Identity in RPG Video Games: Character Creation (and More)

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

BioWare took votes on the appearance of its promotional FemShep for Mass Effect 3.

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

Geralt is already a developed character, but you can influence his decisions to completely change the game.

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.

— Ashley

7 thoughts on “Identity in RPG Video Games: Character Creation (and More)”

  1. Great article, Ashley. I think part of the reason why I got into gaming later rather than earlier is because the stories in games have gotten better and developers are now trying to appeal to the female gamer. I really enjoy RPGs where you can create your own character and choose to play as male or female. If there is an option to play as female, I would always play the female character first before playing as the default guy. It’s because we are given these options that it makes me gravitate towards playing the game from what I can relate to––the female point of view. I also found myself addressing Commander Shepard or the female Warden as “I” sometimes when I play these games. I suppose as an RPG, it succeeds in allowing us to take on these character identities for a little while. The Witcher 2 is a game I do want to buy eventually because it’s a decision based game just like the Bioware games are. The RPGs I most enjoy are the ones where you can affect the outcome of a story.

    1. I’m also late to gaming, and I agree that games becoming more girl-friendly (with more character options) definitely attracted me to games more. It’s funny, I always play as female characters on my first playthroughs as well, when given the option. Playing as a male character feels more like watching someone else’s story (like one might watch a movie). It might be a gripping story that I enjoy, but playing as a female character — especially one I’ve been able to create from scratch — makes me feel more invested in the game. Similar to what you said, I think that along with in-game choices, identifying with your character is part of the magic of an RPG.

      1. Have you tried out Mass Effect as manShep, btw? I am curious about people’s opinions on the comparison. About half of my male friends, roleplayers all of them, said that they preferred female Shepard, and not just for the looks.

  2. Hi Ann. I haven’t played as a male Shep yet, but like you, I’ve seen others play the male Shep. It seems the voice acting by Jennifer Hale is much better than the male Shep voice acting, which is part of the femShep appeal. But I would like to play as a male Shep in the future. I agree the comparison would be interesting!

    1. I have heard about the voice acting differences and I wonder how big a role it really plays here. I am pretty sure it is not the only thing that makes femShep awesome or me feel so connected to her. :-)

  3. As a male gamer who has found significant enjoyment and immersion out of playing as female characters in video games, I found it interesting that you had a harder time getting immersed in games where you play as a male lead. To me, the difference in sexes from a storytelling standpoint is nonexistent. Each helps to support the story through their character as much as the other, and it really depends on the personal development you want your story to express. I also tend to disagree (on a personal level, whether it’s true or not) that males just like playing as females because they’re more aesthetically appealing to watch on the screen. Two of my favorite immersive video games are Mirror’s Edge and the Portal series, both of which features strong female leads who don’t exist merely for their sex appeal, and who you rarely actually see over the course of the game. Also, when I play Mass Effect I usually complete my first playthrough of a game (where I encounter each scenario much as I would in real life) as maleShep, and then complete my second playthrough (where I know what situations will be coming ahead of time) as femShep. You might imagine that I am more invested in my first playthrough, as it’s a more accurate representation of myself, but strangely enough I’ve found myself becoming more emotionally attached to my second femShep playthrough (I still have to finish it in ME3, still waiting for all the DLC to be released).
    I’ve thought a bit about why I seem to enjoy playing females more than playing males. I suppose for one, I find them to be much more interesting characters. A character like Jack or Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is much more fascinating to me than similarly troubled male characters from other games or movies. Perhaps it’s that the troubled male characters more often tend to take on the perspective of the guilty bully, while the females tend to take on the redeemable victim role. Indeed, I’m actually struggling to find the names of any that have stood out to me, while the female characters immediately come to mind. One of my favorite male characters in any live-action media is Shane from The Walking Dead, and he is more than guilty of a lot of terrible things. Perhaps there’s simply something enjoyable about playing out a character who society has repressed in storytelling for the sake of ‘physical capabilities’ whereas in reality, women are just as capable as men. Perhaps it’s simply that women characters tend to have to work harder in the situations they find themselves in, and to me that indicates a stronger character, whose tale is truly about overcoming their weaknesses and adversity, something I tend to look up to.
    Perhaps what it really comes down to in the end is roleplaying. When we play games, we play them not to fill our own shoes, for we already know what that’s like. And while some games may be good at putting our real selves to the test in certain situations – for example, I’ve always wondered how I would function in combat, but I’m opposed to the notion of killing, so I enjoy playing paintball/airsoft and Call of Duty (the earlier ones, not the new ‘action movie’ ones) for this very reason – I think what people really like to do is fill the shoes of another character, where the game can really help you get inside their head and feel something from a perspective that is not your own, something that is unfamiliar, but that you can still come to understand. That’s what’s great about video games, and that’s what it has to offer over many other mediums that those who don’t play them will really be missing out on.

    1. Those are really interesting points! Thanks for your comments. I will say that I enjoy playing as male characters sometimes, and it never actually ruins the experience for me or anything like that. But for some reason, I find that I become more invested in female characters. When I can create them from scratch, I suppose that makes sense because I’m making choices about who this character is. But even when it’s an already-formed female character, I often — not always, but often — find myself more interested in what she does than what a male character might do, because I relate to her as a woman in some ways.

      I agree with you about video games letting you walk in someone else’s shoes and get inside their heads. It’s a much more immersive experience than other mediums, as you mentioned. And for that reason, I am even more drawn to female video game characters than male characters. In many books and films, men and women act a lot more alike as they share everyday experiences — and in real life, gender doesn’t really come up much on a day to day basis, in my opinion. In fact, most of my favorite protagonists in books are men. But video games often involve combat and activities that are considered (or stereotyped as) “male” activities, which makes it so refreshing to see a female character to whom I can relate.

      Like you said, it makes it interesting to play “a character who society has repressed in storytelling for the sake of ‘physical capabilities.'” It’s really fascinating to hear that you (and I’m sure many other male gamers) enjoy playing female leads, too. I guess I’ve always taken it beyond just interest to me relating to the female characters. I wonder if that’s a difference between male and female gamers (or at least some of them)… combat is considered a “male” activity, gaming was very recently considered a “male” activity, and most playable characters in games have been male. So for a woman who plays video games, there’s definitely a void, or a hurdle to overcome, which makes seeing a female character in a game such a relief somehow.

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