Screw Freedom. Give me Character.
Some characters hate portals, others have no opinion
In almost every RPG that forces you to build your own character I have played; I’ve felt like I had to restart after the first couple of hours. The character I had created wasn’t right. The personality I wanted them to have didn’t match up with the choices I was required to make. Most importantly, they didn’t feel like they belonged in this world, like there was any chance they had actually lived in this world. They were simply a visitor, a being whose existence only began the moment I pressed the start game button and whose knowledge of the world around them only extends as far as my own. There’s no history, no complex relations with any other characters, just an empty shell.
When you press the start game button in The Witcher 3 (and this is the same with all of the mainline Witcher games) you meet Geralt. You also meet; Yennefer, Vesemir, Ciri, Lambert and Eskel. Unless you’ve read the books you probably don’t really know who these characters are. But Geralt does. Geralt has deep and long-standing relations with each of these characters. These relationships are all impossibly intertwined with every facet of Geralt’s personality of his moral code, of his history. This history isn’t always explicitly stated, but its presence is felt in every interaction Geralt has. It’s immediately clear that Geralt inhabits this world, he’s lived there for a long time and had all the experiences that time would bring. This translates all the way through the game too. Geralt has a personal history with the bankers in both Novigrad and Toussaint, he’s dealt with the emperor of Nilfgaard before and is entirely familiar with the doppelgänger Dudu. Geralt truly belongs here.
I’m sorry but your gnome barbarian just doesn’t fit
In spite of this, most modern RPGs choose the create a character route, aiming for the apparent freedom that it brings. But video games aren’t DnD campaigns; that flexibility of character just doesn’t exist. You can write all the backstory you want but there’s never going to be any in-game effect. And that’s just the best-case scenario, in all likelihood some unexpected development further into the narrative will actually completely contradict the head-canon for your character.
The other issue that arises with the absence of history is that your avatar often doesn’t feel set-up to truly become the hero of the land the narrative would have you believe. This can often go in one of two equally unsatisfactory ways. The first is typified in Pillars of Eternity in which a magical hurricane that rips away the souls of everyone caught in it decides that actually it’s just going to give you someone with literally zero accomplishments so far, the power to read peoples souls. Roll on thirty hours and this previously ordinary character is now ‘The Watcher of Caed Nua’ (another characterless title) and is one of the only people in the world capable on making philosophical decisions on both the existence and purpose of the gods. As good as the overarching narrative of Pillars of Eternity is this cliched chosen-one style beginning seriously undercuts what a story that otherwise covers some very interesting and unique themes and ideas.
Worse than the chosen one narrative though are the games that barely give you a reason to exist never mind become one of the most famous names in this area of the world. Fallout New Vegas is easily the worst offender in this regard. You’re a courier and you were shot in the head. That’s it. That’s all the man/woman that will decide the fate of the Mojave Desert gets. The singular motive you have is to find out who shot you in the head and yet somehow that leads into you becoming the one-person wrecking ball that can singlehandedly tip the balance in the Battle of Hoover Dam for whichever side you choose.
Thank you for reading this, reader. You are great, reader.
Even some of the smaller effects of this niggle away at the overall experience. You’ll never be addressed by name but rather some vague and often awkwardly fitting title. In Skyrim you’re the Dragonborn. Other then when you’re a Companion recruit or a Dark brotherhood initiate and all of a sudden, the things your character has done even during the game feel like they’re erased. But none of these titles offer even the slightest hint of personality or individuality. Every time a character, supposedly intimately close to you, in Dragon Age: Inquisition calls you ‘Inquisitor’ it strips any element of character that you’ve managed to infuse into the lifeless husk you’re forced to inhabit.
I’m Commander Shepard and these are my favourite (marginally better) ways of doing character creation
There have been games that have found a somewhat middle ground in all this. Dragon Age: Origins for example allows you to choose from a variety of pre-set prologues. These at least allow you to establish a reasonable idea as to what your character had been doing for the previous twenty years whilst simultaneously giving the player a clean pallet for them to instil some attitudes and character traits on. However, even this has problems. You’re still essentially nameless and constantly solely referred to as ‘The Grey Warden’. The bigger issue though is that this origin story ends up feeling little more than flavour. At the very best it only alters the way you interact with a singular character to a miniscule degree and at it’s worst it offers nothing more than a little bit of extra information of a very specific character or event. It still doesn’t feel as though your character is truly integrated in the wider world.
Divinity Original Sin 2 finds this balance the best however. Rather than an awkward middle ground the game simply gives you the choice. You can play as one of a number of pre-made characters with a wide variety of intriguing backgrounds that can lead into a fascinating series of side-quests. Or you can play as a custom created character and have a far less storied experience if that’s your jam. The only issue Original Sin 2 has though is that with resources stretched over a number of playable characters and a custom one, the game can lose a little focus. The ability to create a carefully hand-crafted personal narrative is then still diminished when compared to singular character driven RPGs such as in the Read Dead Redemption franchise. Arthur Morgan’s entire character is tightly entwined with his decisions in every single mission and the entire experience is richer for it.
The one series that on the surface appears to contradict all of this is Mass Effect. Commander Shepard always feel like an integral cog in the universe. They may not have an extensively detailed history but they certainly fit. Now this is partially because unlike something like Fallout New Vegas, Commander Shepard is already set up to make the journey they do. They’re an experienced military officer who becomes more influential than his equivalents through a mix of talent and circumstance. There’s no dissonance here. But there’s a reason that Mass Effect 2 is widely considered to the apex of the series. By the second game, Shepard does have a history. Shepard does have established relationships with many of the characters he meets. The first game in essence acts as the backstory and it enhances its successor to no end. The same thing can be seen in Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire. Rather than some basic adventurer with nothing to distinguish themselves, you’re now the hero the took on the Leaden Key and effected so many lives in the process. You’re known throughout the world and it shows. Factions and characters in every corner of the Deadfire now react to you and the things you’ve done and just like in Mass Effect 2; this cements your character into the universe.
None of this is to say all games that make you create a custom character are bad. Far from it, I’ve enjoyed countless hours in every one of the games I’ve criticised here. I’m not even suggesting that all games should have an expansively written fully realised protagonist. But the trend in recent years has tended towards player freed in detriment to their potential narratives. We should welcome back the apparently restrictive titular characters that may just win you over with the depth of their personality.