Friday, 4 December 2009

And here's one I made earlier... Part I

For the last few days I have been playing Saints Row 2. This game is very similar in style to the well-known Grand Theft Auto games, in that gameplay consists of hijacking cars, driving freely around a large open-plan city as you complete missions in order to climb the slippery ladder of organised crime. Both games attract criticism for their wilfully amoral and juvenile approach to robbery, manslaugter and extortion. My personal view is that one should approach such games after a) checking the content and age restriction that is clearly printed on the box and b) getting a sense of humour, but this is neither the time nor the place for such tiresome discussions.

No, for this week I am in thrall to the Promethean video game gods who have bestowed upon us the power of creation. Next week I presume I will still be in thrall, as I have already decided that the exhaltation of this gift deserves more than one article. So, although you will have to wait until next week to read my thoughts on the creation of worlds, console youself with the fact that this week I shall be discussing the joy that comes with creating your very own video game hero.

After 2 weeks of playing a game featuring a man in a grey space suit with a bucket on his head, I was both refreshed and excited when I began playing Saints Row 2. The first in-game task you must accomplish is creating a character. Unlike many games, which give you a paltry choice between genders and races, Saints Row 2 allows you to customise every conceivable aspect of your character's physicality.

Here is a brief overview of the options available:
  • Gender. Only two are available, but the level of customisability players can effectively occupy any space between them.
  • Race.
  • Voice. There are six voices, three male and three female. You can put a female voice in a male body and vice-versa.
  • Hair. There are about fifty hairstyles to choose between, and as many haircolours. You can also create layered hair colours by using two, such as blonde hair with blue tips.
  • Body shape.
  • Muscularity
  • Fatness. You can alter this to distubing extremes.
  • Face. There are about 100 sliding bars which determine the precise contours of all facial features. In effect, you can make your character look like yourself, or anyone you know. Unfortunately the face must be symmetrical, although...
  • can choose the default expression. There are about twenty of these, ranging from "drunk" to "seductive", but they are all so exaggurated that they are difficult to look at for the whole game. I had a good giggle over "shocked" but eventually went with "neutral".
  • Walk. Again, a good twenty. Examples include "swagger", "pimpin' bounce", "gangster lean", "sway" and "limp".
  • Greeting. Anything from air-kiss to ass-slap to Fonzie-style "eeeehhh!".
  • Insult. One of the options is teabagging. In the unfortunate event that you don't know what this is, I suggest looking it up, but not at work
  • Make-up. Both sexes can wear make-up. Anything is available, from seductive to smeared. You can also choose between five different varieties of mime make-up, and there is a clown mouth too.
  • Facial Hair. Women can have this as well. I went around with some very attractive sideburns for  a while.
Throughout the game you can also aquire tattoos, piercings, jewellery, glasses and a new wardrobe (also fully customisable, down to the colour and stitching of the pockets). If at any point you become dissatisfied with your appearence (or your face becomes too notorious), just visit the plastic surgeon, who for a mere $500 will alter any of characteristics with no risk of infection. You can also customise (or "pimp", MTV viewers) any car you aquire, legally or illegally. Although you can re-inforce the body or install nitrous, more fun is the ability to add preposterously large wheels and diamond-encrusted spinners. Also available are iridescent body paints and large vinyl stickers. Finally, you can also acquire various "cribs" (that's MTV for "abode") and style them however you wish. If you want a classy "office" feel that's fine, but I really must reccomend the purple walls, giant plasma TVs and stripper poles. Any cosmetic alteration increases your "style" rating, which in turn earns you "respect" amongst your "homies". Respect enables you to do more stuff, like jumping out of planes naked (no really).

If for some reason you're still reading this rather than quitting your job in order to spend the next year of your life playing Saints Row 2, then let me explain the importance of character customisation. For the artistically-minded, it offers you the opportunity to impose some of your own personality onto the character you are controlling. Purely cosmetic customisaton (such as in Saints Row and Mass Effect) means that people who enjoy customisation can play Barbies with their characters, and those who don't can either accept the default settings or give them blue skin, a mohawk and a beer belly. Heh.

Some games, such as Soul Calibur IV and Fallout 3 assign properties to clothes and accessories which affect gameplay. Although hairstyle and facial characteristics are still purely aesthetic, clothes double as protection and have appropriate effects. For example, in Soul Calibur IV, certain armours lessen the impact of blows, and a headdress may increase a player's ability to guard. Sensibly, the game allows the effects of clothing to be switched off in order that inexperienced players can simply create a medieval version of themselves in order to fight their friends (or be able to wear next to nothing without being at a defensive disadvantage). I have found that even friends who "don't play games" enjoy Soul Calibur IV because of the creation aspect. It appeals to the finger-painter in all us when we are offered the ability to make a mess with colours and shapes and have our efforts legitimised, either by teacher ("gold star!"), parent ("we'll put it on the fridge!") or computer ("you are now ready to fight a viking hoarde!").

You can't turn off the effects of clothing in Fallout 3, but you can make the system work to your advantage. It's always good to keep attractive nightwear in your inventory, as wearing it makes the opposite sex more susceptible to manipulation. Likewise, you'd be foolish not to have a radiation-proof suit at the ready. Slightly less logical is the fact that wearing a labcoat somehow makes you better at science, but I suppose it makes sense within the context of the game.

In many cases, character creation goes beyond the aestheic altogether, and determines gameplay. Games where this happens are usually RPGs, or Role Playing Games, a genre which dates back to the seventies and to the emergence of nerd-crack board 'n dice game Dungeons and Dragons. As you may be peripherally aware, D&D requires a good imagination and a bureaucratic disposition, as players need both the patience to search through endless grids and figures to determine the effectiveness of any given spell (depending on the roll of the dice) and the will to imagine that they really are casting spells as opposed to leafing through large and complex rule books. This is not to deride D&D, as calculations are still there in video games, it's just that the computer does them for you. In many cases, you still have to weigh up the odds of any given move being effective, just as you have to in dice games. As for the imagination part, it's only comparatively recently that video game worlds look like the places they're trying to depict. If you look at the dungeons in the early Zelda games, they require just as much imagination as D&D, though both are arguably as effective as more recent and graphically rich offerings.

I would suggest that many RPGs have taken their cues from D&D as regards character customisation. Examples such as the Morrowind games, Ever Quest and the phenomenally influential World of Warcraft allow you to choose a race at the beginning. Unlike Saints Row, in which this is an aesthetic decision, a choice between races in an RPG influences the entire game. Also, instead of merely giving the player a choice between human races, western RPGs will give a choice between (to generalise) orcs, light elves, dark elves, dwarves, paladins, imperial humans, nordic humans, witches, druids etc. These different races all have different strengths, and although these vary between games, in general Elves are good at magic, Dwarves are good at reparing things, Orcs can wield heavy weapons, Humans are good at bartering and there will generally be a race that is good at theivery and sneaking. In Oblivion these were the cat-people. This is exciting because players can choose charcaters based on how they like to play games. Orcs for the unsubtle, Dwarves for the frugal, Humans for the manipulative and Elves if you're the kind of person who think Dreamcatchers are an acceptable thing to put in to your home. I jest, I jest.

Characters of course can be further altered by dressing them in clothes that enhance their powers, as in Fallout 3, except that you're more likely to be wearing a cloak that repells magic as opposed to rubber boots that guard against radiation. Either way, Dungeons and Dragons arguably paved the way for character creation, as your character had different strengths and weaknesses depending on your decisions. Most modern RPGs, both western and Japanese ("JRPSs") feature a system whereby the more you play the game the better the character becomes. For example, if you spend a lot of time making potions, you get better at making potions. Ingredients might have more effects, and the finished potion more powerful. The various systems employed to implement these changes vary from game to game, but the basic principle - that characters adapt to the player's style of play - remains the same.

This effectively means that two people playing the same game will have differing experiences. This not only goes for action (do you sneak through the dungeon and steal the gem, or do you kill everyone and pick the gem out of your enemies' remains?) but also for character. Many games feature systems whereby your reputation preceeds you, so characters will react differently to you depending on whether you have a history of being polite or abusive. Well written games will not weight the gaming experience either way, so you are not punished for behaving badly. Fallout 3 offters you several ways of completing a mission depending on your gaming style, and ensures that there are several different outcomes available. A manipulative character will not finish the mission in the same way as a selfless axe-wielder, but the outcome will be no less satisfactory. This means that there is every reason to play the game through several times with different characters, just to see what happens.

In some games, character creation is the only point to the game. The Sims was really just a big sadistic doll's house, where you styled the characters' hair with no respect for their dignity, and then either turned them into the sort of person who doesn't mind the odd pile of decomposing food in the bedroom or a highly-strung perfectionist who cries every day when they return from work. Ha ha. The makers of the Sims recently turned out big-budget disappointment Spore, which was supposed to be the ultimate God Game, allowing you to create a species and oversee their evolution from amoebas to intergalactic conquerers. Most of the game was a mess because it was trying to do too many things at once. Although it did not manage to redeem the game, the character creation mode was great fun because there were no rules to how many legs you could add, what colour your creature was, or which end of its body its mouth was on. The character animation was done really well, and no matter how silly your character, it was still able to walk.

In the right kind of game, character creation is a wonderful thing. It either makes a game slightly more fun by allowing players to alter the superficial appearence of characters as in Soul Calibur or Saints Row, or it determines the entire game experience, like in Mass Effect and Fallout 3. For those of us who spent many happy hours moulding tin foil round Barbie in different ways to make her into a) an astronaut b) a movie star c) a mental patient, character customisation is the logical conclusion. Actually being able to watch your creation run around and act upon the world is very exciting.

However, it's important to note that game designers are game designers for a reason. They are qualified artists and writers who understand (well, for the most part) how to write and design characters. In game stories which rely on strong characterisation and emotional weight, handing the divine workshop keys to the player is perhaps not a good idea. It's hard to take an evil overlord seriously in deely boppers.

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