Design Literalism vs Lateralism

My recent rants about some of the character design in Overwatch has gotten me to think about some new… design terminology. I kept using the word ‘lateral’ in reference to character design and people didn’t get what that means. So I want to try and explain this because it’s helped me think about designing certain things a little different. So first, lets talk about DESIGN LITERALISM.

mccree-gameplayThis is McCree. I hate McCree. I have issues with other characters, but I am EMBARRASSED by McCree. I’ve spent a lot of words picking on Overwatch on Twitter and Tumblr, but since I actively want to like most of those characters I criticize, I’m going to ease up and focus on McCree. Because I won’t feel bad in the least.

I’m still not sure anyone actually did any actual designing with McCree. You say “Space Cowboy” and this guy is basically what most people would have pop into their head. You’re either going to have a Cyber Clint Eastwood/Stranger or a Cyber John Wayne. Maybe if you’re a special soul you’d imagine that totally sweet Kung Fu Cowboy on Mars from that Muse video. McCree is about a literal a design as you can have. You have two descriptors and you receive exactly what it says on the tin. Besides the stupid ‘BAMF’ on his belt, there is not a single unexpected, clever or interesting design element to this character. I did a google image search for ‘Space Cowboy’ and got close to the same design. Different style, obviously, but still.dh0yoyn1367cfg7rwv6b

The sad thing is, this design with it’s dorky but interesting astronaut head bubble and the others I saw were often at least a little bit more interesting. Not necessarily as good or well executed (McCree, if nothing else, is refined, polished genericness) but having thought into what western tropes could be converted sensibly into science fiction themes… and not just… a cowboy with some cybery bits.

Literalism isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s appropriate. Sometimes you’re making an NPC! Sometimes you’re aiming for realism. Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist isn’t particularly out there in his design, but like costuming for a movie, there is almost so much you can do. A lot of the armors in Dark and Demon’s Souls are very literal to historic armor, often to the point of becoming their own awkward aesthetic. But in the case of someone like McCree where you’re still making up elements because you are, in theory, concocting something new in a new setting, there is little excuse for not having a bit of lateralism. But what IS lateralism?

Lateralism is divergence from the expected interpretation. When you lay out the basic description of a character like say “Cyber Cowboy”, how different is it from the tropey image that conjures. It’s not about being complicated. It’s not about necessarily adding detail. It’s about interpretation. Like you can’t go A “CYBER COWBOY… BUT HE’S A NINJA”, because you’re just adding ninja to the description.


Bayonetta is like the queen of design lateralism. “Sexy witch” …. “Sexy moon witch”? … “Sexy Gun witch”? “Sexy ELEGENT gun witch”?  Does any one sentence properly describe or capture the essence of Bayonetta’s design? Bayonetta has very little to do with a witch, but none the less is very witchy. The beehive hair as a cover for the a pointy cap… the arcane baubles covering her body, the subtle gold trim, the look of her guns… She’s just WITCHY… While not at all being what you’d imagine when someone said ‘sexy witch’. Well, besides the fact you KNOW Bayonetta now and of COURSE think of her when someone says ‘sexy witch’ because you have good taste. Bayonetta is an amazingly awesome design that does a lot of work. She’s also absolutely layered with detail, down to embossed runes down the seam lines of her hair-leather outfit. Does lateral have to be crazy and complex?


Lets talk about Sam from Metal Gear Rising. I love Sam because his design is very simple, let very complicated. How would you describe Sam…? Future South American Samurai? Sam comes off as Samurai-y but it’s subtle. The facial hair and top knottish pony tail. The beefed up legs of his suit which have that ‘tucked hakama’ feel without actually being that. And of course a katana. And then the details like the severed arm that isn’t obvious and IS THAT A GUN SHEATH? And that’s a detail that isn’t just ‘lets slap future stuff on old stuff’ it’s a design element that plays into how he moves and operates and uses quickdraws. Sam is super simple but every part of his design involved someone stopping for a second and considering “How should this look”. Not taking the obvious road isn’t about being difficult or being different for the sake of being different, it’s because there is almost always a BETTER answer than what is immediately obvious. You’re not stepping laterally to disguise your design, you’re stepping laterally to escape your own assumptions about how something should be.


Johnny is a character I think about a lot. Because Johnny is great. But then I look at him and it’s like “isn’t this some bottom of the barrel character design? Why is it okay?” But when you think about what Johnny is, he’s actually… not quite any of that. A cool sky pirate captain? To quote a friend “he doesn’t even have goggles”. What makes Johnny interesting is he’s TROPEY and SIMPLE but he’s not literal. The hat invokes some western vibes which can invoke some outlaw vibes. Having a katana that’s in a shirasaya housing kinda has a sense of austerity.  It can also be bandity (I could afford a blade not not a real housing). The duster is also very western but the pants and boots and glaces are more fitted, modern and stylish. Johnny is a THOUGHT OUT BAG OF TROPES. You can be SUPER DUPER SIMPLE AND TROPEY AND CHEESE BALL and STILL have levels of sophistication and lateralism in your design.


Megaten games are LITTERED with lateral design. Depicting the Buddhist character of Mara, a representation of self destructive lust and desire as a dick on a chariot?  It’s strange and very direct in it’s symbolism.


Caesar is one of my favorite designs for a persona. Like “oh it’s just a roman soldier with a globe” but the man inside, who is basically controlling an anthropomorphized Rome is super interesting. It’s a detail that rewards attention. You can grasp the design at a glance but really looking at those elements really helps. You are REWARDED for putting your eyes Megaten designs, because they are so well thought out. And again, it’s not a COMPLICATED design.


Dark Soul’s basilisks are another great example. From likes to use very literal designs next to very lateral ones.  You can wear “basically real historic armor” vs what is basically a straight forward minotaur demon but then you get shit like this. No interpretation of a basilisk looks anything like this, outside of the vague lizardiness.  The eyes are alarming, the frog like…. sac thing is perfect for communicating that this thing blows a projectile. You can look close at it and see that it as actual real, small eyes and it’s beak looking thing is its actual head. It’s weird and alarming looking while being dorky. The LITERAL thing to do for most monster designs is to make them look as scary as possible, but From is good at realizing that “weird” is unnerving.

2012-09-02_00040Locations and other elements of design can also be lateral. A lot of European board games for example are SUPER lateral (have a theme for a game and then have rules that I GUESS KINDA SORTA ARE LIKE THAT THEME). But Ash Lake is a good example of a location like that. Not an obvious sight for ‘bottom of the world’. The opposite of the very literal ‘abyss’ that is also in the game. I could probably think of a better example, but right now DS is on my mind, so it’s the first place my mind went.

Now before I close up, I want to be clear on a few things…

First: It’s not necessarily important to be lateral or to avoid being literal. Often using these elements in contrast is important! Having a totally typical person in historic full plate with a totally modern SMG is not very lateral for example but the clean juxtaposition of something like that  can be effective (see: Shadow Tower Abyss). But even when you are being literal you should still arrive there in the same way that leads to good lateral design — consider all the elements and why you designed them the way you did. A lot of the BEP characters are not really lateral but they’re elements are considered (little things like ‘try to invoke a football player silhouette’ ‘mix materials intentionally anachronistically’ blahblahblah). And being the game has been in the works for so long, I kinda wish I did some things differently anyways (I might still try and get a sorta redesign of Naomi’s armor since the small resolution of the sprites makes that a think I can get away with). And don’t get me started on ‘lateral color choices’ for limited palette games!

Second: Context matters. Back when no one had made any fighting games, just having KARATE MAN and SUMO MAN was fine. Then SNK tried to do the same thing and everyone was like “bro that’s lame”, leading them to go crazy with their designs to compensate. Bayonetta is very lateral but a lot of witchy stuff has drawn from her design pool, diluting the lateralness of certain elements. If you say “witchy guns” I’m gonna think Bayonetta’s gones at this point, just like if you say ‘energy sword’ I’m going to think of a light saber. ‘Lateral’ changes with the times.

Third: If you like a character, you a design, it doesn’t matter of they’re literal or lateral or whatever. but it’s a.. .potentially interesting way to think about things