One trait which I like to think is shared by a vast majority of gamers is that we empathize and connect with the characters we play as; sometimes even more so than movie or book characters (since we’re the ones guiding the character’s actions). However, in an age where getting to create or at least visually customize characters is such a universally important game element, is it easier to connect with pre-made player-characters, or characters players get to create from scratch?
It’s human nature to try and relate to the characters we read about or watch or play as. Anything from how a character dresses to how they style their hair to how they treat other characters around them can have an impact on our own self-image and, on one hand, it can be easier to relate to a character if we create that character and have them look and act the same way we do. However, character-creation has only come so far; how well can you really relate to a character whose name is only text on a menu screen? Who doesn’t have their own voice? Whose emotional responses to a situation don’t often go beyond facial reactions?
While it may be true that players often feel a stronger emotional connection to characters they create, are the immersion-specific sacrifices they make worth getting to play as a character who has their face and their (implied) personality? Take Commander Shepard from Mass Effect for instance. Shepard represents a nice balance of pre-made and custom-made; while players can’t change Shepard’s last name or the fact that he/she is human, they *can* customize basically every other aspect of Shepard as a character.
Would you want to be able to change Shepard’s race if it meant he/she no longer had a spoken voice? Would being able to create your own custom classes in Mass Effect be a worthy trade-off for not getting to decide whether Shepard was a Renegade or Paragon? Could you live with not being able to control the fates of Shepard’s squadmates if you *could* decide Shepard’s ultimate fate at the end of the Mass Effect trilogy? Tough questions I know but they and questions like them can make all the difference when it comes to bonding with the characters we choose to create and/or play as.
What about more open-world titles like the Saints Row or Grand Theft Auto series’? Is it more fun taking a custom character through the zany streets of Saints Row or experiencing the powerful and emotional (though no-less thrilling and fun) journey of Niko Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV? It may not always be a question of empathizing with a character, it could simply be a question of which option offers more entertainment value.
So what about you loyal VGU readers? Do you find it easier to connect with characters you create or characters that are created for you? Is getting to create and/or customize the characters you play as an important feature for you? Or do you just think it’s nothing more than glorified wish-fulfillment? Should more game developers try to offer a sort of “middle ground” like Bioware did with Commander Shepard? Sound off in the comments below and stay tuned for more VGU reader discussions in the coming weeks.