The character creation tools afforded in many games are a funny thing. They can be unbelievably complex, and players can and often do devote full hours of time fine-tuning the perfect intrepid hero (or horrific monster) out of the numerous sliders, style choices and tweaks that alter the facial and body features of their player-character. It’s one of the defining tropes of the RPG genre.
Yet for all that creativity and time sunk into making your own character, once the game actually starts that huge amount of attention is often inconsequential. In some games, like Bloodborne, you rarely even see your character’s face after all of that effort. In the best cases character creators build a connection between the player and their avatar, but it never goes further than that. Other characters in the games you play never have anything to say about your character’s appearance, whether they have the chiseled features of a Greek statue or the twisted figure 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.
On another front, games are still fumbling with the notion of romantic partners to have player-characters fall in love with. Things are getting better – Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, took strides to make their romantic options wider and more varied than most other games ever have – but while the love interests introduced in games are becoming more human and their courtship becoming less of a fetch quest and more of a developing relationship between two characters, the romance of it all is still undercut by the fact that, at the end of the day, these games lay out your options like dishes at a buffet. If there are seven characters your player can fall in love with, all seven of them will stand around waiting for you to share your feelings so they can reciprocate. It’s not exactly a fulfilling love affair when the apple of your eye is just pre-programmed to love you back, along with every other eligible candidate in town.
It occurred to me while watching video of the impressive character creator in Black Desert Online that it might be possible to resolve each of these minor hiccups of modern game design by adding a hidden system to a game’s character creator. What if NPCs, and romance-able ones in particular, had their own attraction to certain physical attributes baked into their character design, and this would dictate whether or not they would find you physically attractive depending on the look of your character?
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 somehow, to follow 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 who I wanted 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 would only have been interested if I had blonde hair, or she preferred 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?
When we create a character in games right now, we’re playing a mini-game that is completely separated from the context of the actual world, which is so far away from the kind of intricate cause and effect we’re seeing in other elements of 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 can 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, so there could be obvious reasons this can’t work. Maybe it’s too complex or taxing for a game to handle. I also know that many developers and 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 surprise instead of a planned, unflinching dialogue option.
Images: Bioware, Bethesda