Spoiler warning: this article contains spoilers for Prey and Outlast 2.
I recently finished Arkane’s Prey, and, for the most part, I really enjoyed it. Its visual style was clean, the enemies and abilities were creative, and the twists and turns of its story were just fantastic. When it comes to game of the year season, expect me to bring up Prey a whole lot.
However, it also brought to the fore a significant problem games, and other media, have had since forever: it is absolutely awful in its characterisation of fat people, and that is a problem that has wider-reaching implications than you might think.
Prey tells the story of Talos 1, a space station that researches and develops new technologies. One of these, unfortunately, causes the outbreak of an unknown alien species called the Typhon, who make up most of the baddies encountered throughout the game.
Head of Talos 1 is Alex Yu. Throughout the game, it’s laid out just how morally bankrupt, unethical, manipulative and self-serving he is. The entire outbreak was ultimately caused by an inferiority complex and need to prove himself to his parents. Funnily enough, Alex is also one of two fat people found in Prey.
The other one is Luka Golubkin. Luka was brought to Talos 1 as a “volunteer” for research, but in actuality was a Russian murderer forced to the station as an alternative to life imprisonment. During the Typhon outbreak, he constantly attempts to kill, creep out and deceive the player, and deciding his fate is one of the major secondary plot threads. He’s a nasty piece of work.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what Arkane’s character designers were intending when creating them, it’s very difficult to see the two and not think fatness was used as one of many visual signifiers for their bad guy statuses.
Alex and Luka’s designs scream “baddy”. Their bloating, mottled, discoloured skin, the poorly-fitting space suits (especially Alex when compared to skinny, muscular sibling Morgan), their impossible necks that roll unrealistically spill out in every direction like the Witch of the Waste from Howl’s Moving Castle… everything about their designs are unpleasant. They’re “wrong”. They’re “ugly”. Someone has upended the “make a bad guy” toolbox, which, unfortunately, includes fatness.
Being fat is, incorrectly, seen by most cultures as a moral failing. It’s been culturally ingrained in us through a billion various methods (most of which are trying to sell you a new diet plan or a gym subscription) that it’s okay to judge fat people. To those cultures, fatness is a sign of gluttony, laziness and sickness, regardless of any actual knowledge of the individual’s circumstances. This idea is so hammered in that making a character fat has become an easy shorthand to make them “appear evil”: if they’re fat, they must be lacking the moral fortitude to not be fat, therefore they’re evil.
Prey, as previously mentioned, is by no means the first game that abuses this cultural association between fatness and amorality. Sadly, it’s not even the first game of 2017 to do it. Outlast 2’s main enemy, Sullivan Knoth, is a diseased, fanatical cult leader that has systematically raped and murdered dozens, if not hundreds, of women and children over the decades. To add the finishing touches to his badness, he’s also, shockingly, massively overweight.
While I love him dearly, Overwatch’s Roadhog also leans significantly into this trope by being framed as a ruthless, psychopathic murderer. Games scholar, and very good friend of mine, Todd Harper wrote an excellent blog post about all Roadhog’s pitfalls.
The problem with these characterisations is that they ignore the true reasons for obesity, which run much, much deeper than “they’re bad and lazy”. Rising food costs that push people in poverty towards unhealthy, but cheap, fast foods, sedentary jobs that don’t allow workers time to even eat a decent meal, let alone exercise, poor availability of care for those with disabilities, and a whole host of other external reasons all lie behind the “obesity epidemic”, not the hideously Victorian scapegoat of “moral failings”.
Yet you never see games frame fatness with an understanding of those factors, because it’s an easy way to make a character look bad, things like poverty or disability be damned. All the blame is placed on to the person for their “failings”, meaning the cycle of people being simply awful to fat people can continue unscrutinised
At its core, ascribing morality to a physical trait like weight effects everyone. It perpetuates that impossible, unattainable goal of “the perfect body” by making every visible character who deviates from that ideal someone to be shunned, which doesn’t only effect fat people.
Underweight people, disabled people, people with mental health problems, even people who just feel slightly insecure about their body all suffer when media pops up and says “hey, that person looks different… what a fucker”. When you add all those groups up, there’s not a whole lot of people left. Characters like Yu, Knoth, Roadhog and Golubkin are, visually, the opposite of the airbrushed, photoshopped supermodels we’ve learned to be critical of, yet they ultimately all contribute to the exact same problems.
As a final, relatively insignificant point, it’s just plain old poor character design. Prey initially presents Alex as a friendly, supportive, ambitious big brother to the player, yet I knew straight away that he was a wrong ’un just by looking at him. By using these tired visual shorthand, your character is immediately laid out bare for everyone who is aware of those tropes, ruining any attempts at surprise and depth the character might have had. Alex could have been one of the most interesting characters in any game for a long time, but his appearance lets the cat out of the bag way too early to be impactful.
Fat people can be bad, but it sure as hell isn’t because they’re fat. Fat people aren’t inherently gluttonous, lazy monsters to be shunned and abused. Perpetuating that myth not removes the imperative to discuss the actual societal problems behind obesity-related health problems by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of ‘them fatties’. It also hurts way more people of all body types than you might have considered.
Also jesus, character designers, stop with the chin rolls. I’m fat and don’t have eighty chins.