I reject my humanity, Jojo
Ever since I started blogging on Destructoid, I’ve not bothered to keep it a secret that I’m part of the furry fandom. I mean, yeah, it’s weird to say I like pretending to be a giant moth man with extraneous kaiju-like features, but have you seen everyone else here? Destructoid is a bunch of lovable weirdos!
For obvious reasons I’ve downplayed it since I became a front page contributor, but I continue to own it because, well, that’s just me being honest about my other hobbies (not to mention some of my favorite artists who identify with the fandom like Marc Knelsen and Alberto Hernández are responsible for some pretty exciting work on games). I enjoy donning the online persona of an anthropomorphized insect. That’s why I feel slightly disappointed that I can’t find a single MMO where I can play as a sufficiently insectoid bug person.
People play MMOs for many reasons, but one that’s rarely discussed is to express oneself in a massive community. Hence the joke of people spending hours in character creation fine-tuning their avatars to be exactly what they want them to be — because that avatar is a part of their in-game identity in a sea of never-ending players. One of the quickest decisions in that process is selecting a race or a species due to how broadly that impacts everything else. It’s also one of the most important parts of defining a player’s connection to their character identity.
Obviously, not every MMO even needs a race selector. They run the gamut of genres and premises, many of which don’t fit anything other than humans, and I think we can agree humans are a rad species (not that we humans are biased or anything). But the vast majority of MMOs are themed around various fantasy settings, drawing upon imagination to create worlds where magic, sentient AI, or other such conventions are accepted as a universal norm, as are any creatures that depend on those conventions to exist. And yet their playable rosters mostly stick to humanlike archetypes and neglect possibilities that players such as myself find much more interesting, even when other such races are written as a vital part of their worlds.
Most of us are overly familiar with the typical fantasy stereotypes. Every fantasy MMO needs humans, elves, and dwarves because that’s just what fantasy is, even though that’s an extremely limiting and often useless self-imposed constraint. There are often slight variations on the formula, your occasionally bunny person in lieu of an elf, but pretty much all character models are based on the composition of the human body. That’s not to say that lizardmen, wolfmen, fishmen, and rockmen are any less tropey, because they regularly play close to their own stereotypes. But they’re much more distinct and varied tropes, and yet much less common than the aforementioned trinity of fantasy clichés.
One reason often given against them is because equipment-based character models are much easier to design if every character has a similar body shape. Unusual body shapes like digitigrade legs, large antennae, or other peculiar protrusions could easily mess with models built for others. While this is a constant challenge for many concepts, it’s one that can be mitigated by downplaying design elements where race design clashes with character model system design.
For example, we take for granted that MMOs change our characters’ appearances with our equipment, but many MMOs never change anything about their players’ appearances except equipped weapons. And that’s fine if it fits a game’s vision, as long as character creation gives us enough options. Several prolific MMOs already demonstrate how they can make such odd creatures work as playable characters, with varying degrees of customization and radical design elements.
World of Warcraft is extremely iconic partially because it hits as many fantasy staples as possible with some of its own twists. Interestingly, this includes some races that fantasy worlds regularly pivot around but rarely make playable, such as orcs and trolls. These are more exotic and monstrous looking than most, and while the furry fandom is also fond of them, there are three more obvious candidates in the Worgen, Tauren, and Pandaren. All of them as fluffy and beastly as their animal counterparts, yet all of WoW’s wardrobes and hats fit them as snugly as any other race because they were designed to fit within those constraints.
The long-running Phantasy Star series has a much smaller roster. Excluding the typical humans and space-elves, it also plays with the anime RPG trend of beastfolk who may have slight beastly features. At least, that’s what Phantasy Star Universe’s Beasts look like at first glance, but their ability to transform into powerful and monstrous forms using Nanoblasts places them further into furry territory. And you may already be familiar with my enthusiasm for CASTs, who run the gamut from traditional anime androids to mecha anime machines scaled down to human size. Fun fact: robots, golems, and other “clearly neither a human nor an animal” beings are also accepted in the furry fandom even if they have no fur!
Wildstar offered the most cartoonishly varied roster of playable races I’ve ever seen, all stylized within a cartoonish space opera. Both factions had their equivalent of humans, and one had a selection of slightly furry forest folk, but more than half of its playable races stood out as something that I rarely see. To run by them all quickly, this included golem-ish rock people, friendly space zombies, more robots but they’re less anime and more western cartoon villain, hairy reptilians that look more like aliens than any recognizable lizards, and maniacal gerbil engineers. I’m gonna miss them all.
Even small MMOs occasionally get in on some weirder race designs. One I used to play, Eden Eternal, greeted me with a choice between humans and the precious nugget-sized Zumi who were literally just hamsters. Later updates added the grizzly Ursun and froggy Anuran, the latter of which quickly became my race of choice. But the fifth and final player race was teased with more mystery than any other, and I was anticipating its reveal. Was it one of the NPC races like the turtles? The boars? The lizard-taurs?
Nope, it was Halfkin, aka humans but they look like children. Lolis and shotas out of nowhere.
I still feel a bit cheated by that reveal to this day. It’s extremely petty of me to hold it against Eden Eternal years after I lost interest in it for unrelated reasons, especially when I already had a race I wanted to stick to for my main character. But that reveal embodied everything that irked me with how most other MMOs of its kind treat its playable races.
I get that a younger variety of humans has much more mass appeal than some lizard-taur, especially for an art style shooting in the general direction of anime fans. That’s also a part of why the typical fantasy stereotypes are more common. Nor does it help that being associated with furries often comes with nasty stereotypes (I’m tired of reminding people that these same stereotypes exist in most fandoms, furries are just the most vocal/open about them by principle and they remain only a fraction of the fandom).
But there’s an issue with promoting mass appeal through cherry-picking the options players have. It stunts creativity and makes a pretty lame bullet point to stand out in a sea of similar games. There are already 20 thousand MMOs where I can play as an elf or a shota if I want to. It’s way harder to find any, let alone ones worth investing much time into, where I can play as a frog or a lizard-taur or a moth.
Final Fantasy XIV’s playable races are more than diverse enough to make a great character creation system and a wonderfully varied community, but I’ve always felt like they were lacking relative to the exotic designs of the Beast Tribes. Eorzea is a fantasy world where lizards, plants, birds, crab-ants, fish, and more are all capable of talking and walking upright and forming their own societies. I get that the story is written in such a way as to make them unfeasible player race choices, they’re alien cultures who made decisions that make them hostile against other civilizations, that’s a good plot element.
But then I see the pockets of allied beastfolk from every tribe. And then I ask myself why there can’t be just one beast-looking tribe that never decided to worship a Primal, much like Ivalice’s Bangaa or Viera or Viangaa. Heck, Ivalice is now canonically a part of FFXIV’s world, including Bangaa. Seeing so many interesting races relegated to enemies and NPCs feels like a sorely missed opportunity relative to what I’m offered. Not to talk down FFXIV, I consider it the best MMO I’ve ever played, but that’s one of a few personal reasons why I have little interest in returning to it.
In my passive observance of the WoW fandom, I’ve noticed that some players insist that Pandaren are a pointless addition. My knowledge of Pandaren only goes as far as that they were originally showcased as an April Fools’ joke that was received so well they were added into Warcraft canon, so I can understand that negative impression.
But then I read tales of Pandaren players being harassed because their harassers insist they’re out of place. To that I say…seriously? It’s okay to bully someone because they wanted to play as a panda? In a video game where players sling spells, send text messages across the world in a medieval era, and stab elder gods in the face? Some of those players being werewolves and minotaurs? I’m pretty sure the actual problem regarding harassment isn’t whether or not you can play as a panda, and having playable pandas does more good for people’s enjoyment of WoW than any justifiable harm.
People often say it’s weird to want to play as something like an animal in an MMO because they aren’t animals. And that’s correct! It’s also every bit as weird as wanting to play as an elf, because nobody in real life is an elf, and nor is it a bad kind of weird in either case. Very few people play MMOs to present themselves as a carbon copy of their real selves. Instead, we design our avatars as alternate versions of ourselves. As our ideals, our fantasies, our whims, our curiosities, or any number of other desires.
That same desire to explore alternate identities is one of the many driving appeals behind the furry fandom. They simply remove self-imposed limitations of what their online personae should be. The easiest way to demonstrate that extreme is to use nonhuman species like dogs, sharks, bees, and abstract eldritch abominations. And much like character creation in any game, furries associate their characters or avatars as various species for a laundry list of reasons — symbolism, favoritism, gut instinct, artistic intent, whatever!
To a limited extent, picking one’s character in any game is an act of expression. Not every Lucario main in Super Smash Bros is a furry, nor is every Peach main female, but they see at least one thing in those characters that they want to be associated with. Maybe they like their personalities. Maybe they like their playstyles. Maybe they just want to broadcast that they are their main’s biggest fan. Whatever the reason, people take pride in claiming “that’s my character.”
Creating our own character amplifies that sense of expression and ownership to the point where “that’s my character” is replaced with “that’s me” in our minds, even if we never intended to make our character resemble our selves. It’s unrealistic to expect every conceivable possibility, but there is a certain threshold where many of us feel as if the choices we want most are being explicitly excluded. At that point, that sense of ownership becomes something within our sight, but not quite our reach. That’s why I want to see more MMOs include more rarely seen character options. I want to see my moth friends. The hive must flourish.