['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column is about moral choices altering character design.]

When Warren Spector discussed his upcoming game, Disney Epic Mickey, he mentioned how there were three variations of Mickey based on player choices : the hero, standing triumphantly with his chest out and chin up. The wastelander, with a bright-eyed smile and cautious pose.

And finally the scrapper, with a sinister grin and hunched over back. In a controversial move the scrapper was, well, scrapped. Rumors were this was due to focus testing, that the scrapper model didn't test well and a more foreboding Mickey offended certain sensibilities. But I've learned better than to trust rumors.

When Epic Mickey was shown in its most current iteration at Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle last weekend it turned out that the hero model was tossed aside as well. This is in stark contrast not only to what we were told Epic Mickey would be, but to other games with moral choice like Fable and inFamous where your appearance changes based on these choices. "Play style matters", Spector promised back at E3, so why did he go this route?

Fortunately I had the opportunity to ask him why he changed the adaptable character model system to which he replied: “In any game about choice and consequence, you have to have some way of communicating to the player that their choices are making a difference. And there are a couple ways you can do that traditionally. You can have a meter that says 'I am good/ I am evil'."

"You can change the way the character looks in some obvious dramatic way --Those are the two most typical ways. And both of those actually do have this interesting side effect of getting players to play a meta-game as opposed to the actual game. It's about moving the meter, not about playing a role. It's about achieving an outside of the game goal and not being who you want to be, doing what you want to do.”

“So last year one of the game directors at Junction Point came to me and said, 'I have an idea. Instead of changing the way Mickey looks -- changing a label on Mickey -- why don't we use these things I created called 'guardians?' I looked at that and went, 'Oh my god! This is so much better than what I came up with. Of course we're going to do it!"

"The onscreen guardians are intriguing, they're not intrusive, they clearly communicate to the player how things are changing based on your behavior, and in my mind they're a new character we can add to the Disney universe that we can explore in more detail, godwilling, if we get to do more games set in the wasteland. In every way I could think of it was a better answer.”

I couldn't agree with him more.

In Fable 2, I didn't want my character to look ugly, so I played as a good person my first time through. I wound up using a lot of magic though, so my hero ended up littered with glowing blue veins.

My second time through I played as a sadistic little minx (one fond of luring men into bed before haplessly slaughtering them), but her vile actions transformed her into a zombie like creature. She was still kind of pretty in a Kerrigan from Starcraft kind of way, so I wanted to at least keep the cute decomposing goth-girl look going. Trying not to repeat the same mistakes as before, I opted to focus less on magic and instead on long-range attacks.

Unfortunately this had the side effect of making me taller (how does that work?). At first it wasn't so bad -- while hunting trolls in caverns I'd hardly noticed. But when I rode into town a head taller than everyone I started to get self conscious about my giantess. In the end, it seemed like pretty much anything I did made me uglier and it made me not want to do things.

Maybe I'm just vain, but it bothered me that my appearance was tied to my actions. Why do evil people have to be uglier? There are plenty of good looking yet terrible people out there after all.

Not having any choice in how your avatar looks alleviates that ulterior motive from your choice. Equally important, it doesn't suggest a way for you to act. If your character already looks gruesome you're going to be less liable to want to switch to good as the damage has been done. Not only that, but it can influence the narrative in distracting ways. If you look like the spawn of Satan, yet people still treat you with respect that detracts from the writing.

In the case of the three Mickeys in particular, they would have functioned as a transparent morality scale making it obvious where you fall on the popular/powerful divide (Spector was quick to point out that Mickey can't be evil. But he can solve problems in less altruistic ways. “Do I want to be the family and friends guy? Or do I want to be individually powerful and save the world- which also benefits my family and friends? So what kind of hero am I?").

Without the avatar changing it makes it easier to stay in character as you rather than following the mouse by his tail. The guardian system Spector went with – where green or blue fairy-like creatures called “turps” or “tints” (for thinner and paint respectively) follow you around granting powers specific to your play style – might prove to still be too transparent a meter, but it's a step in the right direction. It's less intrusive than it could be since they exist as separate entities that you could always change. Ultimately, by divorcing character design from play style it encourages a greater degree of agency with fewer distractions.

Which isn't to say character design altering choices are inherently bad. Given my vanity with my Fable 2 characters I think it would have made for an infinitely more fascinating decision if being good made you uglier, while being evil left you pretty. If done in a tasteful way this could be truly compelling.

For example, somebody could be trapped in a burning building. If you let them die, you maintain your good looks. If you save them you suffer permanent burns over much of your body. You could even have certain romantic subplots that could no longer be pursued after such horrible scarring. This is the kind of thing where tying the characters form to function could serve to enhance rather than detract.

There's no one right way of doing things and character customization and moral choices can work in tandem to create extremely difficult dilemmas. Though more often than not, they don't and only serve to hinder player choice with "meta games" as Spector calls it.

In the case of Disney's rodent mascot his beady-eyed poker face does wonders at conveying anything from the noblest of intentions to curious mischief. Spector is fond of saying that "gamers are paralyzed by choice." And Mickey? Well, he's paralyzed too, so you'd best make up your mind and lend the mouse a hand.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer for G4TV.com, blogs about games at JumpingMoustache.com and is a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]