Player creation is something that’s been incorporated into nearly every game genre since the early days of the industry. Some might even say that the feature has been unnecessarily “shoe horned” in, creating an awkward extra limb on an otherwise stellar physique. Why are developers compelled to put this feature into their projects? What benefits are gamers really receiving? It may be fun to craft a player character inspired by the dark recesses of your psyche, but what does this feature lend to the game beyond that initial chortle of seeing your outrageous avatar in action?
There is a degree of contentment that comes from making a player character in the image you see fit. Who hasn’t maneuvered every slider to the extremes to create their own digital Frankenstein? Or stood in front of a mirror in an attempt to make an exact replica of the perfection staring back at you? Therein may lay one of the major problems with character creation. The interface and fashion by which the player crafts their avatar has remained largely unchanged for decades. It’s rare that the process of player creation is an act of joy in itself. When was the last time you found yourself truly enjoying the gameplay during a character creation process? The answer is likely rarely or never.
The impact of creating your character rarely travels past the creation interface itself. Your appearance and other inconsequential aspects of your character have changed, but the “character” is on a guided path that offers very little diversion or variation. Mass Effect seems to be dipping their creative toes into the idea of crafting an actual “character” in their storylines, but ultimately, Shepard still falls victim to the same pitfalls as other nameless avatars. At the end of the game you are either a nice guy who saved the galaxy or a jackass who saved the galaxy.
Creating a game featuring true character creation could be the undertaking of a lifetime. While dialogue is an important part of any game featuring a strong narrative, it may also be the key to dynamic character creation. Games already feature branching dialogue trees, but the start of those trees are nearly always identical no matter what type of character you have carved out previous to the start of those dialogue webs. In a perfect world characters would react in at least a dozen different when they initially meet your character based on their history alone. One character, dozens of dialogue starts, hundreds of branches, thousands of lines of dialogue. We are a long way from seeing a game that supports a strong narrative with subtle character changes and dynamic NPC interactions.
It will be a great day for interactive story telling when we have truly dynamic player creation. Not a series of sliders and metrics to tweak, but broadly branching dialogue options and world changing decisions. Hats off to the developers who are attempting to make strides in these fields. Gamers everywhere wish you good luck and god speed.
Personal Note: I think it would be an interesting idea to put actual players into the supporting roles in a game. They are given a back story for both their character and the main player. They are also informed what their end goals are, and are given a very loose script. Their goals could be to give the player a certain piece of information, items, etc. Other than that it could be an ad-libbed experience that creates a truly immersive and unique story for each player. The problem with this idea is that there would have to be a sizable reward for the players willing to play the support role and there would also have to be a multitude of options available to that “actor”. For instance they should be able to end an interaction with violence, gifts trading hands, friendship, bribery etc. With the majority of people on the internet…we know how most interactions are likely to end. Endings with consist of either with a lackluster performance that ruins the fiction of the game, or an intense amount of spoiler rich griefing. Perhaps the main character can control the rewards and rating of the performing actor to help prevent this behavior? We are likely never to see a system like this, but it is fun to kick around the idea.