The Challenges Of Letting You Be A Fat Video Game Hero

The Challenges Of Letting You Be A Fat Video Game Hero

Zany open-world action game Sunset Overdrive — as its creators told me during a recent San Francisco preview event — is all about letting players be whoever they want. I made a very nice bearded lady with tiny mouths for eyes. I noticed something though: you can pick your body type, but you can’t pick a heavy one. I was curious to know why, and Insomniac was refreshingly happy to talk about it.

“Be anyone” is hardly a new idea in games. It’s a topic that comes up frequently these days, both in terms of possibilities and limits. There’s all sorts of reasons why. Technical, narrative, artistic vision, didn’t think the audience would care, etc. But with so much of that going on, you’ll occasionally find a development studio trying hard to let you play as whoever you’d like to be.

Insomniac is hoping to inject just such a mentality into its cola-fuelled, Tony-Hawk-inspired action game Sunset Overdrive. Earlier this year they even poked fun at Ubisoft for their infamous lack of woman assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity (incidentally, Ubi just announced a new AC spin-off starring a woman assassin; hurrah!), posting a picture of a very… familiarly dressed figure in Sunset Overdrive.

So why draw the line at trim, fit body types — specifically at two per sex, one short/slim and fit, the other tall/muscular and fit? You can change pretty much anything else in the most outlandish ways imaginable — skin tones, wacky costumes, enough bouncily crisp hairstyles to make Kirk flip his lid — but not bodies. Why not follow in the footsteps of, say, The Sims or Saints Row IV, games that allow for nearly anything you can imagine, including characters who aren’t chiselled Greek-statue-style beacons of human form, function and rockin’ abs?

“We talked about Saints Row and games like that,” game director Drew Murray said to me during an interview. “A lot of Bethesda games have weight sliders too. We wanted something more tailored. We wanted a little more control over the style and types of characters players can create while still providing an incredible number of options. We wanted to put our time into wild outfits instead of technology to bloat up people or bloat them down.”

“Also one of the things Insomniac has always done really well is tight, responsive animations. I think that fits a lot better if you have specific body types that you’re animating to.”

How much harder is it to animate a character with more weight on them, though? I mean, Saints Row IV is a pretty acrobatic game, and it all worked out well enough. Murray, though, said it comes down to tiny intricacies, of which Sunset Overdrive — with all its grinding, leaping, and basically never touching the ground — has many.

“It takes a substantial amount of time [to animate more body types] — especially in a high action game like ours,” he explained. “In an RPG where you’re just swinging a sword over and over or something, it’s not as much work. But we have all these traversal moves. The hundreds of animations that go into just flipping up and down while grinding depending on what gun you’re holding and trying to make the clothes all work on the bodies, the possibility of things clipping through other things.”

Insomniac head Ted Price then got to what is, for better or worse, the heart of the matter. “It’s almost like we had so much complexity everywhere else that this had to be one of the simpler constraints for us,” he said. “You have so much other complexity in all the things you can wear, the hair, the animations. We had to pick our battles, and that was kind of where we chose to draw the line.”

“Ultimately I think that’s what it comes down to,” added Murray. “We don’t have many body types, but we do have men and women, stuff like putting beards on anybody, every skin shade under the sun, the ability to dress the way you’d want if this apocalypse were to actually happen. Would I love to have 16 body types? Sure. But there’s a point where you just have to make a choice, and we’re doing so many things in this game.”

The beard thing, actually, is very indicative of what Insomniac is trying to achieve with its gallery of massive-haired, every-conceivable-surface grinding hooligans (question: when did I become old). Once upon a time beards were the sole male-only option in the game, and then members of the Sunset Overdrive team stepped back and asked themselves a simple question: why?

“At one point it was everything except beards, and then we were like, ‘What do you mean? Why aren’t beards gender neutral?’ At that point we could either have 24 beards for guys-only or, like, 12 for everybody. We went with 12 for everybody,” said Murray.

Insomniac, then, was honest about their limits. They decided to prioritise certain things over others, even if that comes at the cost of the ability to play as a heavier character. That part is a shame, but Murray, Price, and co still hope Sunset Overdrive‘s customisation options — which allow for some seriously wild, over-the-top stuff — encourage people to be creative, even try out new identities.

“A lot of this is creating a fantasy character,” said Murray. “I don’t imagine many people go around wearing drum major hats or some other ridiculous thing. But we wanted to have more outlandish things in there to encourage people to experiment.”

“We tried to really include as many head types and ethnicities as we could,” said Price. “There’s a lot to play with there. And so what we’ve seen recently is that people will play types of characters they have never tried in other games. I do that, even. I make characters way different than myself.”


  • So why when ubisoft cites “too complex” to animate a female character does everyone cry foul, but insomniac claims the same thing for fat characters and its all like, oh hey that’s cool, they admit their limitations!

  • Ted Price seems like an awesome CEO. He always seems to be involved (the designers might not like that so much, I guess)

  • I hated playing as the fatties in Eternal Darkness. They got puffed out so quickly when running!

  • It’s good that Insomniac isn’t trying to whitewash over it and pretend it’s not an issue for some people. I’m considering buy an Xbox One for this game.

    • It’s the writer. Some write to inform and some write aggressively for clicks. Obviously the latter is more popular here.

    • Sex and body mass lie in completely different realms of ‘discrimination’ though….
      No one has any control over their [biological] sex.
      The fitness of an individual is, the overwhelming majority of times, in the persons control.

      I don’t think anyone overweight feels like they can’t relate to someone because they don’t share the same waistline or cardio abilities….

      And, while it is the same excuse, in this case it actually holds up. Animating a female isn’t terribly different from animating a male at all. Apart from breasts the rest of the body [from an animation perspective] behaves the same when in action.

      • No, it’s still a pretty clear-cut double-standard in reporting and outcry. They’re getting a free pass because it’s quirky and the chicks can have beards and it just looks freakin’ cool to play. I’m perfectly fine with a studio saying that certain features have been weighted (no pun intended) differently and some didn’t make the cut because of it, but the hypocrisy in the reaction shits me, and it IS hypocrisy.

        I really don’t get why Ubisoft wasn’t cut more slack and taken at face value. We have a AAA company which is leading the charge on the inclusivity front, with not just major characters but actual protagonists in their recent games taking centre stage. I mean for god’s sake, Altair was an arab, Connor was native American, Aveline was French-African and a woman, Adewale was Haitian, the protagonist of the new Far Cry game is going to be frickin’ Nepalese. Who the hell else is doing this shit? By which I mean running a multi-million-copy-selling blockbuster franchise of majority non-white leads, and expanding this into their other franchises? And yet somehow for all this barrier-busting, Ubisoft gets held up as the poster child for dudebro misogyny? It’s fucking perverse.

        When these guys have proven, repeatedly, that they’re all in favour of inclusivity but say that they can’t manage a multiplayer cosmetic addition due to its costs in time, when they’re running a famously-tight annual schedule, somehow a bunch of fucking arm-chair experts and animators utterly ignorant of the impact that their one piece of input has on multiple different teams of a project and the interplay of delays between them are able to piece together some absurd logic that construes that Ubisoft is somehow skipping a feature out of malice and/or fear? No-one’s able to buy in to the fact that their word is actually the truth, and that they had too tight a deadline to manage it for this title?

        It beggars belief the complete lack of perspective, and the utter inability to extrapolate from ANY of their behaviours, purely projecting the desired ‘ennemi du jour’ status onto them because they’re handy and they’re big, which must automatically mean bad. It utterly ignores the fact that if Ubi were actually terrified of alienating the straight-white-male demographic with characters ‘they can’t relate to’, then half the fucking AC games never would’ve been made. So THAT’s not the reason, but you couldn’t pry the whiners off that argument with a crowbar.

        So yes. It is the height of hypocrisy for the Internet to say that Sunset Overdrive’s acceptable excuse against inclusivity is that they didn’t have time to include that level of complexity (on their multi-year, already-delayed game), whereas Ubisoft on their annual schedule couldn’t fit it in because they’re sexist. Disappointing? Yes. Not good enough? Debatable. Maybe they shouldn’t be on an annual schedule. But the fucking hyper-reactionary storm? Inexcusable.

        • The only reason to be legitimately disappointed in ubisoft over that whole thing is over how long it took them to come out and say “It’s the same thing as in watch_dogs, everyone’s playing the lead character in their own game and you’re just seeing secondary characters in yours so we just reused the same animation sets. Making unique animations just for that would have been insanely expensive“. If they’d said that off the bat then most people would have said it was a bit of a shame but fair enough.

      • Not even close man. Anatomy and skeletal structure between men and women is enough to cause a completely different look in animation. Sure in a simply animated, cartoon, or cheap movie/game you can get away with genderless animation; but with more detail it starts to get way harder like with the uncanny valley.

        There’s a reason why when animators choose to get actors in for motion capture, that they choose the appropriate gender and body size.

      • The fitness of an individual is, the overwhelming majority of times, in the persons control. It’s still fitness vs perception though and perception will win every fucking time. I’m an ideal example of that, I’d wager I’m far fitter than the average person, my muscle mass weights as much as the average person, yesterday I did a 450kg set on the leg press at the gym and yet anyone looking at me would see me, see fat and automatically assume unfit

  • As a hefty gentleman myself, I don’t really regard the option to recreate myself a priority. or even an issue.

    That said, I did amuse myself greatly sneaking around as a portly scoundrel in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

  • If only there was a shooting game that predominantly featured a portly character. Some might even identify him as the character which defines that game even if he had to share the spotlight with approximately 8 other characters.

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