Some people, when given the option of building and customizing their player character in any way they want, put together an idealized version of themselves. When companies take polls or collect stats on their players, inevitably the vast majority of players have created a human male to play as, whether the other options are as limited as human female, or as broad as robots, demons, undead, or freaking lizard people. It’s tempting to call this horrendously boring and uncreative, but there’s obvious appeal in self-inserting into another world as an idealized version of yourself and going on adventures. You don’t have to slip into another mindset and can react to situations and decisions as you really would, and let the escapism flow freely through your veins as your digital self conquers monsters and defeats everything that was ever evil.
I would never do this. And I don’t intend to textually masturbate by implying this makes me in any way more creative or intelligent than people who do. It’s just that when you get down to it I’m not really a tremendously interesting person and putting me into a high fantasy world or a space adventure or whatever isn’t really going to be any fun for anyone involved. The only way to make me interesting would be to give me some kind of cool backstory or personality quirk that makes sense in the setting, but isn’t true in real life. And then, it’s not really me anymore, is it? Just someone who looks like me. And given I’m by appearances … some guy, I’d be about as memorable in a video game world as Sam the Shopkeeper, Purveyor of Pantaloons.
Usually, there’s not much choice aside from playing male or female. You have to be human, and the choice doesn’t really mean much. The first time I decided to try out the “other side” was the first Fallout game, some years after it actually came out. The only reason I did that was because I read somewhere that female characters don’t take critical damage when they get hit in the groin. Yeah. Armed with my iron crotch, because that’s how women work, I set out into the wasteland and found it somehow a little more compelling to be a heavily armed woman righting wrongs in the post-apocalypse than some generic man, merely because it was a woman holding the gun and not being a sidekick or love interest of any sort, something you so rarely see in the mainstream entertainment industry as a whole. There are plenty of action movies starring women, but how many can you name that were good and aren’t Aliens?
It’s fun to play as a more unusual protagonist, and it was especially nice to see a female action hero who wasn’t sexualized and didn’t have the mandatory “vulnerable and helpless” scene at some point. You know the one. Some of the more assholeish NPC’s would make some vulgar comments towards you, but these fit the rough setting just fine. Most of the dialogue was the same, but there was that special feeling of discovering an Easter egg whenever a character would have the stunning observation skills to notice you were a woman. It’s a minor thing, and the game was old enough that you were mostly just a fuzzy sprite on the screen anyway, but at least seeing that the developers bothered to acknowledge my choice gave the sense of the character really being mine, rather than just Joe Generic. If nothing else, it’s interesting to play as a woman to see if the devs bothered to throw in any little extra lines or solutions to problems like dumb guards who will let you in because boobs.
What really solidified my decision was the excellent voice acting of Jennifer Hale as Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series. And I mean nothing against Mark Meer as the male version, as I think he’s a pretty cool guy. Rather, instead of the usually annoying or over-sexualized female hero voices of years past , Hale had a very convincing, powerful voice which really evoked the image of the elite commander you were supposed to be. The role, for both Shepards, was one of the biggest ever in video games at the time (citation needed), and you heard your character speak a whole lot, so it was easy to become attached. That voice automatically made any female character I created automatically interesting , and getting so into the role simply made playing female a natural choice after that. It just worked, and not because I secretly want to get a sex change, piss off.
I have heard complaints that Hale was far too emotional in her delivery, and opposite complaints that Meer was flatter, but I don’t agree with either side. Though it is worth considering that a less emotional delivery on the male’s side of things may have been a directorial choice to allow people to project into the role easier. Meer in other things tends to be a very dynamic performer, and as the game series progresses it seems like he’s given more free reign to really bring himself into Shepard. In theory, somewhere in the design process, someone decided that making the male protagonist too distinct and memorable would ruin everything for those guys who always just create themselves and want to slip into the role easily. Mass Effect 1’s Shepard is as blank slate as they get, but by the third game he or she has begun to develop as their own character, which has also been complained about. Because what do I even DO with these character traits that aren’t mine?? Jesus christ he’s showing emotional depth get me out of here.
While it’s not mine to judge how people like to play, what bothers me for some stupid reason is how close to the typical video game protagonist most people play when given all the choice in the world. Lists of top-selling games inevitably star tough, gritty, well-muscled white dudes with a frowny face and short brownish hair as if it’s simply the rule. I know mentioning this has been done to death and I’m not saying player characters automatically become more interesting if they look different, but it’s got to the point that it’s a little weird. I mean, I struggle to name more than three main characters with blond hair who aren’t from a Jrpg. Never mind those of different races, genders, physiques, ages, or personality other than “gruff” and probably “troubled by loss of wife/child/best friend/socks”.
Even in games where character customization is front and center, usually forcing you to do it before you even set foot in the game world, there is a default character who you will see first, featured on the box and in all promotional material. In every case I can think of, he is as generic as any other character in other games, some white dude with no defining features. This makes some sense I suppose. If the default option were especially distinct, then it would make you feel like you were doing something wrong by creating someone totally different. Still, it does seem odd that the developers seem to subtly suggest you play as some bland dude but, you know, if that’s not what you’re into that’s cool I guess.
There are a handful of games starring female protagonists with no male option, most famously Tomb Raider and Metroid, but these are rare. Most of the time, there will be a lady or two as a selectable character – no more than one for every two guys, as a general rule – but the ‘leader’ of the team will be a guy and the ladies are usually resigned to the sneakier or more indirect roles if it’s a class-based game. Archers, snipers, mages, thieves, that sort of thing. You will never see a woman as the driving physical force on a team unless you make it that way yourself. She will never get the biggest gun, or the heaviest armor, or be able to take the most hits, so if you play as her you’ll end up adopting a more careful playstyle that avoids being hit and usually fights enemies from afar, saving the aggression for the burly male characters because getting smacked in the face repeatedly while murdering something with your bare hands is for men only. Come on, women can be stupid brutes too, just give them a chance.
It’s not just a matter of gender, either. Fantasy games and others set in fictional worlds unlike our own tend to offer a wide array of interesting-or-not races to play as, usually depicting humans as the most generic choice with no particularly unusual traits. Good all around but no specialty. There are the usual assortment of pointy-eared folk and short, beardy types, and then there are those games which are set in a sultan’s menagerie. We get the undeniably cool (lizard people!), the strange and unusual (dead people!), and then the awful attempts at passing something off as creative (a human but with horns/a tail/weird eyes!). Yet still, most people prefer the human option, or the elf if their stats are better, and avoid everything else because “they look weird”. I was getting to something but now I can’t even finish this paragraph. Why would you ever not want to play as a lizard person. What the fuck is wrong with you. Out. OUT.
One more thing. There’s also all the sexuality stuff. It’s not something which comes up all that often in games, and it probably shouldn’t most of the time. When it does it’s usually more awkward and out of touch than a flirty old professor, but now that games are maturing and tackling stories and settings we’d never dream of in the bleepbloop days, this is becoming more relevant. There have been a few awkward fumbles with the gay ball before, usually just letting your female character be a lesbian by not bothering to change any of the dialogue, but in terms of gay male player characters, it just doesn’t happen. A few rpgs – usually made by Bioware – offer the option of a gay romance, but in most cases it’s just the straight romance except now you’re the same gender and nobody bothers to mention it. Which sounds refreshingly progressive but is mostly just lazy. The one exclusively gay male Bioware ever wrote was Steve Cortez, a pilot in Mass Effect 3, who requires emotional support for his recent loss and cries more than once with you. He also isn’t actually part of your main fighting squad, and just flies you from mission to mission. Still, he wasn’t terribly written, but there did seem to be a lack of commitment to actually giving you a gay guy who was an equal to the straight ones.
There aren’t many games I would outright defend as works of art. Some have a lot of style or artistic flair, but taken as a whole, most of them I’d simply call entertainment. What video games as a medium do have over anything else though is interactivity. Anything else, and you are simply watching the story unfold in a fictional world, but in a game, you are there living it. So when you project yourself into the role of your character, you may be able to go on adventures you would never really have, but you’re missing out on the opportunity to be someone you’re not. Games will always have heavy elements of escapism, and what greater escape is there than be someone who is unlike you in every aspect? If you’re a massive dork like me, you usually find yourself creating an inner monologue after getting familiar with your character, seeing the world through their eyes, understanding and responding to things in a whole new way. You probably won’t achieve enlightenment because you quantum leapt into the disturbed mind of Urkja the female orc warrior for a few dozen hours, but you can’t possibly be anything but better for the experience.