There's something I've been meaning to bring up for a while, and that's character creation systems in games like these, the kind that Oblivion more or less introduced, where you can tweak every slightest inch of muscle, skin and bone in your character's face. I'm starting to think it's a little bit psychotic.
It's particularly questionable in games like Skyrim where you might spend half an hour getting every detail right before setting off on your first-person adventure, donning a full-face helmet within ten minutes of starting and never seeing your work again. It's more appropriate in something like Dragon Age or Mass Effect where you can actually see yourself and your character regularly takes part in cutscenes and conversation, but I still feel that the exact placement of one's cheekbones shouldn't matter if you're not trying to faithfully recreate Pete Postlethwaite in the role of Commander Shepard.
How it used to go down for me when handed the character face carving engine was that I'd go down the list of sliders one by one and move them all the way left and all the way right before almost always returning it right back to the middle because anything towards an extreme just looks ridiculous. These days I start by picking the hairstyle, beard and general face shape, and anything beyond those hardly seems to matter when you're mostly staring at the back of their head or watching them converse from a mid-shot. In Saints Row games I've sometimes tried to get into the swing of things by giving my character high cheekbones, wide staring eyes and a mouth with a permanent half-smile because that's the kind of face I imagine a cockney psychopath would have, but there's always been something slightly off about the way it looks and animates in-game, like there was an accident with the botox.
I guess the point I'm trying to reach is that these systems, now seemingly a requisite in western RPGs, are starting to feel gimmicky and unnecessary. It's fine in something like The Sims where you're just recreating some kind of fantasy household where mummy doesn't drink and beat the kids, but in an RPG you're creating a look for a character whose personality and actions are determined by the story to varying degrees. It goes back to what I was saying last week, that even in a game as open as Skyrim, a certain amount of control has to be maintained to keep the game's overall tone at an appropriate level. And it feels that anyone who doesn't just use the character creation tool to make a relatable, average-faced heroic type is just going to take the piss and try to see how ridiculous they can make themselves look. And if they end up really getting into the game they're going to feel pretty silly when Lord Thunderclave is entreating Fishlips McGee to aid their struggle against the dark ones.
I actually kind of preferred the Ultima thing where you chose from six or seven predetermined hero appearances of varying genetic backgrounds. Because that's at least a directed experience. I've always felt facial customisation in games these days would work a lot better with a more photofit-like system, where you pick from a catalogue of pre-created off-the-peg mouths and noses, rather than mess around with seven or eight nose sliders in an attempt to create a Romanesque aquiline snout. I mean, Saints Row has you pick from six different voice packs but you don't micro-manage the pitch and waver or pinpoint the global region the accent comes from. Not yet, anyway. Consider a patch, Volition.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.