On Customization in Video Games

Games with robust customization systems are traditionally highly compelling, those systems primarily used as a tool of self-expression. It would be unfair and inaccurate to state that games devoid of such systems are somehow lesser in quality than games which do boldly feature them – they are simply different, perhaps more focused. Still, the inclusion of such systems goes a long ways towards linking player and protagonist, the forging of such a bond being of critical importance; if the player can better connect with the player character, then greater narrative engagement is the end result. At the wide end of the spectrum, of course, are those titles which feature not only garment, armor, and weapon customization features, but which feature also body and facial editing – consider the Bethesda titles, where customization has a certain allure, a certain depth. Something similar could be said of Saints Row, that title showing especially profound customization systems. In a somewhat tragic admission, these games and series are largely outliers – customization in many games is painfully basic; potentials are sometimes squandered. Surprisingly, regressions are commonplace – the depths of customization in Skyrim are lesser than the profundities characterizing Oblivion, that title endowing each individual race with unique powers, unique racial statistics, suggesting that the industry is not always engaged in some steady march of progress, this fact being most observable when further considering these regressions. If the industry was ever marching further, than such depths would be ubiquitous. But it is not to be. Still, beyond Bethesda games, one other RPG stands supreme in terms of player flexibility and empowerment while engaged in the character creation process – Dragon Age: Origins, where every initial choice has lasting repercussions, influencing the precise nature of dialogue engaged in, the interactions between player character and NPC. With this overwhelming depth, with this significance of player action in customization, this title is singularly remarkable. Indeed, so great are the feats accomplished here, it can be difficult to play games devoid of customizability, games featuring a static, unchanging, and unalterable player character. But not all games absolutely need such systems – the static protagonist should coexist with the changeable; a dearth of customizability is not some monumental, irremediable failing.

Customization systems serve manifold different roles beyond mere self-expression, various acquirable items serving to illustrate player skill or player commitment – or the willingness to spend sometimes lavish sums upon a specific video game, increasingly commonplace when considering the rise and dominance of microtransactions. Consider a contemporary multiplayer shooter, like any of the litany of the Call of Duty games, or the unjustifiably popular Fortnite. In these titles, weapon and player skins are abundant, while abundant also are such frivolous and pointless objects like emotes or player calling cards. The rarer, sometimes more aesthetically pleasing objects here are very difficult to obtain, especially if the player spurns corporate greed, spurns microtransactions. Given this scarcity, actually having these objects in the inventory is a major feat indeed, a feat which ought to be broadcast to friend and foe alike, such displays a sort of bragging, but a bragging which is justified – landing a thousand headshots; scoring a kill from dramatic distances; scoring kills while intimately close to an enemy – not everyone can do these things, not everyone has the desire to investment time sufficient to complete these challenges. Accordingly, only a select few will have access to these greater customization opportunities. A diamond camouflage or a camouflage which literally pulses and changes as if alive is literally a mark of dedication, a way of conveying achievement; spectating a foe while awaiting a respawn or after being kicked from the lobby, then promptly seeing the skin they have equipped, is another, direct illustration of their skill, just as much as their ranking or overall level in the title. Microtransactions have corrupted this system to a fair extent: what was once exclusive to the skilled is now accessible to the masses, those playing the game, satisfying greed, corporate exploitation. It is a sad state of affairs, and were customization systems stripped back some, were obtainable objects less numerous, these titles might actually benefit. With the diversity of objects, upon visitation of an in-game shop, undeniably the player will find some appealing object, some object they are tempted to splurge on. This must not be construed as an attack on such titles; if a player derives enjoyment from such games, if they are willing to expend real money in search of further customization objects and derive constant satisfaction from those purchases, then that is excellent; games should be played for enjoyment and escapism, but the exploitative nature of these mechanics absolutely must be noted.

Customization in single-player games seems somehow purer, especially when in-game shops and purchaseable currencies are completely absent, as was traditionally the case, though even this is changing; consider Immortals: Fenyx Rising or the more recent Assassin’s Creed games, these games of course developed and published by Ubisoft, that titan of the industry. Fortunately, these systems are not particularly intrusive; immense opportunities for self-expression are present within these titles without the expenditure of physical money – here is wonderful depth, wonderful variety, Immortals the logical evolution of Assassin’s Creed, that former title boasting bodily and facial customization in addition to the more standard freedoms such as weapon and armor equips, which, again, foster player / protagonist linkage. Many armor and weapon sets may be aesthetically unappealing, or at least unappealing to the vast majority of players, though given the oftentimes massive amount of any given game’s playerbase, certainly all such objects will have some admirer; such diversity, then, is very welcome. But then the age old problem emerges: choosing aesthetically pleasing objects or objects with higher statistical values, a problem most prominent in RPG games, particularly action RPG’s and MMOs, featuring elaborate, color coded looting systems, objects existing in overabundance, sometimes overwhelming the player. There again is the question: cling to the beautiful or embrace the serviceable. Certain armor and weapon sets may be difficulty won, as is the case in a traditional multiplayer title. Accordingly, wearing those objects, wielding those weapons, is an almost gratifying, satisfying affair, a reminder of personal triumph. But given the private nature of single player games, oftentimes no other entity is present to observe that triumph, to observe the manifestations of that triumph. True, modern technical advances are gradually eroding such privacy – simply take a screenshot and post it online with a bit of context – but the significance of objects obtained with great exertion in single player titles is lesser than in multi-player ones.

A further imbalance is in place when considering customization in first-person titles relative to third-person ones. When regarding the latter genre, character models are visible always, the player permitted to marvel at that armor set, that weapon model, while in a title played exclusively in the first-person, such visibility is non-existent, minimizing the joys which inevitably arise when gazing upon player character. Far Cry 5 immediately comes to mind, that title featuring robust customization systems, even as they serve no function, are observable only in the various menus; accordingly, such systems seem needlessly included, included solely out of modern expectation; countless cosmetic items can be purchased, countless weapon camouflages are equipable – and for what? True, the gun camos are visible, but they constitute only half of these purchasable objects. A co-op mode is present within that game, and thusly the player character’s model is observable by companions in that game environment, though this one statement, this one game mode, cannot remedy the pointlessness of these systems within this precise game – here, in Far Cry 5, player self-expression is certainly possible, but efforts to view that self-expression are almost totally absent, something which could be said of all first-person titles. Essentially, customization is of far lesser import when playing a first-person game. Consider also the Borderlands series, the more recent ones having many player skins, player heads. As was the case with Far Cry 5, the models are visible while menuing, but again the inclusion of these systems was largely unnecessary – welcome, certainly, but unneeded. Even multi-player titles suffer from this problem, owing to the fact that the most popular among them are first-person; in a conventional Call of Duty, the player character may be visible while waiting for a lobby, but in-game, these skins are unobservable – and thusly irrelevant.    

Customization generally has the potential to elevate a game’s overall experience, heightening the connection between player and player character, that connection fostering narrative effectiveness – if the player can identify with the protagonist, they can better sympathize with the pains they endure, the pleasures they periodically delight in – customization serves a massive, crucial component, then. Even if customization flexibilities are somewhat restricted – say, when a player character’s gender is unalterable – their inclusion, no matter how basic, is welcome, never outright necessary, but welcome. A narrative centering around a pre-determined character may be more resonant than one focusing on a newly created one, and therein lies the greatest strength attached to a pre-existing character – the voiceless protagonist of Fallout or Skyrim will never be as compelling as Lara Croft or Cole Phelps, who anchor the narrative, elevate it above those with voiceless, completely novel protagonists. Now, though, compelling narratives are being crafted around these created protagonists; they may never reach the heights fixed protagonists effortlessly achieve, but the ambitions present here, the desire to do something new, are admirable, and narratives, even those following created characters, seem to be blooming in grace and complexity. The self-expression which accompanies robust customization systems, meanwhile, is perhaps the greatest success – seeing the player character decked out in aesthetically pleasing objects, or using the player character as a projection of the self, is an inherently rewarding experience, made more rewarding when numbers and statistics are stripped away, when garment choice centers exclusively around aesthetic appealingness, as with Sunset Overdrive, that excellent title, where no garment is objectively better than another, which cannot be said of a traditional RPG, abounding in statistics and armor sets, each serving a different function, each bolstering certain attributes and skills. But whether speaking of a single-player title like Sunset Overdrive, or a multiplayer shooter like Call of Duty, great gains in customization have been made, and one is hopeful that such progress will never be eroded, that depth and flexibility will be expanded, a wonderful prospect. How microtransactions fit in here remains to be seen, though hopefully they will be reined in, companies not motivated by greed.   

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