The character creation tools afforded in many games are a funny thing. They can be unbelievably complex, and players can and often devote hours of time fine-tuning their intrepid hero (or horrific monster) using dozens of sliders, style choices and presets. It’s one of the most common tropes of the RPG genre, which is built on the principle of player choice and individuality. But where other popular RPG systems have developed novel ways to affect the direction of a player’s adventure, the character creator feels like an isolated element of most video games.
The best character creators can help a player make a visual connection with their avatar, drawing a clear distinction between ‘the video game protagonist’ and ‘my video game protagonist’ but it rarely ever goes further than that. Regardless of how we design the characters in the games we play, other characters treat all of them the exact same way – whether they have the chiseled features of a Greek bust or the twisted visage of a del Toro monster, it’s all the same to the inhabitants of Skyrim’s Tamriel or Fallout’s American Wasteland. It’s a small, forgivable but ever-present gap in video game logic that hasn’t been explored as deeply or as frequently as we think they could.
It occurred to me while watching videos of the impressive character creator in Black Desert Online that it might be possible to resolve both of these minor grievances by adding a hidden system to a game’s character creator. What if NPCs, and romance-able ones, in particular, had their own preferences or prejudices baked into their character design, and this would dictate how they react to the character you’ve created?
As an example, let’s take one of my favorite custom-creatable characters: Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard. My Shepard was very much my own. A female brunette with freckles, on the shorter side, and of average build. Due to Mass Effect’s rudimentary facial manipulation tools, my Shepard had lips that puckered unusually, so that when the camera caught her in profile she was drinking from an invisible straw, or trying to introduce Duck Face to the year 2183. If I sketched this character and showed it to a group of my friends, some might find her attractive, some might call her ugly, and some would identify with a sexuality that doesn’t go for women. Yet following the logic of Mass Effect’s universe, my Shepard traveled with a rainbow coalition of aliens made up of incomparable social, cultural and biological traits and they all just so happened to find her gorgeous. All I needed to do was choose which one I liked and we were off to the races of passion. Apparently, this woman I’d designed was the peak of desire for every alien species in the infinite galaxy. But what if instead, Miranda Lawson didn’t fall in love at first sight because she prefers blondes or tattoos? What if my facial structure just looked ugly to her, or this particular character wasn’t interested in a woman? What if Jack, a character who’s been through immense physical and emotional pain, could only find romance in someone with physical scars of their own – a sign that she could open up to someone who also has suffered trauma?
The possibilities go beyond romance, too: Perhaps my Shepard enters a tavern in a rough part of town and asks the barkeep some questions. But this guy takes one look at my government-official haircut and military outfit and decides I look like a Narc. In this case, maybe I’ll have to find some other means of getting information out of him or use careful dialogue options to win him over. Had I designed a rougher looking character maybe I wouldn’t have to do the same? Maybe designing a bloodied up freakshow like the Fallout 4 image above would make intimidation checks easier but demolish charisma. There are a lot of interesting ways that physical appearance could modify NPC interaction.
More recently, South Park: The Fractured But Whole flirted with this idea with a biting piece of social commentary in its character creator, where an artificial difficulty slider affects your character’s skin tone – the darker the skin, the harder the game. It’s a hard nosed satirical joke that makes an impact, but it never follows through. A game about children farting on each other may not be the best use case for a difficult, unflinching exploration of racism, but we think of how Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice powerfully turned the subject of psychosis into a first-hand experience and wonder if a game could use the interactivity of video games to hammer home a subject that many people only experience second-hand.
When we create a character in games right now, we’re playing a mini-game that is completely removed from the context of the rest of the game, which is so far away from the kind of intricate cause and effect we’re seeing in elsewhere in game design. Characters can walk into a town with a Voldemort skull-nose and be greeted like a sex symbol, which is in stark contrast to the incredible ways player actions currently affect the world around them. We’re playing scenarios where I can’t intimidate a character by appearance alone, or become the Casanova of Tamriel in Skyrim.
I’m not a game designer by any stretch of the imagination, and I wouldn’t claim this is easy or particularly feasible. Maybe it’s too complex or taxing for a game to handle right now. I also realize that many publishers would shy away from taking that choice away from their players. But I would love to see a future where I’m turned down from a cool NPC because my hair looks dumb or I’m too thin. Finding a love interest in a game would be all that more fulfilling if it was an actual meeting of like-minded characters instead of a planned, unflinching dialogue option. And maybe then, designing a sneering rogue with shifty eyes would finally lead to ramifications when the town starts to notice all their valuables are missing and the pots are all smashed.
Images: @Himuro2525, BioWare, Bethesda, Capcom