When someone who’s not into video games asks me why I like them so much, I say that for me, playing a video game is very much like watching a movie or reading a book. At the end of the day, video games offer entertainment, escapism — and with the RPGs I like to play, meaningful stories and characters, too. The stereotype of a gamer is someone who “wastes time” playing video games to the exclusion of real life. But why is coming home and watching a (mindless) TV show considered so much better? (Of course, times are changing, and games are becoming more accepted and even popular. So that argument, though interesting to me, is becoming wonderfully less relevant, and I don’t feel the need to get into it now.)
So what makes a video game different from other forms of entertainment? For me, it’s all about the opportunity to put something of myself into the games. With games, we have interactivity. We affect the stories at times. And that’s why I love games that let me choose my character’s look and shape her personality. I want my character to reflect me, in some way — even when I play the badass renegade, aggressive characters who make choices I would never dare to make in real life. That’s the fun of RPGs.
Games from the Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Mass Effect and Dragon Age series thrive on character creation and development. Every player can choose his character’s look in the character creation menu, then move on to in-game choices that shape his character’s personality. This also adds to the replay value, as every playthrough is unique with a different character.
Playing the Female Lead
There is no lack of girl gamers, so I won’t whine about that. But I will say that as one of many girl gamers, it’s often a challenge to find a game with a female lead. Most games I come across have heroes in them already — no character creation necessary (or allowed). I’m talking about games and series like The Witcher, Stargate, Uncharted, Red Dead Redemption, Final Fantasy, L.A. Noire... It’s harder for me to get into some of these games anyway, but being forced to play as a male character just does not feel right, much of the time. (I do get into it; it just takes a bit.)
In this respect, Gears of War is one of the hardest for me to get into, because I am just nothing like that guy. The playable character Marcus Fenix is huge and meaty, and while I like that he’s a total badass, it definitely takes some time for me to get into his skin.
I appreciate Lara Croft as probably the most recognizable female lead in a video game series. But let’s face it: few women have the sort of curvy figures that can really match hers. (Then again, few guys probably look like Marcus Fenix, so I guess it’s fair game.) And Jill Valentine in Resident Evil was designed to appeal to straight male gamers for her looks but also to entice female gamers with her tough, inspirational personality.
Some games cower behind the idea that it just doesn’t make sense to have a female lead. Mostly I’m referring to old Assassin’s Creed III news here. Apparently the upcoming game will have plenty of female characters but none who are playable, because it’s anachronistic to have a female assassin in the 18th century, during the American Revolution. A woman assassin would be noticed in a crowd; the game would lose credibility, apparently.
Now, I was a history major… but I can’t quite respect that careful inhibition of imagination in the name of historical accuracy. I mean, really, can she not disguise herself in some situations? I wouldn’t have a problem with that. But now for the great news: A female lead will be present (and kicking ass) in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation! So apparently Ubisoft made it work, which I really appreciate.
It’s also worth noting that may male gamers like to play as female characters. The most common reason for that seems to be that it’s more aesthetically pleasing to follow a woman around in a third-person game…
Jumping Into Someone Else’s Story
On the other hand, I can get into the skin of an already-invented male character like Geralt from The Witcher series. I respect that he’s already a fleshed out character from a novel series. Even though Witcher 2 has tons of in-game choices — particularly the decision to follow Vernon Roche or run with Iorveth, which totally changes the game — playing as Geralt feels right. He already has a personality, and it’s one that would make him contemplate the decision between Roche and Iorveth. (And if I feel like I’m not inserting enough of my own personality into the game, I can always change his hairstyle, right?)
Some games where you play the already-created hero have very limited in-game choices. Final Fantasy is pretty much all cutscenes with uncustomizable characters — and surprisingly, that makes it much easier for me to get into playing other characters. I feel more like I’m watching a story, while it’s the variable combat that lets me in. That doesn’t bother me at all. I even like it.
Putting Yourself Into the Game
In games where I do create my character from scratch, I find myself using the terms “I” and “me” much more. When I play as Geralt in Witcher 2, I’ll refer to Geralt in the third person (“Geralt needs to equip a new sword!”) Sometimes I’ll use first person just naturally, but when it comes to the cutscenes, I try to see Geralt as separate from myself.
On the other hand, when I play Mass Effect, I refer to my character in the first person, and I feel very comfortable and justified doing that. I am not Geralt, but I am Commander Shepard. I created her from the ground up, and even though the game naturally limits my choices to keep the story moving forward, it still gives me plenty of breathing room to put my opinions and personal tastes into the game.
I appreciate both types of games (and characters), but really, games are especially magical when I’m able to create a unique character that makes the game feel like it is, in some ways, my own creation. That’s what makes video games different from other forms of entertainment. While always respecting known stories (like The Witcher novels), I say the more personality players can put into an RPG, the better.