Creating Your Own Character Or Playing An Established Hero?
Games like The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Dragon Age and Mass Effect have popularized character creation. From the gender to the face, the ethnicity, not to mention the hair and features, the customization menu has become very deep and complex, akin to The Sims.
Make your own hero, tailored to your taste. Transpose yourself in your adventure. What’s not to like? Let’s be honest. Who did not spend dozens of minutes finalizing their virtual alter ego, from the perfect hair to the flawless features? RPGs offer such a wide variety of options, including class and race. They give you immense freedom to make the perfect hero, inventing their own backstories, motivations and quirks. Some people see themselves in their character, others see a loved one or someone they aspire to be. There is a sense of thrill and liberty in exploring a world in the skin of who you want to be and seeing how characters react to you.
However, with more games catching on to the concept, it may feel like some forgot the perks of playing as pre-established characters.
Customization as a Story Mechanic
Sometimes, the creation of your own character is intricate to the story or the game mechanic. Let’s take the Fable series for instance. This game’s whole design is centered on player choice, actions and consequences. Be good and you will turn blond, surrounded by a butterfly aureole. Be evil and horns will grow on your balding scalp, your skin will whiten and eyes will burn red. The point of the game is to be anyone you like and observe the repercussion of your gameplay. To achieve this goal, the starting character must be a blank slate, a white canvas to paint as you wish.
Online games such as World of Warcraft, Divinity Original Sin and The Elder Scrolls Online also favour character creation because of the sheer amount of players involved. Each one is the dweller of a gigantic and organic world, similar to real life. The community is the real protagonist of the game; we are a drop in an ocean.
Who are you?
NPCs will refer to you as “Chosen One” or “Inquisitor” or “Recruit”. Their interactions with you will sound more generic, as to not assume or imply anything about the character you chose to make.
“You are no one and anyone at once.”
The storyline, social interactions and choices can suffer from this lack of personalization. What if you want to make a female Argonian Dovahkiin? People react to you roughly in the same way as they would a white male Imperial. Yet, we know that Skyrim is plagued with rampant racism. It would have been interesting to receive a peculiar treatment. Although some may argue that the beauty of video games is the absence of discrimination and prejudice. Women and men, races and social classes are treated equally. Idealism over realism? A topic for another day…
More recently, Far Cry 5 introduced character creation (Read more about Far Cry 5 here on IMGMR). Not only can you choose the gender of your nameless protagonist (referred to as Deputy, Rook or Rookie) but you can customize their face, hair and clothes. I must admit it felt like a last minute design choice to satisfy diversity quotas more than an engaging mechanic. Not once does your gender or appearance affect any significant in-game choice. There is not even a third-person camera to look at yourself from time to time; your physical appearance is rather useless. Protagonists Jason Brody and Ajay Ghale from the previous installments had stories. Fine, they were perhaps not the most fleshed out or relatable, but they had a voice and a purpose. Changing the formula to a silent protagonist could have been an interesting twist but where are the choices, the consequences and the reactions to these cosmetic alterations? The final product does not really justify it all in the end, which is unfortunate. Maybe in Far Cry 6?
When You Play As Someone
On the other hand, games like Final Fantasy, The Witcher, Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto introduced pre-written characters with their own backstories, personality and character arch. You can experience a journey in their shoes but at the end of the day, they are their own person. After playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for over a hundred hours, I realized how interesting having a character-centric story was. We know Geralt. We borrow him to experience his life and adventures and are privy to his thoughts and emotions (I know he’s a Witcher and shouldn’t have any but he’s not fooling anyone, is he?). I loved to watch him interact with old friends and strangers, presenting himself as Geralt of Rivia, being recognised by key people from his past and having a personal impact in the entire kingdom he inhabits.
For instance, the emotion felt when Geralt finds his daughter Ciri versus the one where the Sole Survivor finds his/her son Shaun in Fallout 4 is incomparable. Geralt has gone through hell and back to find his cherished daughter. He has travelled the world for her, thinking countless times she may be dead but refusing to believe so. In contrast, we do not know the Sole Survivor. Or rather, yes we do: they are us. It is our own son we do not know. We saw him for a mere instant in the prologue of the game and then, he was a ghost for the near entirety of the game. To an extent, I felt more strongly for my spouse.
Same goes for GTA V. The three main characters were completely crazy and over the top in their own way. But they were colorful and full of life. They had unique family bonds and strong friendships that were relatable because of how human and personal they felt. They had flaws and weaknesses. They made us think of someone we knew or could’ve met on the street. There is something very special in being able to relate to a game. It gives us purpose and an incentive to keep playing. Otherwise, we feel disconnected and it is much harder for us to engage positively with the experience.
Bottom line, customization is great. It allows us to experience an adventure as anyone we wish. But unfortunately, being anyone can have its downsides. The plot must often take the backseat because our current video game engine technology cannot keep track of and address every single customization choice we made. I would love to see a game branch out in such complex ways in the future. And it is a very exciting thing because we are getting there.