A Time To Build: All It Takes Is A Name


[Editor's note: Charles Sharam talks about how just naming a character immerses him in videogames for his A Time to Build Monthly Musing.  -- CTZ]

Typically, when people consider the creative element of videogames, their thoughts turn to PC mods like Warcraft III's DotA and games focused on user generated content a la LittleBigPlanet, The Sims, and so on. But there are more subtle elements of creativity at work in the world of gaming. All it takes is a small injection of personalization and a game can become truly immersive.

I remember that as a kid, the naming of my game characters was a serious ordeal. I would sit for ages trying to think of the perfect name since, after all, I would be stuck with it thereafter. Names themselves became a lead-in for attachment to my heroes, as once you name something, it truly becomes yours. Tagging the lead character in Pokemon Red "Pichon" is not so different from dubbing your baby "Danny" or calling your new dog "Sally". There's an aura of sentimentality surrounding names that cannot be ignored.

Pichon actually was the identity my trainer took on in Pokemon Red many years ago. I don't know what inspired me to call him that, but I can assure you, I wasn't influenced by this guy. Perhaps it was my own mash-up of the word "Pikachu." I'll never really know as the truth has been lost to time. The origins probably aren't all that noteworthy anyway. What's significant is that Pichon soon became my most coveted character in gaming. The best thing about him was that he didn't belong to anyone else. He was mine. Pichon became a sort of alter-ego for me. I kid you not when I say I spent hundreds of hours immersed in the world of Pokemon Red. It's not like the story was Metal Gear quality or anything, but I can't recall many games drawing me in as far as this one. It wasn't just because of the great game design, either. This was my world.

Being given the small but rewarding creative license to name my trainer and pocket monsters sparked a creative fuse that wound through my imagination and exploded across the customizable assets of the Pokemon universe. Every creature I acquired was given their own unique nickname and a persona (cultivated more so in my imagination than in the game) that was further developed by their specially tailored move sets. The game became a highly personal experience and this made it very important to me. The sense of attachment grew all the more when I brought my chosen six into battle against friends via the Game Boy's link cable. It came down to a matter of my creative choices with the game (engineering a solid arsenal of attacks, balancing creature types, etc.) versus those of my opponent. In short, our actions in battle were representative of ourselves. For me and for many, a little creative freedom laid the framework for a truly immersive and personal experience on the Christmas morning of 1998.

The value of a player's ability to personalize games is exemplified in real life. Take a look at your bedroom. Would you not agree that it is unique to you and that you feel bonded to it? This may not be the case for all, but anyone who has customized their room to suit their personality and preferences is likely to feel this sense of attachment. Think about your room. Take a look at what's meaningful about it, and consider what aspects make it your exclusive one-of-a-kind retreat.

My room, for instance, is heavily layered with pictures, posters, and ornaments of everything paramount in my life; primarily girlfriend-related things and splashes of videogame nerdiness. There are book cases and drawers filled with games, and everything from a Sega Genesis to a PS3 is hooked up to an HDTV at the center of it all (depending on what I'm playing at the time). My unusual equivalent to a couch is framed by a string of warmly coloured lights, and the comfortable bed I rarely sleep in has had the frame removed because I like my mattress close to the floor. My room is unique and important to me because I created it. It's the culmination my personality and interests and that makes its existence valuable.

Were the past two paragraphs a bizarre interlude for an article that's supposed to be about videogames? They're connected to Pokemon Red and the much broader topic we're exploring by these three words: personalization fosters attachment. When we create something it gains meaning. When we alter aspects of an experience it becomes our experience. And when we build our own world we appreciate every idiosyncratic nuance. As such, if game designers give us the tools to individualize, even on the lowest level, our sentiment for their products can tremendously increase.

My story about rooms translates directly back into the peaceful villages of Animal Crossing, wherein the customization of your house is a cardinal focus. A vast collection of furniture, wallpaper, NES games, and more is gradually made available to players as they progress through their day-to-day virtual lives. Your home set-up is a digital expression of taste (or lack thereof). The game's sequel, Wild World, made it possible to spread this expression across the globe, and the personalization takes another step forward in City Folk, which allows players to import their reserve of custom Mii avatars into Nintendo's critter community. The Animal Crossing franchise is similar to Will Wright's brainchild, The Sims, in that players can become deeply engrossed with a multitude of creative opportunities to individualize their game experience.

It doesn't always take a user-development juggernaut like LittleBigPlanet to inspire creativity. Nor do we need the best map-editing tools on the market to develop something meaningful. The freedom to soak a game in the charms of our own identities is the only key we need to unlock exciting new gateways to immersion. It could be a matter of rebuilding a ruined world your way in Dark Cloud, or the joys of personalization may manifest themselves in the simple process of redecorating your room in Animal Crossing. For me, all it took was a name.

Personality is so important in a creative industry like ours. So get out there and build your names, your characters, your world.

One last breath of nostalgia.

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