One of the things that is supposed to set video games apart from other forms of media, movies in particular, is that they allow us to actually inhabit the characters we are playing. We are the hero, rather than just passively watching him go on his or her adventures. A lot of games take this a step further by allowing us to customize our hero’s appearance and attributes as a way to really drive home the idea that “this hero is ME!” The problem is, more often than not, the characters I connect with the least and that I find the least interesting are the ones that I myself have created.
There are a few games that let you “create” your own character and still manage to give that character a personality. Mass Effect did a really good job of having your character be fleshed out and feel like a full-fledged character in spite of the fact that you are able to create them from scratch and then guide their choices throughout the adventure. More often than not, though, when a game allows you to create your own character, it ends up being a lifeless, voiceless avatar that is supposed to “be you” but just never ends up feeling that way. I certainly enjoyed my adventures in Fallout 3, but I would argue that the game would’ve been even better had the main character been a legitimate character and not just a shell that I was supposed to inhabit (the actual main character is basically your dad anyway). A lot of people knock JRPG’s for not being actual “role playing” games other than just letting you change the names of your characters, but because every character in those games – including the ones you control – are actual characters with their own pre-made back stories and character development, the stories in those games ends up being a lot more compelling and cohesive than the stories of Western or open-world RPGs. Yes, you’ve had an amazing time playing Skyrim, but is it because of the game’s story? Or because of the emotional journey that your character takes? How much of either of those things do you even remember or think about when you are reminiscing on the 100+ hours you’ve spent with the game?
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t really feel the need to “be” the characters I am playing. I’ve never once felt like I am Solid Snake or Big Boss, but I have certainly been completely enraptured in their adventures for going on 7 games now. Even games with heroes designed specifically to be voiceless and somewhat of a blank slate so that we can project ourselves onto them, like Zelda or GTA3 or the PS1 Final Fantasy games, still seemed to mesh better with their worlds and feel more compelling than if those games just allowed me to completely “create” my own character flat-out. Not to mention that in the cases of both GTA and Final Fantasy, look at how much better the stories got in later games of those franchises when the main character was an actual character and not just a generic shell – like “Fighter” or “Ninja” or some mute guy loosely known as “Claude” – for us to pretend that we are. Definitely not a coincidence.
Besides, let’s be honest: How often do we really create characters that are actually based on us anyway? More often than not, we create a hulking beast or a deadly cyborg or we simply design a character that we find physically attractive. We are boring, and we play video games to not be our regular boring selves. And if I’m going to be a snarling mutant or a hulking robot or a curvy woman anyway, I might as well be one that already comes fully formed and with a world and a story designed specifically for them, not one that was made to be loose and vague in order to allow for my dull, lifeless avatar to navigate through. Video games are indeed compelling in a different way than movies precisely because we get to experience the journey interactively – but that doesn’t mean we lose that just because we are going on that journey with a character rather than as a character, especially because the former usually ends up being a much more interesting character than we are. Isn’t that supposed to be the point, anyway?