Video games are one of the few forms of media where the audience is able to have a meaningful impact on the appearance, personality, and overall feel of the main protagonist. The ability to create and redesign characters is one of the things that I always appreciate in games. Yet I still sometimes find myself wondering if something is perhaps lost when players are given this option.
There are many ways in which games let you create characters. Western RPGs, like Bioware and Bethesda’s games, often let you make a singular character who acts as the player mouthpiece. They say the things the player wants them to say, look how the player wants them to look, and their class and abilities are all what the player wishes them to be.
At the same time, some dungeon crawlers and other such RPGs allow the player to create and customize an entire party, although these usually are less customizable and have fewer to no dialogue options. Games like Etrian Odyssey present players with pre-drawn appearance options that the player can choose from, all tied to the class you pick. These are less a representation of the player, and more a created character in the story (who still has little say in the plot).
While these characters bring the player further into the game, they also remove the protagonist a bit from the game world. Dialogue options do give the character more personality, but they feel one step removed from being an actual character in this world. Mass Effect avoided this somewhat by added voice acting and a distinct identity to the protagonist, “Shepard,” but in doing so made them that much less of a representation of the player.
I’ve never been able to really get into the Witcher games, but I’ve always appreciated them for their characterization of Geralt (and how they translated his character from the novels). Watching footage of The Witcher 3 really made me realize how much having a defined character added to the story, even when players are given dialogue options for them. I’m so used to western RPGs not doing that, I had put the idea out of my head completely.
That all being said, I feel there are ways created characters can enhance a story. One of the things I enjoy doing in Etrian Odyssey is coming up with personalities for my created characters, and then imagining how encounters would play out with them. It allows me to use my imagination and add depth to what is otherwise a fairly generic story. In contrast, the demo for Etrian Odyssey Unlimited bored me to tears because I could not care about the pre-written characters at all.
At the end of the day, I still really appreciate it when games let you make your own characters. But I would be saddened to see every game going forward do this, as I feel there is room for writers to give the player the reigns to a character they have already written.