Sunday, 28 August 2016
Why More Video Games need Proper Character Customization
One thing that really annoys me in modern games is the tendency of some franchises to promise "deep customization" and then not even allow the player to choose their character's sex. Medal of Honor: Warfighter and Battlefield: Hardline are both guilty of this type of practice. The former allows the player to choose a class an nationality for their character, but otherwise lacks any sort of customization options, which seems to me like false advertising. Battlefield: Hardline deals with the war on drugs, focuses on modern SWAT Teams (something which women are a part of), and yet they never seemed to consider the possibility that players may want to choose the sex of their character.
To provide a contrast, let's look at a comparatively more progressive game that actually recognizes the issues at hand. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 works to that very effect. In many respects, the game is structured in a manner reminiscent of many first-person shooters such as Call of Duty , only there is actually an effort at representation. Like Battlefield: Hardline, the story mode focuses on a SWAT Team. However, there is actually diversity in the cast, which not only includes a combination of both male and female characters (of different races) but also allows the player to customize its protagonist, Bishop. Bishop's sex is purely aesthetic, and has no effect on the overall narrative beyond a change in voice actors.
One way to look at this issue in more detail is to examine the output of different gaming companies. When one looks at a large enough selection of different games by the same company, patterns begin to emerge. Among these are patterns which often show that the issue extends towards an overall group of developers rather than any one specific gaming franchise. There are many gaming companies that are guilty of unfairly representing women or showing a strange aversion to female player characters.
Now this is not to say that all gaming companies are made up of misogynistic idiots who are too stubborn to recognize the potential of female characters. There are some progressive developers who have actually addressed this issue. BioWare and Bethesda are both gaming companies that have shown a positive effort to improve representations of women in gaming.Most, if not all, of Bioware's games allow the player to choose their character's sex (most famously in Mass Effect, though the same can also be said for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the Dragon Age series) as well as giving them a large party consisting of both male and female characters. Bethesda's games do not often place as much emphasis on building a party, but their open-world adventures such as Skyrim and Fallout both allow the player to customize their character and provide a wide range of both male and female NPCs with whom they can interact, many of whom are strong women.
Both companies have even gone further on occasion and allowed the player to not only choose their character's sex, but also their sexual orientation. Knights of the Old Republic included the option for a lesbian romance with Juhani in addition to the heterosexual options for Carth and Bastilla. Mass Effect 2 included a few bisexual options (whom the player could romance regardless of gender), while Mass Effect 3 included bisexual options as well as two potential love interests for a gay Shepard (one male, one female). While they're not essential to the gameplay, Skyrim and Fallout 4 both allow the player to engage in same-sex relationships (and even same-sex marriage, in the case of the former).
However, for every forward-thinking company like BioWare or Bethesda, there are others lagging behind. An infamous example of this would be Activision, the creators of the popular Call of Duty franchise who took almost a decade before they finally started placing female characters into their games. Naughty Dog of Uncharted and The Last of Us fame, has no trouble including strong female characters in supporting roles, but seems draws the line on making them playable. Rock Star games has an unfortunate tendency to fall into this as well. They have several major franchises, and not one of their many games has a female protagonist. In fact, many of them lack any notable female characters at all. There have been five Grand Theft Auto and not one female playable character.
This is obviously problematic. Grand Theft Auto went through four games before the developers finally decided to create sprites for female police officers (something that probably wouldn't have hurt if they'd just done that from the start) and still not one female protagonist among its five games. Now one could argue that it wasn't totally unjustified in L.A. Noire (which deals with the police force during the 1940's) or Red Dead: Redemption (which is set in the Wild West), though even then one could question a few choices. L.A. Noire probably could have given its female lead a much more prominent role than merely being a love interest for Cole. In Red Dead: Redemption, it could also have been interesting to see a female gunslinger take the spotlight, even if the rest of the cast was male-dominated.
This in turn brings up a variety of debates that have taken place on the internet recently, namely whether players should be allowed to choose. There have been some extremely flimsy arguments that developers have made for excluding women from their games. One of the reasons Call of Duty took so long to even add a choice to multiplayer was because the developers genuinely believed that women would have an unfair advantage because their smaller size would make them harder targets (seriously), and even that weak excuse doesn't explain why they are so averse to female characters in the campaign mode. Others seem to question whether it should affect the gameplay, and if not why it should even matter.
The answer is easy enough: the option should be there, and it should have little effect on the game. In Mass Effect, the player can choose Shepard's sex and other than a few differences in romantic options it has no bearing on the overall story. Shepard's abilities are based purely on their class and how the character is developed over the course of the game. The actual narrative is shaped by the choices made by the player, and none of them are influenced by Shepard's sex. Both male and female Shepard have to make the same tough calls that present consequences over the course of the series.
One can see the same thing in many other games where gender is purely aesthetic. Skyrim also allows the player to choose the sex of their protagonist (although artwork related to the game and fans in general seem to keep assuming the hero to be male). Aside from a few variations in dialogue, the game is more or less identical regardless of whether the player is male or female, even going as far as to offer the exact same selection of romantic opportunities. The main stories of Fallout 3 and Rainbow Six Vegas 2 both progress more ore less the same way regardless of what sex the player chooses, and the same sets of skills and opportunities are available for both.
So this has led to another common argument: that if gender doesn't affect the gameplay than why bother? Well, it really comes down to the simple fact that everyone has their own preferences, and that they should be allowed to make the character they feel best fits the game. Personally, I have always preferred to play as female characters, and I often find that the game's world feels far more authentic when I take that option. I have a friend who finds that he often prefers to play as non-human characters whenever the game permits it (such as in the Elder Scrolls series). In the case of Mass Effect, there are fans devoted to both male and female Shepard.
The fact is that more games should allow players the choice in who they want to be, rather than having it predetermined. This means that they should be able to create the type of person they feel best fits the game and run with it. This makes games like Medal of Honor: Warfighter and Battlefield: Hardline all the more infuriating for promising "deep customization" and then refusing to allow the player to actually make a character that suits them because the developers are too stupid to realize that women can serve in the military or police force now.
Yes, it's true that female characters shouldn't be too much different from the men. The script should have next to no differences and a female character should have access to the same skills as a man. The important thing is making sure players have the choice to make the character they want. Different people have different preferences. Every player of Skyrim has a unique character that fits them, the same way Mass Effect allows for different players to produce drastically different interpretations of Shepard. The fact is that we want to be able to have a choice. We want to create the characters we feel fit the game, not be faced by obviously biased restrictions.