PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Games

Kirby, Devourer of Worlds

One of the best game avatars ever created is Kirby.

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.