Create-a-Character modes have been popping up in a variety of Japanese games for a while now, but I’ve yet to see any games that are actually enhanced by them. The inclusion of character creation is often a disservice to what could have been an excellent game.
It doesn’t help that a number of creation modes result in characters that are eyesores at worst and watered-down designs that don’t really fit in with the rest of the cast at best, but my main issue is when these modes are shoehorned into story-driven games.
A lot of games, such as God Eater Burst, let you design the character but not give them a voice, which makes you a weird jarring mime who seems incapable of leading a group and just smiles at inappropriate occasions. Alternatively, they let you ~be you~ but still give your character lines for their inevitable extreme relevance to the plot, therefore potentially ruining how you intended to play them anyway.
This results in some strange halfway mark, where you create a character with a particular personality in mind and then the game says you actually already have set traits. For example, I really like the character of Corrin in Fire Emblem Fates, but I went into it expecting something different. If Corrin’s going to have a set personality anyway, I’d rather they go ahead and make the whole character set. Otherwise, things get too confusing, and however much personality is there becomes diluted and less effective.
That’s not to say they’d have to take out the male/female option – Corrin is actually an example where such a choice didn’t really affect how the character was written, which I appreciate a lot – but they may as well have just stuck with a default design. It avoids the awkwardness of having to translate your character design across in-game or the difficulty of covering them up in pre-rendered cutscenes – something they got around in Awakening by having your unit always wearing a hood over their face, but it’s far from the best solution.
One of the other things that bothers me the most is the weird need to make the player-created character supremely important to the plot. It’s rare for you to get to just craft and control your own random soldier, and, in a story-driven game like a JRPG, that makes sense. You’d end up just being an accessory to the real main character. But trying to shape my handcrafted abomination into the entire plot doesn’t change the fact that they don’t feel like the main character, or even a real character at all. It just comes across as a cheap way to try and make them seem more important.
My character winds up having to have some weak plot reason for being able to use any weapon when all the other mains can only use one, simply because I, the player, have to be given the choice of how I want to play. Force me to use one weapon and I’ll put up with it, as in so many other games. If you really want, ask me to pick one at the beginning and I’ll just have to deal with the consequences of my own decision. Don’t break the story or world you’ve built up just to cater to my whims – it’s irritating. And don’t make me the centre of everything – that’s even more irritating.
Of course, some of these elements aren’t unique to games that feature character creation modes. There are a lot of games where you can’t design the character that still take a ‘blank slate protagonist’ approach, particularly in visual novels.
I’ve never been someone who changes the names for characters where able, and the common ‘self-insert’ approach is one of my few shortcomings with a lot of visual novels. I value a protagonist that fits in with the rest of the cast and the plot. Make me name a character, and I will sit there long and hard while I try to think of a name that’s suitable. It’s only natural, then, that a game making me go even further than simply naming a character results in a somewhat off-putting amount of time and effort. And, in the end, I still feel like I’m playing a doll.
The ‘blank slate protagonist’ falls into its own traps, even outside of player-created characters, and these are no less frustrating. For example, in dating sims where a protagonist’s personality has to shift and change in order to be able to date all the available girls. Not only is it annoying to see the impression of a character you’ve built up unravel in one particular route for romance compatibility’s sake, but it makes you wonder: ‘What are they seeing in this guy? How come all these different girls with vastly different personalities are falling for this one plain-looking guy who has few skills (if any) and about as much character as butter?’
In other genres, where the main character is supposed to be something meaningful in their own right – something more than an object to pursue love interests with – this resulting blandness is even worse. I expect the protagonist to be more than just ‘there’, and implementing character creation to cater to a ‘self-insert’ approach doesn’t allow for that. As paradoxical as it may sound, I find freedom actually limits the end result. Don’t make me create the focal point of an RPG. Even if I could do a better job of creating the main character than the people who made the rest of the cast, it’s unlikely they’ll give me the resources/ability to do so.
Create-a-Character is only acceptable when it doesn’t matter. That is, if it’s as simple as choosing a superficial appearance for a character you control and there’s little to no resulting damage to the plot. If I’m presented with character creation and there turns out to be some ‘deeper’ story mode, where my character is suddenly the saviour of the universe, I’m just going to roll my eyes and add the game to the pile of those by the inclusion of Create-a-Character.
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