Models of Play
by Em Marko

As a kid, I felt so much pressure to play the right way. Imagination was a thing that could be done wrong. As an adult, with infinite art to take in, it's easier to see each toy or each character as a culmination of attention and care. Figures, digital or physical, manifest play and creativity. Now, I see an invitation to dream. Action figures stressed me out as a child. I'd feel a creeping guilt tearing open their packaging, transforming passive surrogates into tangible objects of play.

In the tabletop RPG Dungeon World, there's a guiding principle that the participants become “fans of the characters.” You cheer for them, invest in them. But they remain abstract, awaiting manifestation. Despite armies of artists investing in creating video game characters, those creations often exist to populate worlds, cogs servicing plot, the artists’ care buried in the final product, playable or not.

That’s why model viewers interest me. They offer an opportunity to examine the final character without or against interpretation. There's no toy company reducing complexity to cast-clean molds. They feel one-to-one with objects of the world.

Model viewers have a bad reputation, just an “extra” for players to unlock, tucked in an options menu between Sound Test and Credits. There are games in their own right, however, that offer something additive and allow these figures to become vehicles for the imagination.


Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is a game notable for its unique style, a world and characters depicted as clay sculptures down to thumbprints and join smears being rendered into the characters. Kirby’s model viewer puts you inside the fictional studio where these models were sculpted, giving you space to examine these delicate and colorful pieces of craft art. Along with each figure a folksy bit of lore delivered by the implied sculptor who loved creating these figures of the inhabitants of Planet Popstar.

Musashi Sealed.jpg

Brave Fencer Musashi is a 1998 PlayStation game by Squaresoft, a slapstick action RPG that puts historical samurai Miyamoto Musashi into a food-pun fantasy kingdom. Within the game's central village is a toymaker, creating action figures of the game’s characters and enemies. Like real action figures, they’re digitally wrapped in blister packaging. Players can open the packaging and 'play' with the looping animations of each figure.

These figures and these viewers are beautiful for their deliberate idiosyncrasies. They remind us these characters are appealing because real people made them, dreamed about them, and labored to make them real for the worlds they inhabit. In these model viewers, I see art as well as an invitation to play. I see toys, with all the imagination and possibility I worried over in my youth. I see a chance to dream again, and not worry whether I'm doing it correctly, so long as I'm doing it at all.  ◒


Em Marko is a non-binary podcaster and media critic living a quietly furious life in the American Midwest. They are the co-founder and host of Abnormal Mapping, and can be found trying to get people to like them on twitter @em_being.