There seems to be a conflict in video games at the moment between two competing forces. The first of these is the call for diverse and interesting heroes in games, but this is opposed by the conventional wisdom of games developers that states that if you don’t pander to a white male audience you are losing out on their money.
The tension here is obvious. Video games cannot develop as an art form if they continue to present themselves so much as being the Assorted Adventures of White Men. There are exceptions to that of course, but by and large we’re seeing a lot of very samey characters trundling off the character production lines of big studios. It would be great to change that, but of course games are a product and if the companies are right in their assertion that white, male characters sell better then we’re at an impasse.
We’re in a situation where, as an audience, we’re effectively asking developers to take a financial hit to make a game we want to see. The irony of the situation is that players who traditionally have been poorly served with characters that they can relate to will be used to making do with whatever cookie-cutter character is offered, so there is little incentive for games companies to move away from the focus-group approved safest choice. After all, the people who aren’t used to relating to characters of a different gender or ethnicity are less likely to buy your game if you don’t pander to them. The bigger a business gets the fewer risks can be taken and nobody benefits – not the developers who are going to chafe at the limitations they are presented with, nor the players who will get bored of the same old thing time after time.
The solution, however, has been here almost all along and when it is implemented correctly it is one of the finest things a game can have: a player-created protagonist. The game gives you the world and you choose who you will face it as. Being able to make your own character for a game has been a staple of massively multiplayer online games for years, and it is fairly common in smaller scale roleplaying games too where the player is encouraged to take part in a creative process as well as just pushing the buttons in the right order.
Perhaps the best example of how a player-created character can function in a fairly complex narrative is in the RPG Dragon Age: Origins. This is a game with a fantastic story which is improved greatly by the fact that you can choose your character’s species and gender from the start, with each selection having serious repercussions in the story. It is not unusual, of course, for a roleplaying game to let you build your character and select their abilities, but typically in such a game having made your own character they will be placed into much the same narrative groove regardless.
What Dragon Age: Origins does is use your character’s background both as a tutorial and an introduction to the world, which is necessary in order to properly establish in the mind of the player that they are in an unusually brutish fantasy setting that’ll take some getting used to. While the darker tone is now more familiar in fantasy thanks to Game of Thrones, when Dragon Age first appeared it was surprising and compelling.
The big problem with seeing Dragon Age: Origins as the model for this kind of self-assembly hero is that it was clearly incredibly difficult to pull this off. In many ways Dragon Age: Origins is something of a masterpiece. The work and attention to detail in the writing is a rare thing, but it is not unique. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines also allows you to create your own character and have that character play through the game differently based on how you’ve made them, or what you’ve made them out of. Both these games have stories that are almost unmatched, even by games which have built their narrative specifically around a single predefined character.
Creating your own hero is not just the territory of the RPG. One successful series which has capitalised upon this is Saints Row. The Saints Row games allow you to pick all sorts of character options: you can choose the walk, you can choose the clothes (in the second game regardless of the gender of your character) you can even choose the voice. The games do all this while not offering any narrative decisions specific to the character that you have made. Black, white, man, woman or anything in between – it won’t change the story, but it still works. You’ve still got a sense that the character is yours, even if the changes you can make to them are effectively only cosmetic.
There are criticisms that can be levelled at games where you build your own hero. For instance, the main story in Skyrim feels a little bit disconnected from your adventurer, and the same can be said of other games in the Elder Scrolls series. However, as demonstrated by games like Dragon Age: Origins or the Fallout series, this can be remedied with better writing. There is no inherent narrative weakness to a home-brewed hero, but there are strengths, albeit in other areas.
The ability to create your own character gives you a connection to the game, even if the character that you create is in no way shape or form similar to you. You have made a character and put them into the world, rather than merely pushing somebody else’s pieces around. Not to mention the fact that the ability to approach the game using as many characters as you can create has benefits in terms of making the game more replayable. One of the great strengths of a game like Dragon Age: Origins or something more recent like Dark Souls is that when you’ve played the game through you can play it again to see how it is with a different character.
One of the side effects of games designers aiming their character designs so squarely at the most profitable demographic is that main characters often end up incredibly bland as a result. The Far Cry games could all have featured a player-designed character and sure, the story would have had to be binned or rewritten, but nothing of value would have been lost in doing so. Ditto for games like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor where the main character could, in theory, be one of any number of different folks, his most notable feature is that he cursed and haunted by a wraith. You could stick that curse onto a character of the player’s design and the game would be much improved by the greater connection and variety. Even if it is only skin deep, that connection matters to players and developers are missing a trick by ignoring it.
A player-created protagonist doesn’t just solve the problem of players feeling unrepresented by the characters in their games, it crushes that problem. No character is ever going to resonate with a player as much as a character they have made themselves. Even if you look at games like Mass Effect, where you’re not so much creating a character from scratch as shaping one, it still feels better to play as your very own Commander Shepard.
The frustration is that the capacity to create your own hero in a video game is well established. It is not an unreasonable level of technology to expect to see. In a world of micro-transactions, comprehensive stat tracking and drop in/drop out multiplayer it seems almost old fashioned. People were doing it years ago on far slower and wonkier hardware and with far slower and wonkier game engines. Frankly, at this stage in games technology it ought to be considered lazy for a game to turn up without the ability to create your own character or a good excuse as to why you can’t. As we approach 2015 and the much touted “next generation” begins to hit its stride we should demand more.