Character Creators Kill Characters

This is an awkward time in game development. It’s a moment where more people than ever before are playing video games. No longer is it realistic to claim that any one group, gender, race, religion, or country makes up the majority of gamers. The gaming community now contains people from all walks of life from just about every country in the world. There are arguments about which markets matter the most based on size, but as far as actual gaming audience is concerned, it’s pretty much everybody.

This diverse array of gamers is a good thing for many reasons. But because of the selfish narcissism of most people, especially gamers, we’re also seeing some terrible repercussions because of this diversity. Today, more than ever before, people (not just gamers) have gotten it into their head that they matter a majority of the time. Things like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have given everyone a voice and for some reason that has led every asshole with a smartphone into believing that their opinions matter and that all works of entertainment should be tailor made for them specifically. And when it’s not made for them they whine, organize, riot, and literally destroy people’s careers and lives.

Your Opinion Big

I’m not talking about any one particular group here. Because so many groups are guilty of this new brand of arrogance. White men, homosexuals, racial minorities, women, and so on. All these groups and many more have on numerous recent occasions complained about a specific game or the industry as a whole simply because it did something they didn’t like or didn’t focus on their identifying group. Even not including a particular group in a game can cause an uproar. The problem with all this is that it has led many developers to try to work around the problem in ways that are easy and shown to be effective for basically all types of gamers. For me one of the worst ways this is being done today is with character creators.

Character creators are an interesting problem because they come from the best intentions. In many ways they’re the perfect form of escapism. When a game has a good character creator, you can literally put yourself in the game or be whoever you want to be. The problem is that this is mostly superficial. Let me clarify that moving forward, all mention of games in this post will refer to plot based campaigns. Multiplayer PVP scenarios are pretty much irrelevant to this particular discussion other than in the fact that they only add to the problem I’ll be addressing in a roundabout way. Multiplayer plot based campaigns are completely relevant though and definitely should be considered when thinking about this topic.

TLoU

Arguably the most important thing about a plot based campaign is the story. I said story there instead of plot because there is a difference. A game can have an amazing plot but if the story isn’t told right then the experience of the campaign will ultimately fail. The way a story is told, the way the characters interact, and the reasons behind why things happen in a story are all important parts of the experience. Think about any game with a good story and imagine if things where presented differently. Let’s use The Last of Us as an example. A game that’s often championed for having such an amazing story. Now imagine for a second if the game had done just a few things differently. All other things being equal, how would people have responded to the story if Joel had lost a son instead of a daughter, it’s revealed that Ellie will have to die to save the world at the beginning of the game, and/or Joel was Asian instead of Caucasian? I think most people would agree that while the gameplay would still be good and the plot would still be interesting, the overall experience of the story would be much less powerful if even just one of those three proposed changes had taken effect. The drama of the story comes from the fact that Joel and Ellie connect on a familial level because she reminds him of his deceased daughter. And the fact that he believes the world can be saved without her having to die from the beginning is what allows that connection to form by the end, literally sacrificing the rest of the world as a consequence of that connection. But in a scenario where you could create your own character, that story would be considerably less powerful.

Joels Daughter Dying

Joel and Ellie aren’t blood relatives. It would have been completely believable and possible for a Black, Asian, Latino or member of any other ethnic group, man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual to be put in the scenario of Joel. The story is that random survivor is tasked with escorting a random girl across the country. Either character could have been any mixture of identifiers and the story would still make perfect sense. But any significant change of profile could drastically reduce the impact of their relationship and by extension story. Therein lays the problem with character creators. They hurt the story in a game. Because no matter much effort a developer tries to make a character neutral story, it will never be as good as a targeted narrative. It’s literally impossible to do.

Modern Tomb Raider games are so powerful because of the vulnerability assumed by a young Lara Croft, a Caucasian female from a wealthy family whose biggest problem was losing her father at a young age. Imagine how much less impressive the character would be if she was a South American boy from Brazil who grew up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Now I’m not saying that a great story couldn’t be told starring a Brazilian male from humble beginnings. I’m just saying that the impact of the story in moments where men trapped on an island capture the character and threaten various physical abuses wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if he was the protagonist. That’s what storytelling is: Putting characters in situations that are impactful for them, not you. You as the audience are supposed to put yourself in the shoes of the character. Not the other way around.

Lara Captured

The problem with plot based games using character creators is that either the game is written for a specific character/audience, usually a heterosexual Caucasian male, and then blanket applied to all created characters regardless of important details like race, gender, and sexuality, or the game is written in such a way that nothing personal ever happens. Take Far Cry 5, which I can’t wait to play. The story of a deputy going into rural Montana to stop a predominantly, if not exclusively, White cult that is literally kidnapping and sacrificing people to their image of God. The game will have a character creator that will allow for male and female characters of any race. Now I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume that if I, an African American male, walked into rural Montana today that I would probably be treated differently than either a Caucasian or Latino male and even more differently than a female of any race. And if that part of Montana was being run by a redneck cult, I believe that would be even more noticeable. Unless of course the cult genuinely has no preferences for their victims because their god told them that all people who aren’t in the cult need to be equally discriminated against and they were all pure and true believers/followers. But let’s be honest and admit that all people would not have the exact same experience walking into rural Montana. Having not yet played the game, I cannot say for sure if Ubisoft has done anything to differentiate the experiences of created avatars based on race and gender among other identifiers in this newest Far Cry. But I can say that in general most games don’t. Especially those from Ubisoft. I played The Division as a Black male. I didn’t experience anything that called attention to the race of my character. Sure the game is set in a post-apocalyptic virus state but it’s still New York City. Someone would say something about race at some point. They wrote the story as if all people are exactly the same. For the most part, that’s what happens in games with character creators. And it’s the least effective means of storytelling a majority of the time.

cover

Some companies do put in the time to at least try to differentiate characters you create in their games. BioWare, specifically with Dragon Age, is a good example of this. The ability to choose things like origin, species (which is different from race in reality), and sexual preference all help to differentiate the gameplay experience of each player and try to tailor an experience relevant to their avatar. And they do a decent job. But part of the reason they get away with it is that they create games with scenarios where human differentiation doesn’t really make sense. In both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, you have multiple species of people living among each other. There are prejudices. There are questions about species mixing and sexuality. There are ethical and moral issues that players are forced to make decisions about and then hear the opinions about these choices from various NPCs. But none of these moments take into account current real life human experiences, because they don’t really have to. People today may differentiate based on skin color, but I can guarantee you that if tomorrow five other sentient species of alien races started living on this planet basically all people would stop seeing human race as an issue. You’re not gonna think twice about the Black guy down the block endangering your neighborhood when your next door neighbor is a giant walking lizard that can lift you off the ground and rip you in half. Human racism makes no sense in these scenarios. Hell, it barely makes sense in current real life scenarios. The games still have racism, but it’s never between members of the same species.

DAI Character Creator

That’s how BioWare chose to deal with the problem of balancing out character creators and narrative. It works, but not every game has aliens and sentient non-human races. That trick won’t work in Far Cry 5. That game will most likely just suffer from bland character experiences and rely heavily on the enemies being so interesting that you ignore the fact that your own character is having a pretty much vanilla experience. What’s sad though is that people are happily championing the spread of character creators in games. All these minority groups are happily accepting White male characters with coats of paint rather than demanding games with plots written for their group. For me that’s a problem, not only because I do want to see more actual games starring Black protagonists but also because I play games for the story. And I don’t like bland plots that aren’t personal. In a PVP scenario I love creating my own character. In a game that pretty much has no real story like Dark Souls, character creators are fine because that’s pretty much all gameplay anyway. But when a company is trying to sell me a plot as the main selling point of the game, I expect a well written, personal, and realistic story. That story doesn’t have to be about someone I personally identify with, but it needs to be good. But there’s the rub. Most people today don’t seem to have my open minded tolerance for games that aren’t made for them specifically. They would prefer superficial experiences where they can take screenshots of their avatar looking the way they want so they can post them on Twitter rather than experiencing an Oscar worthy narrative. For me that’s a problem.

Dark Souls Character

The issue of diversity in video games is definitely an important one. But I would never agree that it’s so important that general quality of single player campaigns should go down as a result of trying to fix that issue. Instead I think this should be seen as an opportunity for developers of all sizes to make more games with more variation between them. Rather than try to make a game for everyone that no one will love. Make everyone their own game and everyone should be happy with their one game (a year). Not every game needs to be for everyone and not every group needs to be represented in every game. Instead when groups are represented in games it should be done to the highest possible quality and realism. That’s why for me the modern proliferation of character creators in games isn’t a good thing. I’ll take one well written game starring a Black guy over five empty games where I can pretend the character is a Black guy any day. Thoughts?

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Time For A Good (Far) Cry

Let me start off by saying that this post will most likely offend some people. As always, it is not my intention to offend but to speak honestly and openly about my opinions concerning the gaming industry and occasionally, as with this post, how certain topics in gaming are affected by the wider world.

There has been a lot of buzz after several reveals about Far Cry 5. In all honesty I’m not actually a fan of the Far Cry franchise. I own Blood Dragon because I got it for free. But I have never once played it or had the slightest interest in doing so. I also purchased the Apex Edition of Far Cry Primal, but that was on sale and my reasons for purchasing it are almost exactly the same reasons that I haven’t had any interest in any of the ones in the main series up until now. And to be perfectly honest, I haven’t actually taken the time to play Far Cry Primal as of yet. My interest in Primal was mainly because of the animals. I really liked the idea of being a beast master and after watching some gameplay footage of the player commanding animals to do his bidding I was sold. But just as important was the fact that this wasn’t a gun game. In fact it’s set in a time where guns didn’t and couldn’t exist. I have little interest in gun games and FPS is my least favorite of the shooting genre. But the main reason I’ve avoided the core Far Cry games until now is the narratives.

primal

Far Cry, in the main series, is traditionally about some guy going to some remote place where he has no business being and saving the natives. More often than not this ends up being a white man shooting up minorities but there have been some moments in the franchise where that wasn’t the case or didn’t necessarily have to be. Far Cry 4 makes the biggest departure from this by having you play as a Himalayan man fighting other Himalayans under the dictatorship of an insane Hong Kong gangster. Though I have to say that without looking it up, Pagan Min comes off totally white. At the same time though the game is still about a guy traveling off to somewhere remote that he doesn’t belong because the protagonist doesn’t actually live in the Himalayas. He was just visiting the motherland to bury his mother who actually was from there. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with plots about people, of any color, travelling to a faraway land to shoot up the locals. While some people might get offended by games like Resident Evil 5 (2009) where a white man goes to Africa and kills a bunch of Black people, I just find it rather boring. The entire idea is overplayed. As an African American who no longer lives in America, I for the most part find the narrative concept of an American travelling to faraway lands to better the lives of the locals to be hacky and unoriginal. The fact that it’s so common place says a lot about the American gaming market.

far cry series

What I have always found the most interesting is that this issue of making games where Americans, mostly white men, travel to other places and kill the locals is a strictly American concept. Games with protagonists from other countries don’t commonly do this. Or at least not to the same degree in the same way. Games from Japan are usually not set in realistic places or they weirdly enough make the game about Americans. Look at Metal Gear Solid for instance. A Japanese studio, led by a Japanese man, makes a super long, iconic franchise about a white guy(s) doing a bunch of stuff in Russia and the USA. The only times they aren’t in white countries is when white villains have traveled to other places like South America (Peace Walker) and Afghanistan (MGS5) to start shit up. Games starring Europeans, like Assassin’s Creed, tend to have characters go about their adventures in their homelands. Ezio finally leaves Europe for Constantinople after two other full length games. That was more of a need to make the story interesting than a cultural thing. And at the time of the game Constantinople had a lot of European influence due to the Turkish Empire’s reach so it’s still a pretty reasonable location for him to go. A lot of Japanese games do this as well by recreating periods in their own history or at least other Asian countries they’re closely tied to. It’s only games starring American protagonists that commonly create plots where people from a country, again usually white, travel to other places and try to “save” those savage, primitive races from themselves. It’s that idea coupled with the same old FPS gameplay that turned me off of all the previous Far Cry titles.

white protags big

The upcoming Far Cry 5 is a different story. Now I am not saying that this is the first/only game like this, but I can’t think of any AAA examples from earlier in my life (almost 25 years of gaming) that are this real and relevant to me as an American. Ubisoft may not make the best games in the world, but in recent years they sure do know how to pick a culturally relevant setting. This latest Far Cry is set in modern day Montana. And by modern day I mean like today. There’s no zombie apocalypse. There’s no coming out of the vault 100+ years after a nuclear war. There’s no disease that killed off most of the country. It’s just everyday racist 2017 USA. But it’s about a real problem with a real villain. GTAV may be in a realistic setting and it may have believable characters, but it’s not really about some larger social issue. It’s just the story of three guys trying to survive as best as they can. It’s a small story. It’s a personal story. Far Cry 5 seems to be about real life problems plaguing the entire USA today. And this isn’t about some visitor from a faraway land coming to help the locals. The playable character isn’t even from another state. You’re a local deputy. Sure you can choose your skin color in this one, but let’s all be honest and admit that in the real life scenario this Montana deputy is almost assuredly a white man.

This is a game where the developer asks the American market to take up weapons against their own kind. And not as monsters, mutants, or hypnotized victims. As normal gun toting, red blooded, Trump supporting Americans. There’s no other AAA like this and there has never been a time in this country where a game of this budget from a franchise of this level of established credibility has put American gamers in this position. This will be an experience like no other for everyone. White American players will be forced to actually sympathize with the enemies on the screen. Minorities will on some level finally get to experience what it’s like to be a white American male gamer. I can’t see myself not playing this game. And you can damn sure bet I’m gonna use a Black avatar. This whole experience sounds nuts. Honestly it’s sad that in 2017 such an experience sounds so off the deep end because it means that such experiences aren’t a normal part of gaming. I can list off tons of games where you kill enemies of any other race in various countries in various time periods. But when it comes to white American enemies, it’s basically never in a realistic setting. It’s a dystopian future or zombies or aliens pretending to be humans or some other such mumbo jumbo to defuse the situation. This will be a definite first for so many gamers out there around the world.

fishing in montana

Now I’m not one to usually support politics in games, but that’s only a half truth. What I have an issue with is people inserting politics into games that aren’t political for their own grandstanding and agendas. For example, making Street Fighter V a discussion about sexism and female objectification is stupid. Trying to argue that the Mario Bros. franchise is an example of how people have been indoctrinated with sexism is just unfounded and generally ridiculous. Note I’m not saying that issues like sexism aren’t real issues. I’m merely saying that people tend to insert politics into games unnecessarily and often unrightfully because games and gamers are an easy target. So in those cases I’m all for the “keep politics out of games” argument. But when a game actually is political and intentionally is written about real political issues, especially in a realistic modern setting like in the case of Far Cry 5, then I’m all for it. If you go into Far Cry 5 thinking it won’t be or shouldn’t be political then you’re an idiot and you’re playing the wrong games. This is a political game and the entire experience, both in and out of the game, will be and should be political.

games and politics

This will be a highly polarizing and political experience. I can already see some of the things that are going to happen. Live streams and YouTube videos of Mexican avatars killing white people. Fox News doing stories about how this game promotes domestic terrorism and violence against white Americans. Various hate groups and media arguing that the game paints hard working lower and middle class Americans in an unfair light. Trump will probably make a statement about the game at some point. I won’t be surprised if it gets banned in certain cities or even states. It’s become that kind of America. It’s gonna be a circus and I’m totally in support of that.

I’ve already seen a lot of people online saying that a game like this is inappropriate right now. I disagree. I think a game like this is most appropriate right now. It’s when things like this actually are happening that it matters most. It’s when people are already talking about this sort of thing and these sorts of fears that it matters most to make a game or movie discussing these issues. What I like most about what I’ve read so far is that the game is not taking extreme positions against religion or targeting certain races. It’s specifically villainizing extremism. A lot of people today are altogether anti-religious and think religion is the problem with American conservatives. But that’s an oversimplification of the issue. Supposedly this debate comes up in the game through the fact that you’re fighting a religious cult, but one of your main helpers in the game is a Black pastor. I really like this move because it shows that Ubisoft has really put some thought into how they want to portray these serious issues in current American politics.

religion far cry 5

Now I’m prematurely giving Ubisoft a lot of credit for things that haven’t happened yet. It is extremely possible, and very likely based on their recent track record, that this game will only scratch the surface and then quickly fizzle out. The studio is great at picking settings. But they aren’t great at writing full-fledged stories. Take a game like Watch Dogs. Great premise, lackluster delivery. Every Assassin’s Creed since like three, if I’m being nice, has a similar problem. Great settings coupled with terrible writing. I’m also not expecting much from the gameplay. It’s gonna pretty much be the same FPS experience they always deliver with a couple new bells and whistles. I’m playing this game strictly for the plot and I’m hoping they don’t screw it up. They need to write an amazing, fully developed, powerful story and not pull any punches. If they just deliver that I’ll be happy. Also the game has coop and I’ve already planned to play it with my Mexican friend. A Black guy and a Mexican guy killing rednecks in the backwoods of America. That sounds like a YouTube series to me.

Now I know I went a little overboard in certain places in this post, but I was trying to drive home a point that too many Americans still don’t seem to get. I’m hoping Far Cry 5 is good and if it is good I believe it can do a lot to bridge that gap. Or start another Civil War. Both are totally possible in the current political climate.

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