Character Customization Is Useless

Where do you draw the line with character customization? What's fun, and what's pointless?

I remember thinking that in the opening moments of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I was making an important character. That each of one of my customizable features mattered, and from here on out I was going to make my mark. Then, I accidentally named my character “Prisoner”, as it was the default and I didn’t check to fix it.

I groaned. "Son of a b*tch."

It turned out that in Skyrim, the only real thing that mattered was your race. It made characters react differently around you, but never hindered you from completing any quests.

I realized this when I entered Windhelm for the first time. I could've been shamed for being a Dark Elf -- but instead I was a Nord, which meant no trouble for me. When I went in the next time, I thought: ooooh, now it's going to be a real challenge to get in as a Dark Elf. Then, after a couple unpleasant comments, I was fine. The opening dialogue may have changed, but I didn't actually have a different experience. 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Skyrim such much that it's an obsession. But it seems every decision I made in bringing my character to life just led to the same outcome as any other choice I could have made. Which makes me think....

Character creation in games doesn’t carry any weight.

Skyrim isn’t the most recent example. But another, Bloodborne, has this same fault. While there is a part of it that wants you to pick your backstory (which sets your base stats,) nothing else about it does anything to elevate your experience. You can make yourself very ugly in that game -- in fact, the hardest scene in Bloodborne is getting your character to not look like so much like Willem Dafoe on drugs.

But where does it get you, when the coolest gear blocks your face anyway? 

Beyond that you have Bioware's Mass Effect trilogy, where even if you create a highly detailed Shepard, and even when you pick whether he/she's Paragon or Renegade, Shepard has his/her own personality that you don't fully become immersed in. It's more set than most RPGs, which adds to how frivolous the character creation is in the first place!

Here, granted, the customization is even more minimal -- all you do is change your face and class. And your class affects gameplay a lot, but never feeds back into the actual world around you. So besides tactical reasons, the "differences" are not quite as stark as what I'm after.

But just because character customization is basically useless now doesn't mean that it has to keep being that way. 

There could be a great opportunity for developers to revamp this system into something truly great.

Character creation is fun, I have no doubt. I spend 86 minutes of wasted time because I want to make the perfect character. But other than these moments, I forget about who I am when it's first-person, and I regret how I somehow made my character cross-eyed when it's third-person. (True story. Poor Commander Shepard.)

That 86 initial minutes could pay out for the rest of your journey, leading to something more tangible than realizing too late that your name is "Prisoner."

What if your character’s physique changed the base stats? Or what if changing your hairstyle and facial features made different NPCs more interested in you romantically? You could be a large, buff man that intimidates the guards of a town by your large muscles, but at the same time this makes children and women more afraid of you, like you’re some kind of barbarian. Or if you’re a hyper-sexualized female character you can use your wits to outsmart guards into giving you information easily -- keys to a safe, even. But then possible repercussions could lead to a contract for being a bodyguard of a convoy, and the male leaders don’t take you seriously.

Maybe this is a weird level of depth that others aren’t looking for, but I am. Character creation as it stands right now, almost never has any true impact on your choices. Wouldn’t you like it to have purpose?

That 86 initial minutes could pay out for the rest of your journey, leading to something more tangible than realizing too late that your name is "Prisoner."

What do you think? Am I ludicrous or is this a place character creation could go? Give us your own thoughts in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading.

Published Sep. 9th 2016
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