Genre definitions often become muddied in the gaming realm, as more and more titles pile into the same category, usually for marketing reasons. For example, the Roguelike genre became so muddied and so far beyond the original 1980 Rogue they had to separate some of the games into a second genre, the Roguelite, to compensate.
RPGs face the opposite problem — its definition is so vague that it allows an incomprehensibly vast and diverse array of games to fall under its umbrella. People often forget that “RPG” literally refers to a game in which you assume a role within the its world.
Established vs Created
We’ll be discussing two distinct manifestations of this today. The first bunch are games which allow you to fill the shoes of a character within their world. Titles like God of War, The Last of Us, or Tomb Raider who craft a character and hands the reins over to the player.
The second lot are games which allow you to craft your own protagonist with a character creator in order to fill a role within the game world, like the Dragonborn in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or the Inquisitor in Dragon Age: Inquisition. You’re not assuming the role of a person, but creating a person to fill a role.
All voice-acted games that employ creator characters must assign a title to their characters. They can’t have voice actors record every gibberish, eldritch mess of words that people name their characters, so they need to create an arbitrary title for NPCs to refer to you as. It’s less a failing, more a restriction of both time and technology.
Creator Characters and Morality
However, what that title comes to mean is left entirely in the hands of the player, as it’s a lot more flexible. An established character like Lara Croft is expected to behave in a certain way befitting them. She may have murdered incomprehensible numbers of people in her recent games but, ludonarrative dissonance aside, she’s not a particularly sadistic person.
If all of a sudden she went renegade and started sticking her thumbs into people’s bullet holes and laughing, it’d raise a few eyebrows. But there are no such expectations of ‘the Dragonborn’ — they can butcher entire villages and that then becomes their character, as they had none to betray.
This ties closely into morality systems in games. While the industry doesn’t have a particularly mature interpretation of morals, usually boiling down to ‘be a dick’ or ‘don’t be a dick’ it at least makes more sense when it’s a player-created character.
Mass Effect boasts one of the more infantile systems of good and evil. It lets you fill up a blue or red bar by clicking blue or red buttons when prompts appear. And if you dare to play it grey, it’ll lock you out of the better resolution to situations.
However, it gets away with it, simply because Shepard isn’t some established character split between a racist gorilla and space Christ. The players actions define that path from the ground up, so Shepard is still consistent within the game world, no matter how you choose to engage with the morality system.
Narrative Foibles of Creator Characters
That does make Shepard a less complete character in that world though, especially when she’s surrounded by interesting people and alien species. That’s deliberate, as s/he’s more or less a self-insert fan-fiction character. An empty vessel for the player to bring to life.
It’s perfectly valid as far as storytelling goes, but it can make the interactions with otherwise complete characters feel empty. Like they’re talking to themselves while Shepard nods and drools on their floor.
A game like The Witcher 3, which gives you agency over a far more complete character in Geralt, allows the player to navigate those character interactions effortlessly. Conversations between Geralt and usually any number of women he’s attempting to shag do feel like actual conversations because they’re occurring between actual people. Rather than one person and a cardboard cut-out with your face stapled to it.
This is perhaps best, or worst, demonstrated when it comes to romance in these games. It tends to be incredibly shallow when dealing with created characters. Bioware’s efforts are notoriously bad, although I have a soft spot for a few of them. Bethesda is guilty of this too with most of their titles.
A well-developed backstory can serve to make games that feature a robust protagonist a lot more narratively investing. Characters like Geralt, Kratos, Joel, and many others have a tangible stake in the world the story takes place in. They have a history in it and a reason to fight. This is in stark contrast to creator characters, which often feel like they’ve been dropped into their world.
The Inquisitor in Dragon Age: Inquisition is just some idiot in the wrong place. That can work in terms of explaining the world and it’s lore to this idiot, but it doesn’t compete.
Although in stark contrast, I believe creator characters allow for more investment on a mechanical level. RPGs feature considerable amounts of character progression, and it feels a lot more compelling to develop a character you created. It feels a lot more like your own work, whereas established characters are often already badasses without your help.
Overcoming challenging gameplay is always a vindicating experience. But overcoming a challenge with a character you moulded yourself feels even more rewarding. It’s a good way to keep players engaged with grindier games.
This desire to keep player characters strong can be a downside though. Established characters are often a bit over the top strength-wise, but it gets to a whole new level with some creator characters. There’s this silly idea they have to be the centre of whatever they get involved in, with Bethesda titles especially allowing you to become the leader of every known group in the universe, the avatar of every god, and the subject of every legend.
THQNordic’s Elex actually manages to work its way around this. It never lets you become the leader of any group. It starts you off as a farmer or an idiot messenger boy. Then you’ve got to work up from there. And you never even reach middle management.
Still, that game featured Jax, the gruffest man to ever live. Games with worse writing might not pull that off as well. And that’s the biggest problem with established game protagonists.
While it’s good to play a well-written, likeable character, there’s nothing worse than games that cast you as unlikeable, whiny dickheads. I’d rather play one of the creatures they make on Monster Factory than as Duke Nukem.