Let’s face it: the renaissance of the full beard has been a thing for a while now. It came from fashion and now it has arrived in our videogames. It’s nothing to scoff at, either. The power of the beard has worked to change a 20-year history of smooth-faced Street Fighter characters: Ryu now has as much facial hair as Zangief. The same thing happened to Geralt in The Witcher 3 last year, and now the bald protagonist of God of War too: Kratos’s minimalist goatee has grown to a full beard for his next game, putting him in a list that I, as a former The Sims (2001) addict, usually call “The Bob Newbie Hall of Siblings.”
Joking aside, the bald-head-and-beard combo is something that has become increasingly popular in games. Beyond the default The Sims character, who lasted until The Sims 2 (2004), the look was given a gruff makeover when Max Payne adopted it for his third videogame sequel. In Max Payne 3 (2012), the protagonist is older and tougher, balder and beardier. Back in 2001, when Max touted a smirking, shaved face ripped straight from his writer Sam Lake, his story was already dark enough. But, two games later, the aging Mr. Payne’s heavy addiction to painkillers and alcohol seemed to make a slouchy beard inevitable. The truth is that, during a mission in Brazil, he changes his appearance by shaving his hair and keeping a full beard as disguise. Sure, a disguise, but we all know that this is code for “I’m hard, don’t fuck with me.”
This seems to be part of a tradition at Rockstar Games—to make bad-ass looking men give ’em a beard and they’ll look older and tougher. Beyond Payne’s makeover, Red Dead Redemption’s (2010) John Marston has a beard interrupted by scar tissue, molding his stubble into a menacing claw shape. Throughout the Grand Theft Auto series, beards became increasingly customizable, just as many other options such as hair and clothes did, but in GTA V (2013) the purpose of the beard is made abundantly clear. The game’s three protagonists, Michael de Santa, Franklin Clinton, and Trevor Phillips, all have customizable facial hair. However, only the latter two have full beard options . The fact that Michael doesn’t is significant, being that he’s the one trying to uphold a clean identity and present himself as a respectable, wealthy man. The other two give less of a shit, and Trevor especially is much wilder, so it makes sense that you can revive the look of Max Payne 3 by making him bald and bearded.
On the other hand, the beard is also a fundamental part of the look of the “average” male videogame protagonists. Hannah Shaw-Williams points to 36 examples of these types of average-looking characters, including some I’ve mentioned, to prove it. She argues that “occasionally some brave soul will attempt to jazz things up by giving Brown-Haired White Guy dark auburn hair, or possibly something as outlandish as a pair of spectacles and a goatee, or even slick shades built directly into his face,” but these possibilities are still just “slight deviations as simply the Brown-Haired White Guy trying to wear a pair of Groucho Marx glasses to disguise himself for the carbon copy he really is.”
In order to make characters closer to what players want to look like or how they actually fashion themselves, games may adapt things that are currently in vogue. An article on The Telegraph lays out a couple reasons why beards might be trending again: it could be both a nostalgic wave and a cultural statement of the 21st century. According to the cultural commentator Ekow Eshun, the modern sprouting of beards date back to the “pre-beard Nineties dotcom boom, the speed and slickness of it at odds with slacker-style, grungey, facial bushiness,” but also as a development of New Labor, “from whom ‘beards were everything they abhorred. Beards were Clause IV and Militant. Donkey jackets and picket lines. Marx and Engels.”
Eshun also writes that, after 9/11 and the war on terror, men started to become more interested in “a kind of pastoral idyll look,” no matter if they were from cosmopolitan places like Brooklyn. Together with artisanal food, crafts, and folk music, beards were once again a big interest, but also part of “a reaction to women’s growing economic power, and a way of reasserting one’s masculinity.” According to the story The End of Men (2010), published in The Atlantic magazine, “a post-industrial economy based on innovation, emotional intelligence and strong networking skills means women have a decisive advantage over men in the coming century.” The return of the beard could be a symbolic if subconscious reaction to that.
And so it is that when any media delves into the realm of the future dystopia, we see an interesting array of bizarre beards. Emphasis on the word “bizarre” there—you’ve no doubt already laughed at Seneca Crane’s swirly beard in the Hunger Games films. There’s a whole Facebook fan page for that thing with nearly 25k people hungry for weird beard updates. Beards like this seem to reinforce each patriarch’s authoritative position in their respective dystopian society while also outlining the eccentricity (or sometimes complete madness) that got them there. Also see: Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, Gendo Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Mentor in Space: 1999.
Of course, videogames follow suit. First it came for Jak in Jak II (2003), the sequel that saw him grow from an innocent boy to an angry man, and with it an almost adorable bit of green chin fluff. Then it came for Snake in the Metal Gear Solid series, as well as Adam Jensen in Deus Ex, his beard thicker with each game in the series, distinctive for the slices on the right side of his face. Of course, facial hair was always a big part of the masculine throwdowns of Shadowrun, Gears of War, Sonic The Hedgehog (yes, Dr. Robotnik), and Half-Life too. Videogame beards haven’t yet reached the peak oddball contours of Seneca Crane but they serve the same function. But given how more and more male characters are favoring life without the razor, constantly trying to up their manliness with fancier beard strokes, it may only be a matter of time before facial hair fashion in games goes that way. A little bit of beard diversity wouldn’t hurt—anything to even momentarily push aside the standard-looking Brown-Haired White Guy, please.