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On Playing a Set Character in Video Games.

One traditional strength of the RPG genre and increasingly many others is avatar customization. But what happens if you simply have no choice? What then? Does not being able to control the main character from top to bottom make a game lesser?

Video games are very cool. Video games let you traverse strange worlds and places. You could be trying to scale a mountain on horseback, or drive your space truck on the moon at any given time. You could be talking with fascinating people or beating the crap out of monsters.

In many cases, we prefer to go as ourselves. Avatar customization then becomes a game in and of itself. Whether the choice is between a short sword or an axe; a sniper rifle or a pistol; heavy plate or a leather suit—players of video games are given an almost infinite amount of options. By the time you’ve finished creating your character, you might as well pack it in for the night.

Large scale character customization has a history in games, starting from pen and paper (D&D) to more electronic fare such as the Elder Scrolls RPG series. People genuinely enjoy the process.

In writing this article, I could find no opposition to avatar customization—there are no people continually railing against the idea. Only in isolated incidents on forums, would you find any evidence of people not in support of avatar customization.

What is it about avatar customization that elates people? Let us look at some statistics—numbers are always good.

Bioware—makers of Mass Effect revealed some interesting player statistics on how people played Mass Effect 2.

According to Bioware themselves, 13% of players used ‘Mark Vanderloo’ Shepard and 18% of players played a female Shepard (assuming these 18% may have also used the default female Shepard in ME1 and 2). Also, 83% of all players customized their Shepards in ‘some way.’

In the multiplayer FPS Brink, the player has access to an ‘absurd’ amount of avatar customization options from body type, tattoos, hairstyles, archetypes, faces, head gear, shirts, pants, voice, and weapon load outs.

So why fuss over avatars? The Brainy Gamer writes his dissatisfaction on ‘being Cole Phelps’.

‘I grew to loathe him and found myself conducting an internal Q&A with myself. Is this arrogant cop supposed to represent me? No. But I'm controlling him. Yes. Doesn't that create an unnerving disconnect? Yes. How do I feel about that? I don’t like it. Is that interesting to me? Absolutely. As a contemplation on self and non-self, L.A. Noire does something fairly outrageous. It deliberately distances me from 'my' character while forcing me to 'control' him.’

I can relate; I played the entirety of Final Fantasy 8 hating Squall Leonhart. It is one thing to be able to control what your character looks like, but if you find that playing said character is revolting to you, there’s little one can do.

But not all video game characters are created equally.

For example, Link is an established character but he has ‘personality.’ He can’t talk; you can’t find out his personal opinion on rescuing Princess Zelda for the umpteenth time; he won’t gnash his teeth when he’s told to recover the Triforce again. Link is similar to a mouse running around in maze, but even that mouse can one day decide not to run. 

Squall and Cole on the other hand, have personalities. They will tell you again and again why they do certain things, why they say certain things. They have these huge back stories that influence who they are. Squall and Cole are controllable yes, but they are not ‘you.’


No choice but to play as ‘someone else.’

To be certain, I have played more video games as someone else, or even something else. Early games on the Intellivision, games such as Space Invaders asked players to asked players to ‘inhabit’ a block of pixels that were representative of a spaceship shooting at other amorphous blocks of pixels that were representative of aliens. If you played Poker for example, the player was just an invisible cursor; prone to flipping cards and adding more cards. As technology increased, those blocks of pixels became less amorphous and more representative of actual objects and people. You could move these things around even though their static nature remained.

The jrpg is one type of game that values itself on static elements. The characters have been drawn, the story has been written, and the gameplay is planned from top to bottom. There are no clear deviations from the path. This is not a criticism of the jrpg, but their tightly winded stories have made them much more linear than other rpgs. (But I’m probably preaching to the choir at this point).

In Final Fantasy 6’s opening scenario, you have no choice but to direct Terra in a straight path north through the town of Narshe. You also have no choice but to kill Narshe’s hapless defenders. The player is ‘on the rails.’ Her Magitek armor also makes it difficult to get into all the nooks and crannies of the town; poor Terra has no choice but to march forward and neither do you.

Yet, we do not condemn Final Fantasy 6 for its shortcomings. There is no way you get ‘lost’ in the traditional sense. There are no large sprawling towns, no side paths to explore—the game keeps you on the path; only opening up when it decides to open up. Traversing the overworld seemed open but I remember receiving the airship for the first time, and visiting Thamasa without prompt. I was told to pay a million gold pieces to stay at the inn; and all the NPCs had these dialogues that screamed ‘you shouldn’t be here now.’ So much for freedom.

But what we couldn’t change in Final Fantasy 6 is what made us stay. We laughed and cried with these characters. We ate up their huge and well written backstories, we loved to hate Kefka and his evil ways.

If Final Fantasy 6 were any other game, we would point out its lack of real character customization and player choice. Providing the player with the ability to equip Espers onto characters and changing equipment is ‘not role-playing.’ Role-playing means being an active agent in the game—if I choose Path A, I cannot choose path B. If I kill this guy, I must live with that decision for the rest of the game. There was none of this in Final Fantasy 6.

It makes me question why the critics piled all this hate onto Final Fantasy 13, when player choice and customization were clearly not ‘hallmarks’ of the series to begin with. If anything, we should take umbrage with the eternal tutorial-esque like nature of the game—only having all its’ game systems opening out in full after playing for hours on end.

If Final Fantasy 6 was similar in design to say for example, the Elder Scrolls then I would worry that the series was taking a turn for the worse upon playing Final Fantasy 13.


Why play?

We still feel the need to inhabit our characters, even if we have no choice. We would prefer to play characters who don’t grate on our nerves. Not liking a character you must control can be about as game breaking as not being to choose a mohawk in character customization. But unlike choosing a mohawk, inhabiting a pre-written character, is similar to enduring an education in understanding and empathy.

Going back to Final Fantasy 6, the game doesn’t focus on any one character although Terra and Celes are used as initial playable characters for the first half and second half of the game. By having the player take control of various characters at different points, the game weaves a taut story. Each character has their own moment in the game which expands on their back stories which are often tragic, and give reason to their motivations in the game.

In opting to play as ‘someone else,’ we consciously choose to look at someone else’s point of view for a change. We may not always be comfortable with these characters, especially if their world view differs greatly from our own. We will see how they struggle, how they navigate their often times complicated worlds. We will see them lose friends, gain love, be rejected; maybe we will see them die. We will always be privy to their innermost thoughts, their desires, and their prejudices. We will be the person who will always guide them towards the end, a willing companion on a long journey.

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