Are customizable characters a good thing?

So, Far Cry 5 is coming out and, contrary to previous entries of the series that all featured a preset protagonist, this time the playable character will be a customizable avatar.

This made me think about character customization in general, and the ways it does or does not affect the game experience.

So, let’s say that game protagonists come in three shapes: those that are predetermined by the story (e.g. Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell), those that are customizable to a certain extent, like gender and/or warrior class and maybe affiliation (e.g. Prey, Destiny, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege), and those that are almost completely customizable (e.g. Tom Clancy’s The Division, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, Dragon Age).

Wow, that’s a lot of Tom Clancy’s in there, right? I wonder why…

What is customization?
I am not talking about customizing by unlocking and expanding specific traits along the ability tree (if there is one).

Nioh_20180209155142.jpg

No, customizing clothing to make Nioh’s hero William look extra stupid (but fit to defeat a certain boss, I hope) is not what I have in mind.

What I am talking about are games that allow you to customize your avatar at the very beginning. That way, you create your own, individual protagonist, by choosing gender, race, age, hair style and hair color, eye color, face shape, maybe even body type (That’s you, Dragon’s Dogma!), clothing and accessories.

Many of these games (there are exceptions, of course, and Dragon Age is one of them), don’t focus on the story as much as they do on multiplayer and coop. With a lot of avatars running across the maps it therefore makes sense that you’d allow customization. After all, we have learned to express ourselves by the way we style ourselves.

So, clothing, hair style and accessories all serve to express the way we see ourselves and also express the way we want others to see us.

(Which is why, in both multiplayer and coop, I can’t help but compare a player’s online handle with the avatar they have chosen and customized.)

So, apparently, customization supports our need for self-expression and individuality.

Customizing makes us feel creative and in charge
If available, I usually choose a female avatar, yet said avatar will never bear any resemblance to my real self at all. Why? Because customization offers us the possibility to go wild, to become someone else entirely. Anyone we desire. Well, almost. For, actually, if you think about it, there is limited creativity in customization. After all, the available palettes of customizable traits are too. Limited, that is.

Tom Clancy's The Division™_20160321183402

She may look pretty grim, but also capable, I think. Nice hat, though!

So, okay, in terms of creativity, customization may have its restrictions. Nevertheless, I can imagine that it is very cool to create an in-game avatar that’s your digital twin, though I’d never do that, and of course it is great to get away with wearing clothes or hair styles you’d never dare to wear in real life (Mohawk, here I come!). I clearly remember spending ages trying to find the perfect hat for my character’s face shape in The Division (it is a beanie, in case you were wondering).

Often, games that allow you to customise your avatar will even reward certain accomplishments with new accessories and outfits. Great, right? That way, I can spend even more time toying around with customizing my avatar (creativity) and show everyone I am playing with that I have gained certain achievements (self-expression).

Being creative, within certain limits, is therefore also an appealing side effect of customization.

Characterization through Customization
As mentioned above, customization is an open invitation for going wild. So, while I once really wore my hair as short as my avatar in The Division, tattoos, as seen on my Ghost Recon Wildlands-avatar, are not my thing at all. So, why choose tattoos at all?

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Wildlands_20180209155416

Tough chick (and chic).

Well, I recently realised that, by customising my avatars the way I do, I am not trying to extend my own personality into the game. I customise the avatars according to their perceived role. Which is why both my avatars in The Divion and Ghost Recon Wildlands look rather tough, hands-on and cool (Aviators!). All said and done, I am, in fact, trying to give them a personality by way of customization.

Weird.

Why? Because neither game requires the protagonist to have any personality at all. Maybe that’s what I miss about them. No, it is what I miss about them.

Think about it. Almost all of the games of that type that I have played have one thing in common: the way you customise your hero has no impact at all in regards to the story and has no impact on how NPCs react to your character.

So, while customization is a poor substitute for characterization, it does not really matter. Creativity and self-expression rule. Right?

Not quite.

If you’ve played Dragon Age, you know there are ways to make all the time you have put into customization count. I absolutely loved how the NPCs and companions reacted to my different versions of the Inquisitor in Dragon Age Inquisition. Depending on race, gender and background story (determined by dialogue choices in the beginning) the reactions will differ, which is pretty awesome.

So, are customizable characters a good thing?

I think they are, actually, but, when it comes to story-driven games, please let the customization have an impact on story and NPCs. Don’t get me wrong. I like it when I think my avatar’s looks rock. But I like story even better.

So, what’s your take on this topic? Let me know in the comments if you like! I’d appreciate your input!

Keep on playing

Vanessa

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