August 21, 2008 4:00 PM | Leigh Alexander
[Back after a few months' hiatus, The Aberrant Gamer is happy to return as a biweekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
"Make her boobs bigger," someone says.
"No, no," I argue. "She needs to be petite. We’re going lolicon-style."
"How is a lolicon-style girl supposed to kick ass?"
I know, I know, but I’ve got this entire set of "kitty" clothes, and fuzzy ears, and am I really going to put them on an Amazon woman? Actually, that might be kind of cool. So I take her – my creation – and I make her a little bit taller and more muscular, and then I put the little ribbon and bell around her neck.
"It looks stupid," I decide, scrolling, overwhelmed, through plate armor and fishnets that might be more appropriate. My woman-in-progress gives me a challenging look, blinks patiently, turns her head a little from side to side while I decide what she will look like.
She should be more tan, she should wear high boots, and, okay, her boobs should be bigger. Tweak, tweak, tweak, and -- "She’s hot," my Soulcalibur IV co-pilot approves.
She is, I realize, when I give her a test run up against a bluish zombie Mitsurugi. I chose her voice and the way she poses, I gave her Tira’s big bladed ring (my proposal), and now I make her fight as if she’s dancing. She’s cool, she’s hot, she kicks ass.
And I made her.
Character creation is becoming a bigger trend than ever in console games. We’ve been able to palette-swap our sprites here and there since the old days, pick between the girl and boy, or the ponytail and the long hair – that’s nothing new. But now, with the distance graphical sophistication has come, we can practically play God and birth new, lifelike people every day if we so choose.
This maximum-customization trend seems to have been inherited largely from PC MMOs, which prize every little development that might enhance player retention – after all, they exist in a field where abandonment spells disaster. In the multiplayer sea, we’ve learned, people invest more in characters whose maintenance is complex and whose individuality is nuanced.
Players get hooked on the rush of pride they get when their character is adorned with stand-out armor, a shock of identifiable green hair – in short, when players can look at an avatar and say, "that’s me," they can care about that digital self’s well-being enough that they want to stick around, see their creation strive, grow and thrive. And, of course, see what it looks like with a spankin’ new hat that nobody else has.
There’s a financial motive that’s driven expanded customization, too. A majority of our lessons and standards on online games are inherited from Asia, the cradle of the MMO market, where piracy makes it challenging to run a game out of a retail box and on subscription fees. Many of the most popular games make their money on microtransactions – and personal items, clothing and visual enhancements for the character tend to prompt just as many, if not more purchases than items that actually add a game enhancement. The lesson there is that players value the ability to personalize, to customize, and to choose in high detail how they represent themselves.
Character creation on console titles is a bit different, however – half the fun is showing off your creations whenever possible, of course, but in a title like Mass Effect, you can build and create your protagonist to an unprecedented degree; the satisfaction comes in seeing your handiwork inside the game at all, a breath of fresh air in the traditionally linear environment of the console epic. Another factor is that audiences often demand protagonists to whom they can relate, whom they admire, to motivate gameplay and enhance immersion – so isn’t the best way to "get it right" to allow players to build their own, to conceptualize and customize and name them, bringing forth a whole human being from a neutral-skinned, staring and bald-headed alien?
Of course, a fair amount of the Mass Effect audience, when creating their characters, was probably thinking more along the lines of, "who’d look the hottest having sex with a blue alien," and less, "who really represents me," but that’s neither here nor there.
Because despite the idea of "personalization," nobody really wants to make themselves. People do, to be sure, just to see how close they can get, perhaps – and interestingly, it’s much more challenging with the present tech to create a faithful in-game replica of a real person than it is to create a compelling, largely original avatar. I’ve seen people post up in-game, character-created versions of "themselves" on their blogs and personal sites, and always with a caption to the effect of, "well, it’s not exactly like me, but close."
Or, if people are replicating themselves, they’re doing it not visually but in accordance with a subtle, perhaps even subconscious language – for example, I find I gravitate toward making red-headed characters not because I’ve got red hair (not naturally, at least!) but because to me, non-visual traits commonly associated with red-headedness are ones I’d like to associate with myself. The result, for me as with others, is an idealized self, not a visual replica.
Of course, that’s not all. Games are the only entertainment medium that puts this god-like power to create a lifelike being directly into our hands, allowing us to project our ideals into the experience. And we are, of course, primeval primates – as we trim a waist here, round a hip there, plump some lips or broaden some muscular shoulders, the experience feels vaguely fetishistic, doesn’t it?
We quickly tire of building self-representations and move onto our ideals, building our own sexy dolls, too unnatural-perfect to exist as real-world people. This is particularly true with Soulcalibur IV -- this column’s discussed in the past the innate sexuality of the fighting genre. And now, we can peel off Xianghua’s armor and swap her undergarments for a racier set, which does absolutely nothing for her swanlike swordplay, but provokes the subtle thrill of control for some.
Perhaps mercifully, game characters are not real people nor representations thereof. But we, the players, are real people, of course, and when you remove the protagonist narrative and instead allow us to customize it ourselves, it’s like opening a door for every aspect of humanity to come pouring through. A Google search for "Sporn" produces 824,000 results (including those unfortunate enough to have it for a last name), and the game isn’t even out yet. Give us the ability to create, and we will, in safe anonymity, create pornography in droves.
We’ve been evaluating game characters for years to see what sort of hero and cast of characters create the best "way in" to the game experience. Letting us build our own, high on the user-generated content trendwave, certainly provides a new angle on things. When we look at what’s happening on the screen now – for example, my beloved tiny half-dressed girl in a witch hat (and the bell necklace, of course!) fighting, thrillingly, my bestial, spike-plated axeman in a gold mask, while I force them to try and grab each other – we’ve suddenly less titillating psychology to analyze in the game themes than we’ve got in our own mad little minds.
[Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets including Variety and Paste, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer