options that fit how you want your character to act, and gameplay open to virtually any path you want to take… Is the reason we don't have gaming mascots any more that gaming has shifted to make us the heroes, or the villains if we prefer? Commander Shepherd's default appearance may appear in promotional artwork, but that preset figure almost certainly won't correlate with the character you end up playing as. And everybody's view of who Shepherd should be is different.
And that's the problem, especially now that AAA games cost so much to make. To put it bluntly, a set character with real character traits may not be universally likeable enough to ensure a game’s success. That's why we have so many late-20s, brown-haired men: that character type must resonate strongest with the largest game-buying demographic during focus tests. We'd never get a AAA studio making a character like NiGHTS today and expecting it to sell consoles. In 1996, a funny-looking flying jester who lived in a dream was one of the then Big Three's flagship heroes. Having a weird-looking character that might alienate people always on the screen is the sort of thing that wouldn't even get pitched today, let alone approved. If you let the player create their own character, you sidestep that problem. Suddenly your game is all-inclusive - but still lacking a true mascot.
So that's why game mascots are dying out. New ones are too difficult to introduce, the old ones are running out of stories to tell, and the future is more about the player than the hero. Licensed games will always sell well, so we'll continue to see Batman, Indy and co. But once gaming's familiar heroes have stepped away, the only person that's going to replace the traditional game hero is you. Better get ready, it won't be long now.