One of the interesting points that Scott McCloud raises in his seminal text Understanding Comics is on the nature of abstraction and how people psychologically project onto graphic images. The simpler and less detailed the image, the more a person fills in the gaps themselves and can relate to the character. In video games, those gaps aren’t just visual, it can be something like the avatar never talking or never letting the player see their face. (L.B. Jeffries, “Applying Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’”, PopMatters, 1 Sept. 2009) Spotting features like that raise the question of what makes a good, psychologically pliant video game avatar. One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby. A fantastic balance of empowering game design and art, Kirby embodies all of the elements that make for a game avatar which can easily fit into any person’s psyche.
From a visual perspective, Kirby is a McCloud abstraction. As the original NES game explains in the opening section: to depict Kirby you just draw a circle, some nubs for arms, shoes for feet, and then add a face. You can project anything you want into that because the face could be anybody’s. It’s interesting that the original game and several others have stressed and even encouraged people to draw Kirby. It taps into other aspects of people’s imagination because they can recreate Kirby however they like outside of the game. A quick doodle of Kirby looks just as much like the little pink ball as an expert rendition, there is no skill barrier to drawing him. Contrast that to something like Mario or Link, which people still love to draw, but can potentially be disappointed when their work doesn’t look like the original. Being able to draw Kirby easily removes a barrier to the avatar so that people can feel a greater sense of authority and control over it. I don’t mean to imply that every video game avatar ought to be easy to draw, just that it’s a potent feature in Kirby’s appeal.
Kirby’s appearance usually changes based on what enemy you absorb, and although not every game relies on this idea, in my opinion games like The Crystal Shards suffer for the lack. In Kirby Super Star, when you absorb an enemy Kirby takes on their powers and changes to reflect that enemy, usually in the form of a hat or changing color. It’s engaging because of how your appearance affects the game and how you play. Having authority over my character’s appearance is important but it’s equally important that this change have some kind of meaning in the game design.
The design complements this sense of authority because Kirby is the most powerful being in Dreamland. You can fly for long bursts just by making yourself into a balloon, suck any enemy into your stomach, slide tackle, and absorb almost any creature’s abilities. The games are designed for a younger audience by being a tad easy, but they are often good about catering to older gamers by hiding lots of secrets throughout each level. The Kirby games will also usually ramp up in difficulty later on so that the last few levels tend to offer a challenge, if only because you’ve probably gotten lazy by that point. No boss is ever really much of a challenge and the main reason that I die in a Kirby game is because my stomach is full when I fall off a cliff. That degree of power means that the design is never enforcing an image of you being weak or forcing a particular behavior from the player. You can fly over the entire level and co-exist benignly with the creatures of Dreamland, or you can send every last one into the abyss of your stomach. There are a lot of different ways to play as Kirby and that creates agency in the abstraction.
The choice to make Kirby consistently pink is also interesting because this was not always the case. Some of his earlier appearances depicted him as white but this was eventually phased out. As a color, pink is noted for its calming effect on people, even being used in drunk tanks to calm prisoners (Kendra Cherry, “Color Psychology - Pink”, About.com). A post aggregating various reader responses to Cherry’s post shows how deeply people respond to the color by the huge variety of reactions from the readers. Commenter Linda says that it reminds her of her mother, Calinda says that it reminds her of rejection, Nathan says that it makes him feel powerful, Niall claims that it makes her aroused, and Vivien writes that it makes her feel young and silly. The inconsistency of the emotional responses is not really important; it’s the fact that they exist at all. By using a simple color that all human beings naturally have an emotional connection with, it allows Kirby to tap into that same connection and become more memorable because of it. Controlling what that connection is isn’t really needed, people are going to project whatever they want into Kirby, but the color pink helps that process.
Other small elements of Kirby’s abstract nature are worth noting. Kirby’s emotional outlook has varied from game to game as well. Early titles focused on being cute to the point of excess, such as Dreamland 3’s crayon art and never ending array of fuzzy animal friends. After the success of Smash Brothers a new audience took interest, and Kirby took on a much more aggressive appearance. The majority of portable Kirby games all feature a more aggressive, scowling Kirby who is waving a sword or shooting fireballs on the cover. All you have to do to make Kirby appeal to a different audience is put a scowl on his face or hand him a sword. The character otherwise doesn’t need much changed.
The release of Kirby Superstar Ultra adopts a more neutral tone by having Kirby simply smile and wave on the cover. The games also deserve credit for steering clear of what I consider to be a flaw in every Mario and Zelda game since the SNES. Kirby does not make any noise. There’s a customary jump sound or impact noise but nothing else. Ever since they landed on the N64 and beyond, Mario and Link cannot seem to shut up when I’m playing those games. There is nothing like a long chain of “HIIII-YAAAA’s” or “Yaaahooeeey’s” to completely break any projection into a character.
It wouldn’t be right to end this post without talking about my own way of engaging with Kirby. I usually only play these games when I’m in a vile mood. I think of Kirby as an unholy pink demon who the citizens of Dreamland have displeased in some trivial way. Maybe King Dede stole one of my cupcakes or Meta Knight thinks it’s a good idea to mess with my hamster friend. Whatever the case, they will pay. I will devour every last thing in Dreamland and spit out only their burning remains. They will see me consume their friends and wear their own faces into battle. When I play as Kirby, I am the Devourer of Worlds, and they shall fear my pink visage.