By Mento 14 Comments
When a major playable character is completely formless, it's carte blanche for all sorts of imaginative applications. It's an enticing prospect for a game designer to work with, which is why we've had several games that feature shapeshifters, formchangers and just good old fashioned gelatinous blobs. If there's a problem with this construct, it's that such a chameleon character usually doesn't afford much characterization, remaining some sort of inscrutable presence that a player might find hard to relate to - but hey, these are video games we're talking about. So many games feature utterly faceless protagonists that the player sculpts in whatever way they want regardless that it's probably a moot point. Such a nebulous character would be hard pressed to carry a movie on their own (did anyone see The Saint?), but in games they reign supreme. Here's a few archetypes:
Blobs are perhaps the most basic form of the shapeshifting character, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the games in which they feature are every bit as basic and single-celled. A Boy and His Blob, Jelly Boy and Claymates are three examples of platformer games with a strong emphasis on situational puzzle solving: The blob character needs to transform into whatever's necessary to proceed and the game occasionally affords different playing experiences, such as turning into a plane or some other shape that controls a lot differently than usual. There's often a capacity for deep creativity and brainteasing in these games that belie their humble blob protagonists' cartoonish and simple look. There's also Ditto of Pokémon, who has some unique traits that the power Pokémon gamers frequently take advantage of as well as some of the weirdest fandom material this side of a Mudkips. Did you hear that theory about them being failed Mew clones? Crazy.
Featured Game: A Boy and His Blob
Having just beaten this Wii classic, I can attest to Vinny's frequent instances of heartbreak. It's a goddamn adorable game and perhaps the sort of odd high-concept game the Wii really became the home for, especially after every other current gen console decided to jump onboard the proverbial doomed motion controls cruise liner. No amount of frantic waving is moving that looming iceberg out of the way. But back to blobs and the boys that hug them, A Boy and His Blob has plenty of jelly bean-activated shapes its non-human character to assume at various points during the story to get past the series of instance puzzles that comprise each stage. As each new power is rolled out, each stage will take its time to showcase just what can be done with it. While this leads to a rather ponderous (but in a sort of relaxing way) start, that well-established knowledge allows the game to feel entirely justified in creating some rather diabolical situations with many different powers working consecutively later on. The Boy's limited platforming chops and the Blob's occasionally obstinate nature means each puzzle tends to be a slow, deliberate process but ultimately a rewarding one. It's not some lightning-paced platformer like Rayman: Origins; instead it wisely takes it time to let its charming graphics and simple story get its hooks into you.
Fighter Game Shapeshifter
There's a few instances of shapeshifter characters in Fighter games especially, their ostensible advantage being that they can assume the movelists of other characters and become unpredictable for opponents to deal with. While Shang Tsung is perhaps the most famous example of this, you'd be hard pressed to find an established fighter series that doesn't have some sort of character (usually a boss) that is able to copy the attacks of the other characters in the roster. Of course, not many of them will actually transform their physical appearance into the other characters, but a few still do.
A chameleon character is someone who can blend into the background and assume any role in order to help them achieve an objective (or optionally it's a chameleon. But I don't want to waste a paragraph talking about Chameleon Twist so let's keep moving). Agent 47 is probably the most notable character that does this, as a major focus of the Hitman games is to infiltrate the locations of your target to take them down face-to-face. It's a big part of why those games (and that character) have endeared themselves to so many sneaky players, moreso than the usual dry sniper-fests that such assassination games can risk falling into. It's great and all to be Duke Togo, but sometimes being a world-class assassin means more than sitting in a belltower for hours waiting for the poor sucker with a price on his head to wander by. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the Spy of Team Fortress 2 fame as well: He's probably right behind you. Probably. Also I realise there's a game called Kid Chameleon. Moving on. From the kids with shades.
This is an odd Final Fantasy staple. In a fashion similar to that of the shapeshifting fighter game characters, a Mime's purpose is to simply ape whatever happens in a battle; repeating the special attacks of their allies and occasionally reflecting enemy's attacks back at them. While Gogo is the famous example, there have been Mimes in Final Fantasy V and Tactics as a possible Job option and FFV's Bartz employs Mime-like tactics in his apperances in the Dissidia games, presumably to set himself apart from all the other effete, stalwart, earnest youths that take starring roles. Like everything else here, they really have no personality or presence save what the surrounding characters project onto them. It's an interesting role to adopt and one ripe for exploitation in the hands of an experienced player.
Those examples that defy further grouping, these are just a few more games that I can recall that have a truly versatile protagonist.
- Graffiti Kingdom & Drawn to Life. A couple of instances where the player is allowed to draw and mold their own playable character and then set them loose. For story purposes, their appearances are completely immaterial: It's what you choose to make of them that defines what they're capable of. If that means crudely-drawn dongs sticking out every which way, then so be it.
- Omikron: The Nomad Soul & Geist. The shapes being shifted into in the case of these two games are actual other human characters; usually innocent bystanders with no dogs in whatever conflict you're fighting. The protagonists are formless in the sense of being non-corporeal entities that are able to possess others and ride them around like little people puppets. While this posits all sorts of fun questions about the morality of jumping into a dude and putting them in harm's way, it's worth considering that it's almost always a kill or be killed situation. Or a kill or be killed again situation? Ghosts, man: So complicated. Is a little transparency too much to ask of them?
- E.V.O. Search for Eden & Spore. Just two examples in which you're expected to create life from nothing. In the evolve-'em-up EVO, you're given a blank slate of a dumb fish monster thing and need to keep evolving it with additional characteristics to help it survive its surroundings. Likewise with Spore, you direct your chosen creature's path through its many biological stages until you reach something approaching intelligent life. Once again, it's a case where a player might create a sentient bag of dicks for some ill-advised tomfoolery and in spite of themselves finding that they deeply care about the plight of their Bagdickians once the other mean races start teasing them in the metaphorical playground that is Spore's take on a global ecosystem.
Talking of a bunch of very basic shapes and incredibly puerile nonsense, here's some comics why not:
A Boy and His Blob
SUPER SPECIAL BONUS COMIC!
Time for my monthly commission comic. I whipped this up after omghisam (my magnanimous Gold Membership sponsor, lest you all forget) expressed an interest in Pokémon Conquest, specifically wondering how other wars might also be fought entirely with Pokémon. Rather than take the low road with some poorly conceived joke about a "Nukeachu", I made the below collage instead. It's historically insightful and completely stupid!