A brief twitter thread chat between @RandomiseUser, @Endo_Chick, and myself got me thinking about character appearance in games. I set out to put some ideas down as to how games structure this, and why I’m so drawn to character appearance in the games I enjoy.
Cool games that force me into the skin of a pre-made, pre-packaged protagonist, quite frankly, annoy me. Those set player characters rarely interest me deeply, and have never been close to any real concept of who I would prefer to be. So the experience often becomes one of merely driving around an avatar designed by someone else, and ultimately enacting someone else’s story (no matter how many narrative ‘options’ the game design gives me). In the end, I really don’t come to care about those characters.
But of course, this mirrors real life. We don’t choose to have the skin, complexion, sex, hair, eyes, shape, or attributes we’re born with. We have some control over some aspects (increasingly even those once thought immutable), but we all learn to deal with the design we’ve been given. Or we seek to tweak. There’s a role for games that purposefully inject you in another sex, body, or race as part of a larger narrative or moral goal, but I’m speaking purely about games that pre-design the protagonist primarily as your vehicle for experiencing the game world.
In the triple experience of gameplay, narrative, and character, I usually gravitate to character the most. I can forgive a lot of crappy gameplay in good faith (too much grind, clunky mechanics, repetition, etc.). As a writer, sloppy or clichéd narrative bugs the shit out of me, but to be honest, we don’t turn to games for well-written stories with nuance and depth (although there are some exceptions, such as Bioshock Infinite). But if a developer puts genuine thought and effort put into customizable player creation, I come back to that game again and again. It holds meaning for me.
Games I enjoy make this work in a few different ways, both single-player and MMORPGs.
Some have a limited template of designs (hair, faces, shapes, etc.) that you can mix and match in various combinations. It’s the bare minimum of customizing your player character, and sometimes causes the unfortunate circumstance of running into your twin in the world as you encounter someone with the same look as you. I suspect some rendering limitations in that game’s engine are the probable technical reasons behind this choice. Often, good games will help temper this with providing a wealth of outfits for your character, usually in the in-game store. MMORPG Guild Wars 2 has innovative but limited physical forms for your avatar, but a huge range of expanding options for clothes, weapon types, and accessories. It has a consumables system that allows you to apply any unlocked look to any armor or weapon you use, so you don’t need to surrender your look when you upgrade your gear.
Similarly, The Secret World (the best MMORPG you’ve probably never heard of or played) has hidden “combat armor” and allows you to present your avatar dressed however you want given a wide palette of options, reward clothing, and purchased looks. Weapon customization is not as flexible as Guild Wars 2, but it exists. As a serious game that uses a modern, real-world setting (albeit one infused with Lovecraftian monsters, aliens, and secret societies), you might think it would skew toward prioritizing modern, Western fashion. But no, it’s quite common to see people dressed like Roman soldiers, future robots, death’s-head demons, and killer squirrels running through the world hubs. Players in The Secret World often wear the dream cosplay outfits you expect they would wear in real-life if they could.
Elsewhere on the spectrum of customizable character creation is the pre-made protagonist character that you can “make over.” In single-player Dragon Age 2, you play Hawke, who has a mostly-linear story-line that you can influence, but you also have the option to mold his appearance to better fit your imagination. The same is true for the female Hawke option. The Dragon Age series aims for an immersive fantasy experience, including scripted romance between your character and some of your companions, so I find it a welcome option to be able to craft your avatar’s appearance.
On the flip side is Saints Row IV, an amusing (in its own right), tongue-in-cheek parody of games like the Grand Theft Auto series (which have no real first-player story physical feature customization and force you play as pre-made characters). But the generic Slab McBulkhead main protagonist of Saints Row IV can be customized as in Dragon Age 2. This is a welcome expectation of a free-wheeling game that also allows you to fight with guns that launch toilet plungers and elastic dildo bats.
The final category I’ll briefly mention is the first-person only games that coyly prevent us from viewing or customizing our character in third-person. Booker in Bioshock Infinite is a fully fledged and voiced character, but his appearance remains off-camera (except for a few brief glances). Such first-person shooters have a genre history of keeping player appearance vague, but the same mechanics are on view in the new No Man’s Sky and other exploration games. One might think that keeping things first-person would foster greater self-identification and immersion with the player, but that’s not the case for me. Since the action is always happening on a flat plane (my monitor), I experience such a game as I would a movie. My life-long conditioning with this structure has been to disengage and observe. However, when I can rotate the camera and see my avatar fully embodied in a 3D space, running around the landscape as a body and not just my gaze, my own self-identification and immersion is actually greater. There’s still a screen between us, but that screen is not built directly into the mechanics of my gaze.
Not everyone prioritizes character design. It’s not something that matters to all (most?) players. There’s a long list of games offering only a bland, interchangeable, and ultimately disposable character model for the player, where the developers have given only cursory thought to appearance. However, I do give it a great deal of thought, and effort, and I’m probably seeking a mix of comfort, self-identification, wish fulfillment, creative input, and a pleasant objectified gaze when I play a game with a custom character.
A friend of mine once described the kinds of games I like as “Barbie for boys.” I love character building and appearance crafting. Along with all the fun stuff the game lets me do (fight monsters, explore space, survive in the radioactive wasteland…), and a strong narrative journey I can help enact, I’m drawn to the creative process of character design. It doesn’t matter if I’m just goofing around and causing vehicular havoc in downtown Los Santos with friends or slaying the great dragons of Tamriel alone, I’m happiest if I can join with the effort of the game designers who have already crafted the world and the adventure. I’m eager to bring the main character.