Video games

The importance of character creation

This may be an unpopular view, but I can count the gaming characters I have genuinely related with on both of my hands, it is a tiny number, a feeble landmark considering all the thousands of games I have played and enjoyed.

While I can share the moods of any given character, appreciate their tragedy or enjoy their success, the average video game story feels more like their narrative than mine, I am borrowing the moment from them, and I hand it back when the goal is reached.

Valeska the PSO android looks out over the crater sunset.

Me, myself and I

The exception to this rule are the characters that I have created, these are the personas I can identify with best as through time and emotional toil I’ve had a hand in their making. They share my personality entirely rather than me attempting to bash mine into a predefined character, they have my appearance preferences, they share my hair colour, eyes and sense of self, they even wear the clothes I desire (or sometimes the things I wouldn’t be caught dead in.)

But above all they cannot exist without me, the adventures we partake in are ours, they stop when turn the console off and they return when I resume. These characters exist only for me, while we explore the world of any game, many others will follow the paths I take, and many more will see the places, but few if any will decide as I do, move when I do, explore and run and enjoy the ride. So even if another plays them, their journey is not quite the same as my unique playthrough.

That’s not to say that looking back on an adventure played with a normal character can’t be a brilliant experience also. Sometimes it’s nice to escape from our own image, to walk a mile in someone elses shoes, and in that regard the majority of my favourite games have involved playing as another person, following their unique stories, watching the influences of the other characters around them. The key is to maintain a healthy balance between playing the character that you want to share your personality with, and the character who will invariably end up lending you theirs for a moment.

My oblivion assassin at the Imperial waterfront.

The free-world agenda

If I find myself playing a game when I am a rigid character I long for the ability to customize, all too often this means the ability to choose the correct gender, to mould a gruff male warrior into the being that represents me. An average game (despite its apparent excellence elsewhere) leaves me little room to be anything other than “him”. As a result very few video game characters meet with me eye-to-eye – certainly compared to the characters that I have made. I have admired the adventures of Jade and Alyx and many other magnificent men and women. I have appreciated their intelligence and personality, but bold – yet engaging – (female) characters such as these are still sadly the rarity not the norm.

As long as developers continue to dictate that “I” must play “he” in certain games there will be a minute distance between the games I like and the ones I love. This doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the narrative or even the fun of the characters or any of the many other hundreds of enjoyable components of a game – but it does highlight the contrast between who I am for that game and who I want to be, and it’s jarring.

Sadly even the biggest, most open gaming world is usually closed to females in this regard. The world may be enormous, beautiful and begging to be explored but it’s slightly hollow if the character you’re exploring it in is usually the same generic male persona.

Valeskaleneux, the Rainbow Six Vegas Senior Master Sergeant.

It’s in the best interest of everyone that more games blend the themes of character customization and story-led content. Bioware have shown us that how a game can work in duality, allowing for both male and female audiences, for personal traits and preferences, Bethesda have shown us that this element can work on an open landscape, and Valve’s Left 4 Dead along with Gearbox’s Borderlands has shown that including a playable female character even in the most percieved “male genre” does work.

The gaming characters I identify with most characters are the beings of my own creation, most people will never meet them, they will never gain the notoriety or credence of bigger, more popular personalities, but that’s okay, I know how unique they are, and that’s all that matters.

This post was part of Gamer Banter, a monthly video game discussion coordinated by Terry at Game Couch. If you’re interested in being part, please email him for details.

Other takes on this topic:

Silvercublogger: Will Sing Opera For Italian Food

Game Couch: Gabriel Knight

Aim for the Head: Friends Through The End

Extra Guy: Who I Identify With

Next Jen: I Rather Be Me A rushed love letter

15 replies on “The importance of character creation”

Dang, this comment failed to submit the first time so hopefully I can put it as eloquently a second time…

This is a subject I find fascinating. It makes perfect sense to me that somebody would be more immersed in a story they forge themselves with a character of their own design, and yet I find that I, personally, am on the opposite end of the spectrum. Generally, I prefer that a game tell me a story rather than forge my own. In fact, I get MORE immersed when a character has their own distinct personality (not a silent protagonist) even if it differs from my own. It’s probably one of the factors in why I prefer JRPGs to Western RPGs since the Japanese tend to tell you a specific story with their own characters while the Western ones let you forge your own.

The subject of gender is also very interesting. Since you are somebody who projects themselves into a character, I can completely understand why controlling a character of the opposite gender would cause a disconnect. But since I am absorbed by characters with their own personalities separate from my own, I find a gender difference doesn’t hurt my immersion. FFXIII and Xenosaga are a few examples of games with strong female leads that in no way hampered me immersion into their world.

I just think its incredibly fascinating how what people want out of a game can be so incredibly different. I sincerely hope that as the medium evolves we will have the best of both worlds to appease all kinds of gamers.

I am a total sucker for character customization. I used to try to make myself in games, but lately I just try to come up with something I find interesting or (more often than not) funny.

In Monster Hunter Tri, I made the tough old guy. In Rock Band, I made the “What if Doctor Who had started a band?” look ( Saint’s Row 2, being one of the only games to allow you to make fat guys, required me to do so.

I’ve always liked videogames that allow me to customize my character in the gameplay. In Dragon Age I didn’t care so much about the hundred different physical appearance options as I did with the dialog options. I could be a douche, sarcastic, funny, polite, and any other random personality. In Animal Crossing I literally play as myself. The game lets me act the way I really act rather than using specific options. There’s no character creation screen, but I feel the most connected to my AC avatar than any other videogame character. In Deus Ex I have no choice but to play as one specific person who has a specific personality, backstory and appearance, but I get to play the game in my own style. I can be brutal to people if I want or I can be passive and stealthy, or any combination of the two or any option in between. Even though I’m in the shoes of JC Denton, I get to play the game as myself.

I really enjoy being able to customize my character, but I also have a lot of fun playing as a completely different person. At first I couldn’t relate to Coach very well in Left 4 Dead 2 but when I got randomly stuck with him I realized how playing as a radically different person added a new dimension of fun.

To my mind, character customisation was almost perfected a number of years ago in WWF Smackdwon 2. Not only could you completely customise your character from skin colour (any colour in the rainbow) through to clothes and even to the shape of particular parts of the face but you could customise their moves, entrances and even taunts. Why this hasn’t just become standard for all games is beyond me. I so want to see this kind of thing as standard and thought that next gen could handle.

Similarly, things like creating an insgnia (Mario Kart DS) or capturing your own face with the Xbox eye thing both brilliant tools for personalisation only featured in a handful of games. Perhaps players just don’t want to create a new persona?

I can relate either way. Ironically, the game that draws me in the most are games like Syberia/Still Life type-of games. The first-person perspective at times and the complex characters and worlds in the game really shine. Though I do get drawn in, I don’t really relate to it on a personal level.

I do enjoy customizing my character, but generally games like that are very “paper” characters, i.e. no matter what you do, it’s the same type of experience most people will be having as well. There’s a few small exceptions, but I think now with Natal coming out this Holiday season, it will change everything.

I’m so happy you’re part of this! 🙂

Great post — It’s always weird to me when you can select 15 different moustaches, but not gender.

One thing I find in free-world, Oblivion-esque games, is that I take more ownership over my actions. I want to do good. I want people to trust me. I guess that’s because it is my story and not someone else’s.

For me, only in MMOs or in games like Half-Life where the character never speaks with a voice that isn’t mine and never appears in cut scenes I have no control over do I ever really identify with a character. Otherwise it is, at best, like watching a movie.

I’m not sure how much I agree with you on needing to be able to relate to the character, though of course that’s just my opinion. Keep in mind that even us dudes aren’t really able to relate to main characters most of the time. Maybe I’m only speaking for myself, but I don’t wear hulking body armor and yell ‘BACK IN YER HOLE’ in a gruff voice.

Though man do I wish I di- wait, what?

I play games to escape, not to relate. That sounds sadder than I mean it. I always play as an asshole when given the chance, because I’m such a nice guy (and unbiased!) in real life. So, while I generally give up on creating a character after 10 minutes and say ‘good enough’ (bald? check. goatee? check. mirror image!), one of my strongest gaming memories was while I played Dark Forces 2 and realized that I could punch civilians to death to save my ammo.

@Dan – I agree with the not relating to most male protagonists. I think that is why characters like Drake from Uncharted are so much more appealing to play as. Though I do like to yell “GET SOME!” while shooting giant machine guns in games, but that is because I’m making fun of James Cameron’s “Avatar”.

It depends on how much the game relies on you making a story. I spent ages making a character in Oblivion, partly because it was slick and enjoyable but also I wanted it to represent me, although not be a copy of me or how I felt, the total opposite. As has been mentioned I want to escape from me whilst playing a game, yet there has to be something in them that makes you want to invest in that character.

Saint’s Row 2, I tried to make a character who wouldn’t really fit into that sort of environment, in this case a fat goth woman. It was great fun seeing her totally out of place, definitely added to the experience.

Thank you all for the lovely and inspiring comments.

@Jesse Deeply sorry about the form, but I do agree with a game needing its own seperate personality, and I mentioned the majority of the time this isn’t a problem – far from it. But it does become a problem for me personally when a game presents itself as open but won’t at least give me that one final choice. I’ll still pick up games with default leads, with linear story lines and I’ll have a blast, depends entirely on the game and its USP.

@Jonah I sometimes do this too, and that’s the beauty of it really, the game allowing you to be the master of your own destiny, serious or frivalous, that’s what we play these games for after all.

@John You’re quite right, sometimes being forced to play as a certain character can be enlightening, I have to do this more and more often and it doesn’t bother me like it used to, it adds to the mystery I suppose! 🙂

@Cunzy I do think we’re at the point where more games should be offering the sort of customisation you’re talking about, I think that more people want to tweak elements of things more than we realise. I’m sure certain games could be settled into a lot better if we could tweak elements a bit more and I don’t just mean characters hree, better control schemes, more options, and more – or less – help for those that want it. Ulimately I just want the choice, not the choices made for me.

@Silvercube Would be interested to hear how you believe Natal will effect customisation, I’ve not looked into it too deeply myself, but its a fair point.

@Terry Happy to be part of it too! I always thought that as well, the amount of customisation options available to characters regardless of gender should be matched. Quite often there are more varied male options than female ones.

@Jason That’s an intersting point, I may have to revisit the idea of silent/hidden protagonists.

@Dan Don’t get me wrong, I’m not assuming that a male character being the default option means that you instantly relate to whoever is the lead, not by any stretch I know that some characters are disliked equally, but men are unfortunately in the majority in this past time, this is still the case despite a rising number of female gamers and it would be great if more games reflected this.

We play games for a multitude of reasons, escapisms certainly one of them but I think your method of choice is an equally important factor too, sometimes I will escape with someone the opposite of me, sometimes not, but it needs to feel like a free decision.

@Vim The character creation screen in Oblivion is one of the best – it’s a game in itself really. Second mention of Saint’s Row 2 also, maybe I should check that one out 🙂

There will always be friction in narrative-driven games when a protaganist is designed to both fit with the narrative and allow the player to fill in some personality gaps. Scripting is the worst culprit for breaking immersion, since it can leave you with dialogue choices or limited activities that you simply wouldn’t want to do if you were placed in such a situation. Ironically, this results in games with next to no “narrative” being the most immersive, since you have the opportunity to interpret events as you see fit. Conversely, games driven purely by their gameplay have more limited opportunities to stir emotions in the player, though that’s not to say that it’s impossible – games like Metroid and Metal Slug use animation and set-pieces to great effect, allowing you to connect with the characters and gameworld without feeling like the story is moulding your personality.

Having more games feature female protagonists (or the option to be so) helps a lot of people. Being forced into playing a male protagonist can be a deal breaker for transsexual women like myself. The ability to play a female protagonist or have the option to do so, allows many of us some release from day to day. It also, as you said, helps us related to our character better and it’s nice to be able to add pieces of ourselves to them. I’ve found that when forced into an predetermined and male role, it can be jarring to hear male pronouns and have to relate to that person who is me in the game world. I’ve known of role playing games where you’re forced into situations for that, and asking someone like myself to play a role that we had to play for most of our lives, was cause to ignore the title. So, customization isn’t just a great way to get invested into the game, it’s also an important breath of fresh air for many people.

I’m with John on dialogue options; I find it way more fulfilling to express character through dialogue options that allow me to be submissive, sarcastic, threatening or holier-than-thou. Creating character models can be amusing for an hour or two but for the most part (particularly Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age) you don’t see your character all that much.

KOTOR/Mass Effect games are exceptional, using your model in cut scenes. I found that totally awesome when I played a female character and for some reason very jarring when I tried a second play-through with a male. Ofc, those games also suffered from the annoying dialogue wheel where the options bear little resemblance to the words and tone that are actually spoken.

@Dan I think narrative is an immersive element too, sometimes I do outwardly seek the conclusion to a story or want to know the perceptions of other characters. Lots of narrative-light games are immersive, but plenty of them also distance the player by giving them little to understand, it’s particulary frustrating when you love a game, but there are very few hard facts known about it. Part of the magic I guess, each to their own.

@Jade All very true, and I’m certainly aware of how difficult the majority of games must be for you, it bothers me sometimes so I can completely understand. I’m very aware of transgender issues now and gender identity is something that developers should take more seriously simply because it benefits everyone.

@Weefz I only briefly touched on dialogue, but yes you’re completely right, and the dialogue wheel you’ve mentioned bothers me to. Either the entire phase you want to say should be available or the shortened version should get the entire point across with little intepretion. Fahrenheit did this a lot with its single world dialogue options and it really annoyed me when characters asked about something I didn’t 100% want, particulary when I was on limited time.

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