Character creation means a lot of different things to people. Now more than ever, it's a huge part of the appeal of gaming. It can make or break whether or not a player can get truly find themselves immersed in a game. It's a feature that's readily becoming a deal breaker for more than a few gamers, a feature that can transform a game from "I'll wait for a sale" into "day one buy!"
This is definitely true for me as well, but lately, I'm wondering if it's only the opposite direction.
Recently, I'm finding more and more that I just can't get into these games as easily. It's to the point even getting interested in them is becoming harder.
Weird, right? While the entire idea behind a game where you are the protagonist exists in the first place so that you can immerse yourself into the game and make it your story, I'm just feeling kind of bored with the idea. Maybe my perspective is wrong, but that's what I'm finding all the same.
Take one of last year's hits, Xenoblade Chronicles X, for example. The first time I played it, I was really, really into it. I spent all sorts of time building my character just right, and after that, I was off on my grand adventure in this amazing world. The second time, I was even more drawn in. I couldn't put it down! Gameplay was fun, and there was a lot to do, and then...
I... wasn't able to care again.
It would be one thing if I could play a game where the character who's supposed to be "me" exists as a character the way other characters do, but is still one I completely designed at the start of the game. That sounds fucking awesome to me. Why doesn't that exist beyond stuff like The Sims? Does it exist? Is there a KickStarter I can go back? If it exists somewhere out there, that is the kind of game with character creation I want to play.
Sure, the things I do in these grand adventures about "me" are the things I get to do by virtue of being the player playing the game, but most of the time I find I end up playing the standard game hero role because, well, that is what I would do in that situation with that power. At least, I'd like to think I would, anyway. When I look at it that way, maybe it's just my fault, then?
Maybe that makes me a boring sort of person, but suffice to say, I don't enjoy stuff like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai just for the suits.
To be fair, it doesn't help that most of these games are fairly long. To really get the payoff of playing with the whole "choice" and "freedom" things, I would have to kill a few weeks of my life playing through at least twice or so to fully take it in, I'd say. If I could get everything done in 20 hours and double back for the "evil" version, like I could in a game like inFamous, that would be another thing...
... but then, on the other hand, inFamous wasn't about "me" either.
Does Cole MacGrath have personality? Is he an interesting character? Many people would probably say the answer to these questions are both no. I'm not actually sure what my answer is. I tend to think no one in the world is probably much of an interesting character or that unique, but our circumstances can still give us something no one else alive has.
As far as Cole was concerned, though? The fact that he had a semblance of a personality and character, the fact that I had no say in his design except for some unlockable costumes, the fact that he had a story, history, and motivations all completely of his own within his games... All of these things made me that much more invested in seeing it through to the end.
I could empathize with Cole. I could care about the things that happened to him. I wanted it to work out with his girlfriend. I enjoyed watching him get used to and mess around with his powers early on. I loved his friendship with Zeke and interactions with the other characters in the game.
Like Zeke, for instance.
If it were just "me" or a silent protagonist, this would not have happened. If those relationships were still there, then they would have felt hollow. At best, these conversations would be stilted based on predetermined choices I would make, and at worst, it would have been the usual one-sided bits where they act like I was talking when I wasn't.
With Cole, because he was an actual character, I could enjoy the game that much more and actually stay invested in it, no matter how cliche some things may or may not have been. If things had been happening to "me," it would have been like they went right through me. With a defined main character, there was "someone" that these things happened to, that did these things, that I could become invested in.
Cole, even as an archetypical gruff hero/villain/sandbox-game-protagonist, made it possible. From the little touches like the scene I pictured above to how they made Cole the narrator of the comic book-style cutscenes. The inFamous games on PS3 are some of my all time favorite games in part thanks to this, and as much as I love the gameplay, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that they wouldn't be if Cole was a "hero" in the sense blank slate or create-a-character ones are.
Even though the consequences of being good and bad didn't change that much, because Cole was a person and the world around him, and he himself, changed as a result of his actions, I actually gave a damn and played through the game again just to see what happened.
If anything, the fact that these games had a main character and a morality system in play, however minor at times, was a point to its advantage, no matter how little it took advantage of having both at once. I'd be much more interested to see more games with choices and defined main characters than ones with one or the other, which seems to be the trend to me.
This doesn't just apply to games that try to have a greater focus on story by any means either. Let's briefly talk about another, lesser known game for a minute. Anyone out there in the crowd ever played Shovel Knight? It's pretty cool.
Even if you take out all of the game's dialogue, Shovel Knight has some sequences in it (the Catch Her! ones for example) that still give players a sense of the titular character's motivations and feelings, which come full circle by the game's end. These are things that you don't even need a game manual or opening sequence for, the latter of which the game does actually have as well.
But wait! We're not done yet.
Imagine, then, if you took those sequences away too. He'd just be another mascot character.
He'd be... Mario.
Now give him those sequences and his dialogue back.
Sure, Shovel Knight would be a great game without all of those things, no doubt about that, but to me and I'm sure to many others, both the game and Shovel Knight himself are that much better for these things. They draw you in and make you care that much more because they're there.
This can apply to any character you let yourself become drawn into or find yourself caring about. Whether they talk for hours or have less dialogue than a fish, it'll probably get something out of you. It does me, anyway.
What does this mean?
When all is said and done, I'll probably empathize with, find some way to relate to, and be able to get behind the tale of a Japanese schoolgirl, a furry hedgehog, the definition of a shonen protagonist archetype cliche, or some other character that most would pass off as nothing more than fap/kid/edge/sales bait more than I will a character who's supposed to be "me." At the very least, I'll be able to become that much more immersed in whatever game in they're in simply for them having a "self."
Well, provided I'm able to like the character, anyway, but that's got little to do with their being defined or not. Oh, and you know what, let's scratch the probably from that paragraph above, because it's happened. Many times at that.
Immersion means different things for different people.
Thinking on it a little, I think it's telling that even a few years ago, of all the hunting games out there, it's the one with a gripping story and technically a protagonist that really pulled me in, rather than the one with better character customization, the one that's Monster Hunter, or the one that's Monster Hunter Lite: Japan Version.
That Freedom Wars, the one with comparatively more story focus than its counterparts of the time, was the only other one I put a lot of time into (back then at least) also makes sense.
Some people can get obsessed over getting their character just right. As it happens, when I do get into creating a character, I can get like that too... but the problem is that once all is said and done, it's hard for me to continue to care about the story and the character when it rarely feels like this story, revolving around a protagonist, actually has a protagonist to begin with.
When games are built around not having a protagonist or a story, like with MMOs, that's one thing, but even when you're meant to be exploring big, giant worlds, like with Xenoblade Chronicles X... Much as I really appreciate that these games offer you freedom like this (though it does sort of seem like your role in XCX, from what I played, is decided more than in other big open games?), I really can't not long for a game like that that also has what I'm asking for here.
All this in mind, I still really like what character creation can do for games, not to mention the potential it has as we get better at it. Much as I prefer the default avatars, there are some games, like Pokémon, that really lose nothing by having it at all. It would also be incredibly difficult to have MMOs without them, and the good character customization tools are a ton of fun to mess with. Some of the best memories of online gaming I've ever had were in Phantasy Star Online and Phantasy Star Universe. Dragonball Xenoverse is another favorite of mine, no matter how mixed reception seems to have been.
tl;dr: Despite the wall of text you just trudged through, I am not saying that character creation is bad in any way. Additionally, though I didn't really get to talk too much about protagonists like the ones from the Persona games or less defined visual novel heroes (as there really is a wide range from ones that have no personality to ones that are basically full on characters), I will say that to me, they're not exactly the same thing either.
Basically, this is really just me saying this is one of the things I can connect with most in a game, that having a hero with a face and a name and a story really makes me more invested in a game, and it's something I feel that gamers and even developers are wanting less as of late. Could it be that I'm just looking in the wrong places? Maybe so.
I want to be able to have games with stories that are built with a set character in mind. Not all stories out there necessarily need a protagonist to be the way they are, no, in fact many specifically write protagonists lacking certain things so that they don't stand out too much and are easier to relate to. Even so, I feel like I just get into stories like this more easily, and so if a game is trying to make its story relevant, then well... This is where we end up.
That doesn't mean choice can't matter. I don't think defined protagonists having choices, even absurd choices, invalidates them being defined either. Have real people never had to make choices? I don't think so. inFamous and other games that try to use morality, as well as at least a few visual novels, prove that much.
And I mean, I didn't even have a chance to talk about how obvious it is that building a game around a character with a set ability set would be drastically different than building a game around one you can customize, but I hope that much goes without saying.
So in the end, if it's all the same, while many of you guys are off with your self-made heroes, I'd like to keep kicking back with Cole, Shovel Knight, and even Asuka and Mao...
... and maybe finally play Xenoblade Chronicles (sans the X) one of these days and see if I like it.
........ but on the other hand........
Maybe I'm just waiting for someone to make the game where I can make and then be the Kamen Rider of my dreams...?