Saturday, 20 October 2012

Reinventing the Self: A look at character creation - by Michael Dodds

In October 2012 two games were released that I desired so much that I valued them higher than a victory over Jak Marshall at Smash Brothers Melee and a hug from Bryan Cranston combined. 
...and I adore this man's hugs.
Dishonored and XCOM Enemy Unknown have been sweeping the review tables, as well as sweeping off the shelves. However, being a student and concurrently living on a weekly budget similar to a post glory days MC Hammer, I could only afford one. While both games possess multiple play styles, nail biting tension, and unparalleled immersion, XCOM Enemy Unknown won my forty-odd quid in the end. The reason for this? I love the ability to make my own characters.

Character creation is something that has been around for decades. We all remember the first family we ever made in The Sims, only to move them into a mansion and drown them. 
"At last. The life I've always wanted"
However, it’s only been recently that I’ve realized what a profound affect character creation can have on the feel of a game. Recently starting a new gameplay of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I realized that I was fiddling with the cheekbones and jaw line of my Dark Elf for a good 20 minutes or so before I was happy to continue with the ravaging of Helgen and the beginning of my quest. Keep in mind, this is a game where the only opportunity to see your character’s face is to stand still, weapon sheathed, and zoom the camera around your head like a crazed bluebottle.

This doesn’t change the fact that knowing you have a unique character can help you enjoy a unique game experience. While many will charge on through the various customization menus and settle for a default character setting, and a similar number of people will meticulously construct the most photogenic character they can, the majority of us enjoy the feeling of taking charge of our character’s appearance. In games such as Mass Effect, you’re going to be fabricating an inherently good or evil character based on your actions in the game, so why not alter his or her appearance to suit this? The appearance of an old, battle scarred saint to uphold justice and reason, or of a young, twisted and devious bastard who bullies others into doing his or her bidding can make or break the feel of a character.
"You think this is a motherfucking game, son?" 

Having a character creation option will not inherently guarantee a unique game experience. While many will want to lynch me for saying this, I feel that games such as Saints Row 3 can have as many hair styles, wacky skin colours and boob size-adjusters that they want; their gameplay is still about as immersive as a fucking duckpond. Similarly, my love of character creation screens should not be taken to mean that I don't respect a game with well designed and well written characters. Certain games manage (and have always managed, might I add) to perfect an engaging and interesting world while neglecting to give the option to create a character at all. Would Deus Ex: Human Revolution have been even better if you had the option to change the aesthetics of the brooding, half-synthetic protagonist? I doubt it.
I never asked to look so god damn awesome. 
Nonetheless, in certain games character creation just seems irreplaceable. In a similar fashion to Skyrim, the first half hour or so of XCOM Enemy Unknown was spent tweaking each and every one of my rookies from boring space marines into unique individuals. By the time I actually got round to any missions, I was particularly fond of such squad members as Albino Viking (a tall and ghostly white solider with a Swedish flag printed on his back), and Phase Boy (a teenage solider with fluorescent pink hair and a pubescent 'tasche; “He’s just going through a phase”). 

Of course, when each of these characters routinely met their doom by the hordes of invading aliens that awaited them it broke my heart, but that’s the point. Every so often, I visit the memorial in my base’s barracks, and reminisce about each and every fallen hero that I myself crafted. So, while character creation might seem like a trivial gimmick to many, it may surprise you what a splash of creativity can do when it comes to enjoying a game.


  1. Charlotte Gislam25 March 2014 at 18:05

    totally agree with the joy of customising your own character... However I don't know if anyone else does it but I go out of my way to make the most ugly looking character imaginable (I will admit this is after a first play through)... Oblivion character creation was grand for this. I think this is my inner sims showing.. a desire for chaos...

    Anyway I thought it was a good article and not badly written at all.

  2. I usually give my characters a really dramatic moviestar look and then give them the most diabolically stupid name I can think of. Smurgly Burgly was the name of my Argonian assassin in Oblivion.


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