April Roundup: ‘Palette Swaps’

Welcome, welcome. Thank you for another mind-opening edition of Blogs of the Round Table. This past month we encouraged you to think about the small but important difference a character palette can bring to your attention. We wanted to know about ‘palette swaps’ and the personality found in copies.

Sub-Zero and Scorpion, Billy and Jimmy Lee, the weird technicolor nightmare relationship of Mario, Luigi, Wario and Waluigi. Palette swapping a character was an easy way to differentiate characters with the same model that was cheap, efficient and, let’s face it, effective. But what does palette swapping do? Does it leave an original with multiple copies or does that bare minimum of difference mean something? Does the palette swap assume there is no original and does that even matter? Do games themselves treat players like palette swaps of a template? Is a palette swap a lazy stretch for more content or does it show how important subtle differences can be? Do we expect more out of games now that they’re “beyond” pixels and palettes or has nostalgia sweetened an old artistic technique? We want to know about the avatar haircut that made you identify with a character, or the shopkeeper model you most engaged with. We want to know how the player-2 model felt more right than the default character.

John Osborne edited and reposted one of his older pieces, a counterpoint to Ian Bogost’s “Video Games Are Better Without Characters” from earlier this year. Osborne not only insists that games are better with characters, but that the representation of character is necessary to include people in games. In short, presentation of human beings is, itself, a system:

Heroes default to white men in their 30s voiced by Troy Baker or Nolan North. Bogost’s solution?—?to eliminate the idea of a character altogether?—?is not just a mere sidestep of the problem. It further perpetuates it by saying and doing nothing. The already perceived default takes more prominence from the lack of a counter.

In a similar vein, Alisha Karabinus takes a closer look at State of Decay, arguing that the subtle differences in skin tones helps make the game feel more diverse, while pointing how in spite of the effort most characters represent the male-white default. As Karabinus puts it,

I was surprised to find that the numbers weren’t as positive as I expected. I’ve long praised the diversity in State of Decay, so imagine my surprise when I realized there were no black female character skins outside of the two story characters, who are also available as Breakdown heroes. This means you’re not going to encounter any random black women in any enclaves around the map in story mode.

Leigh Harrison revisits an old classic, Double Dragon, through its 2012 remake, Neon, to look at how the swapping in of fresh mechanics and good ol’ fashioned misogyny has and hasn’t changed the experience.

Phill, of Tim and Phill Talk About Games, talks about triple A games, beginning with Max Payne 3 and ending with Bloodborne to argue most have an AI palette swap at play. To wit, your average videogame baddie, whether the private security mook or the desperate street tough, acts exactly the same just with a different costume on. On the other hand, Bloodborne enemies behave uniquely, demanding the player learn each new enemy through every encounter.

Over at The Rev 3.0, our author guides us through the failings of a pair of  cultural palette swaps. Atlus’s Revelations: Persona, is a terrible localization, because it tries to swap American cultural norms in for the game’s original Japanese ones; moreover, it doubly fails in its presentation of the game’s only black character, Mark, by swapping white American cultural perceptions for actual black American experiences. The Rev explains it thusly:

Revelations: Persona (née Megami Ibunroku Perusona) was released in 1996, a time when North American localization teams worked under the assumption that Shinto was a form of Satanism and that non-European names could summon the Old Gods. It was a more innocent time, when Tokyo could be swapped out for New York and rice balls could be exchanged for cheeseburgers.

Sean Seyler, keeper of the upliftingly titled blog, I believe in you, plays us out with a piece on how he expresses his love of the colour orange through is workplace, East German telecommunications, family history and games. He says what I hoped someone would say in these two sentences:

I push against the idea that the “palette swap” is just cheap and easy design, a lazy attempt to differentiate sprites and blobs without much work, because that belittles the power that color holds for us. Meaningful choices in games do not need to be connected to the mechanics of play, as meaning can spring from each nook of presentation.

I’m glad we could find ourselves in the little things. As always, it is a pleasure to read and share the work of another Round Table discussion. If your site allows iframes, consider sharing the Round Table’s articles yourself and keep the discussion going with this dandy piece of code:

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As for me, I’ll be taking a double shift and returning to you with May’s topic soon, as my fearless co-coordinator Lindsey Joyce is swamped by qualifying exams. Please join me in a choir of encouragement. Meanwhile, if you enjoy the BoRT feature and would like to support it and the other features we post here at Critical Distance, take a look at our Patreon page to see more of our goals.