As a wrinkly old boomer with one foot in the grave at the wondrous age of twenty, I can honestly say that I’m starting to really feel behind now. Maybe life has just caught up with me, but it was somewhere around the 400th doll in Girl’s Frontline, or maybe the 18th Touhou game (probably around the 300th character or so), or maybe even the 150th champion in League of Legends when I just started feeling so disconnected from it all. Not that I hate any of these franchises, to be perfectly clear. But the gradually creeping addition of characters to random spots in these universes without serving much of a real purpose has really got me disillusioned with it all. I guess I’ll go through each of these things – gacha games, competitive games, and long-running franchises – and give some of my commentary from the heart for each of them.
Yes, gacha games come first. They are probably the most relevant sphere in which the question of character saturation is first discussed. For those that have their own universes, the pressure is always there to expand the roster, since there would be nothing new to roll for and nothing to look forward to if there wasn’t this neverending expansion. And for those that build off an established anime universe or intentionally limit their characters, well, this problem isn’t so much of a big deal but there really aren’t that many costumes you can draw on one fictional person before it starts getting a bit ridiculous.
The problem is that most gacha games must have a main story. How else do the companies hook an audience? But there’s also the delicate balance of not wanting to turn the game into a pure visual novel (as much as I love pure visual novels) – since players are there to play and get the good brain chemicals from feeling lucky. But no matter how it turns out, that amount of story – even the event stories and every last bit of world-building tidbits in the Archives – cannot convince me that every character is necessary. And who has time for that, even if it did exist? At that point, you’d be looking at hours piled on far beyond the scope of your typical series of novels, and less effective at that!
Now once you’ve fallen down that pitfall, everything is a trope now. How do we think of new designs? At this point, mostly everything has already been done. I’ve played Project Neural Cloud for a little bit after having been in Girl’s Frontline for half a decade, and their strategy was really just to make alter egos for dolls that were in the original game. Even between games now, most characters, especially the filler ones, just feel like alter egos of the same overdone trope. It helps even less that many of them have such saccharine, forgettable names (“Aki”, “Jackal”, “Jessica”, “M870”) and so on. What happened to using tropes to further the development and understanding of fictional characters and their actions? To us, many if not most characters in gacha games are nothing more than a flashy design, a collection of voice lines mostly related to combat, and a short few paragraphs of flavor text.
Of course, the point is that this stems from the commodification of characters. They’re not meant to be deep, of course. But if this is what people are spending so much of their time on, whether they are aware of it or not, their perception of what a character should be can change. We start thinking like Sturgeon when he famously claimed that “90% of everything is garbage”. Are characters “garbage before proven innocent”?
If we want to get even more philosophical about media: What about real people, then? Because there are unimaginably more unique human beings than there are gacha game characters on this earth. Are they all tropes, and simply unimportant until they become part of the main or event story? If you lead a team of real humans, are they just a collection of different stats, costumes, and rarities?
Alright, with those questions planted in your mind, let’s move on to competitive games. The prime example I used, and the game which I have the most experience with, is League of Legends. Yes, I know, I have never touched grass and have a BMI of 50, thank you for asking. If you don’t know, League is a 5v5 team game, in which all games happen on the same map every time. Why do people keep bothering to play so much if it’s just one map and playstyle? The variation is, of course, in the characters.
When League was in its early years and Riot Games was just starting to get a foothold on their identity as the architects building an entire world outside of Summoner’s Rift, they manufactured champions faster than you can say “Henry Ford”. At the time, the lore was simple and limited – there’s a fantasy world, and you (the Summoners) summon these champions to fight for them on the Rift to solve disputes. Or something like that. The characters were generally not meant to be that intriguing.
But as the game grew, and the team behind the design of new champions grew, Riot started to build a real world out of it. We now have Runeterra and its various regions that are loosely based on real life, but with a lot more fantasy and magic and random stuff. The main gripe with League’s universe that I have is, in a way, opposite of the problem with gacha games – the characters are often taken too seriously. Now, this doesn’t apply to every character, some feel irrelevant to the lore too, like Shaco or Samira, and the same criticisms as for gacha games apply to them. But the thing is that when characters are fleshed out by Riot games, all too often the way to do that is to give the characters a huge amount of power. How else would they have such an influence on the world?
While character development and backstory has been executed well at times (i.e. Arcane, which I haven’t even watched, actually), the world as a whole is frankly too compartmentalized into little isolated places where a small group of characters interact with each other pretty much exclusively, even across story arcs. This is doubly worse when the world of Runeterra has become so saturated with extremely powerful or influential beings to the point where you wonder how the world still logically exists and hasn’t just been blown to pieces already.
Implied within that is that there is no main story. There is no single poster child for League anymore – it is just a big mumbo jumbo where time-travellers spar with chemically engineered super-animals who contend with demon generals who fight with ascended magical beings who brawl with world-enders, world-eaters, and world-creators. When there’s too much to care about, why bother caring?
This idea is in no way limited to League, by the way. Of course, other similar games like DotA, pretty much every MMORPG out there, or even games like Overwatch have these issues. It’s also not even just limited to the story – gameplay wise, it’s getting increasingly difficult for new players to get into any of these games, as well as increasingly exhausting for current players to keep their knowledge updated enough to keep playing where they are at. If you don’t keep up, well, you lose. Might as well go have fun playing something else.
For long-running franchises like Touhou, I generally have more of a soft spot. After all, it’s got so much fanmade media about every single character that the limitations of the lore in the official games and works are completely made up for by the power of fanon. Even for things without a lot of fanon, the notion that it’s run for a long time usually implies that even though there are a lot of characters, they do exist at an appreciable enough depth so that they’re not just a sprite and some paragraphs. Actually, that was a lie, most characters are still filler, lol.
Still, it tends to blur into one. With a great number of long-running series (not just games), what eventually happens is to settle into a predictable rhythm to keep the creator and the fanbase stable. It falls into the rhythm of jumping from one structured arc to the next, with a couple spin-offs if the creator is feeling spicy, and then when they retire, end it off with a big climactic boom. (Or in some cases, get worse and then fade into obscurity).
With the example of Touhou, we can’t say it’s fallen off yet but I’m feeling it all meld into one now. Of course, the games are extremely structured – every new official game is a 6-stage shmup with the same difficulty settings that are comparable between games. Similar enough soundfont for the music, same Japanese mythology, same visuals. With every new character comes two new songs, which are then promptly remixed, arranged, and covered by every doujin music group out there. I love it, but going to the amusement park the seventh time really just isn’t as magical as the first. I’m saying this as if it could be changed, but I think it’s just an unavoidable fact of life. Having a huge character cast and a universe too large for anything is just how the series is, and growing older means something like that can’t be so all-encompassing anymore. All we can do is see new people discover the wonder for themselves and smile.
In the end, a meaningful human cultural experience can’t involve being monopolized or oligopolized by a small number of media franchises. Whether motivated by greed or not, having character casts that are too massive is an overreach into the audience to get something most won’t give. (Especially true if many characters are meaningless.) Maybe I just think creators should quit when they’re ahead or start something new, because it does somewhat make me sad when the media’s expansion races ahead while my personal attachment and identity from it slowly fades away. I don’t want to look at it again in however many years and be greeted with alien faces, feeling like I really never knew this media to begin with.