A Love Letter to Character Creation In Games
It’s Christmas morning 2009 and my little hands are glued to our brand new Wii remote. The rest of the family surrounds me, bored and annoyed that I’d spent an hour flicking between different nose shapes. Hell if I care, I’m in the zone. My mind is connected to the screen and my eyes are wide open (as well as my mouth probably, because I was stupid and gross). The Mii Maker was probably the first experience with video games I ever had. When I eventually finished my barely accurate self-portrait, all I wanted to do was create another one. And another one. And another after that.
An avatar customisation screen is the best way to start a game. No lore cutscenes, no jumping straight into action, just a generic-looking white dude that I can absolutely fucking destroy. Take a look at some of the greatest games ever made: Skyrim, Minecraft, Skate It for the Nintendo Wii, these games have earned themselves legend status and it’s no coincidence that they all feature avatar creators. I love every second of it. You’re immersed in another world, where you control every aspect of these freaks’ appearances and abilities. For example, in Skyrim I can be a strong, manly man of a Nord warrior, or a High Elf mage who was meant to do a sorcerer playthrough but gave up halfway. I can even be a stealthy smooth Khajiit and plead that nobody calls me a furry … What a world!
I know these avatar creation screens seem like they should be annoying and tedious. So, if you are an uncreative swine, or prefer playing the actual game, then you better sit the fuck down and listen - because I’m about to talk about The Science Of Creativity (according to the first Google search result): Firstly, every good idea has stemmed from someone else's good idea.¹ I mention this because game designers create toolkits when they build character creation systems. They give you the resources so you can create, or rather, curate your own character. You can mix and match which hair colour they have, the depth of their cheekbones, whether or not they look like >:-) or [=^\. The difficult part has been taken out, and you get to reap the rewards.
Your brain has a lot of weird squishy shit going on that releases chemicals when being stimulated, like the medial prefrontal cortex, which is basically your head's reward centre. When you’re being creative, blood rushes to that area and makes it release serotonin or something of the sort. It feels great - you’re placed into a flow state after your brain has been active for so long. So, when you start playing the game, you’re ready to explore a brand new world with a character you made yourself (with a bit of help from some funky game designers).
Game artists and developers work so hard to create these immersive experiences and it continues to get overlooked by the public and the suits of the games industry. Unfortunately, game development is becoming more and more fucked due to two issues plaguing the industry. Firstly, the crunch crisis. This is where employees are made to work extremely hard to finish the game. Studios are known for union busting, and overworking their employees so much that they made a name for it - “stress casualty” - borderline killing their employees by overworking them.
The second issue is microtransactions. Yes, having to pay for DLCs is annoying and dumb, but the problem lies with how every aspect of video games is monetised by studios. This makes game assets less accessible and devalues the hours of work that goes into them. Even if they are bought, it only lines shareholders' pockets.
This makes me worry for the future of the games industry, but also creative work in general. It’s becoming increasingly more sketchy through the dystopian development of NFTs and the shift of independent artists becoming “content creators”. What was once fun and harmless is now being milked for all it’s worth. I love creating stupid little guys in games, and I hope to God we don’t lose it because the industry is hellbent on monetising absolutely everything.