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Blueprint : The Afro Circus

VoxelArcade Blueprint # 006

Whilst Pixar’s Toy Story films are often hailed as the pinnacle of the animated genre (with the BBC’s esteemed film critic Mark Kermode regarding them as the greatest trilogy of films ever made in any genre), it is Dreamwork’s Madagascar trilogy that holds a place closest to my heart.

With a distinctly more irreverent tone and less of an apparent obsession with delivering a profound life-lesson, the Madagascar series builds upon a solid quartet of perfectly balanced and equally hilarious characters. From the narcissistic lion to the thrill-seeking zebra, hypochondriac giraffe and laissez-faire hippo, these four characters alone would probably have been enough to keep us entertained over a series of films. Not content with settling for that, Dreamworks somehow managed to factor in a pair of sociopathic monkeys, a tribe of deluded lemurs, a crazy old ninja-grandma and an absolutely drop-dead hilarious squad of SAS penguins – with each set of characters being fantastically realised and perfectly acted.

The complete genius of Madagascar is the sublime mixture of this ensemble cast and of how no one link in the chain is either too weak or too dominant. People may look at films like this and think that they’re just for children but even the most critically acclaimed of international directors can learn much from these expertly crafted masterpieces.

By the time we reach the dizzy heights of Madgascar 3, Dreamworks have not only managed to evolve the dynamics of the original line-up of characters but have also managed to succesfully crowbar-in a psychopathic group of animal control officers and an entire circus of animals that features several sub-groups itself. Each one demonstrates its own unique range of emotions from the bitter and twisted tiger to the naïve and well-meaning seal and the pure, emotive jaguar. Oh and let’s not forget the pack of beer-swilling puppies lead by none other than Vinnie Jones himself. Or perhaps the jaded, motorbike-riding bear that develops a somewhat unnatural affection for King Julian?

The list is endless.

Be honest: does any one of these characters evoke a meaningful emotional response?

Be honest: do any one of these characters evoke a truly meaningful emotional response or have a truly interesting interactions with another?

And it’s whilst you’re watching this unfold for the umpteenth time, still managing to soak-up yet more hidden little details, subtle jokes and character interactions, that you start to ask yourself: if we can manage to achieve such a rich and diverse range of interrelated characters in a children’s film franchise, why on earth can’t we get anywhere close in games?

Aside from the Mario universe, I can’t bring to mind one single franchise that manages to even vaguely fit the bill. Sure, certain games have iconic characters but they’re usually limited to one or maybe two individuals with perhaps the Chief and Cortana or Nate Drake and Sully being the only really heart-warming dynamics that spring to mind. And even the Mario universe with its eclectic range of characters offers nothing in the way of deep interaction or subtle nuances. They’re essentially nothing more than cardboard-cut-outs that represent nothing beyond archaic tropes and lifeless stereotypes.

And so Blueprint # 006, dear Voxelites, is a plea to the games industry to start to invest more time and effort in meaningful ensemble casts. We don’t want just a central hero with a few token-gesture archetypes conveniently placed around them to fill in the blanks any more than we want hollow and literal interpretations of successful movie franchises. What we want is for you to build a truly interesting group of equally important characters that we can actually start to care about and to build upon them from game to game.

And, no: ‘female space-marine’, ‘overweight tech-dude’, ‘damsel in distress’ and ‘disgruntled long-lost brother’ simply aren’t going to cut it.


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  1. I love the Mario universe 🙂 I think the Sonic universe should have stopped at Sonic(remember Big the Cat?). Found the Madagascar movies mildly amusing but forgettable. It’s strange but all the decent videgame characters that resound with people are the ones where the developer didnt try too hard to make a mascot or hero and made someone who worked within the confines of the game

    • Simon Burns Don’t get me wrong, the Mario universe is fit for purpose, but what do we really know about the characters? How do they really interact with each other and how do their relationships evolve? They’re completely superficial. I just think that we can learn a lot from animated films and franchises about the above and that games would be all the richer for it.

      • @Luke Martin VA Simon Burns Yes, but that’s what I love about it. It doesn’t make any sense for Bowser to kidnap Peach all the time, or for an Italian plumber to ride a dinosaur, or how any of it works at all, but that is exactly why I love it and why the characters and worlds have endured better than any other. Superficial? Then so is Mickey Mouse, Halo, Citizen Kane, The Binle or anything else that one person likes and another hates. For you it is meaningless and empty, but for me the Mario universe is more full of life, character and wit than any other cartoony thing I can think of

        • Also my typing on a touchscreen is awful 🙂

        • Simon Burns I think that Mario has endured by virtue of his age and of the consistently good gameplay it has offered over the years – but its storytelling certainly hasn’t evolved with the time. Mario is Mario, though, and can get away with it but other AAA franchises need to re-invent themselves to maintain relevance with an ever more narratively-literate (!) audience – Tomb Raider, for example. Batman Begins and Skyfall have done the same for films. People expect more ‘why’ in  mainstream stories today than they perhaps did in the past. Gaming is playing catch-up in this respect but it has its moments. The ‘dead wife’ scene in Gears 2, the success of The Walking Dead, the mental breakdown of Cortana in H4 after getting to know her so well in other titles – narratives like this gives games so much more emotional gravitas IMHO than Mario or Sonic could ever muster. Those games may be awesome mechanically or visually (even nostalgically) but beyond that they leave me a bit cold 🙁

        • Luke Martin VA Simon Burns I think you might be thinking too much with regards to Mario! Besides, the story and ending to Mario Galaxy definitely has emotion to it, and takes the characters somewhere a bit different (but still within the Mario style storyline).

        • RobMortimerVA Luke Martin VA Simon Burns Mario Galaxy has got to be one of the best games of this gen. Unthinkable how good the team behind it will be with the Wii U and no visual restraints

  2. Mario yes, Sonic no.
    The Mario universe knows it is a simple setup, and (especially in Paper Mario) plays on it. It never tries to be anything more than it is. See FPS games that go on for years with elaborately dull and overwrought storylines.
    Sonic on the other hand tries so hard to be meaningful and up to date in it’s characters, but ends up looking dated and weary.

  3. Sonic is cool because of all the powers everyone has and mario is cool because of all the adventures he goes on but for my opinion I go for sonic more because I grew up with him

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