It’s the final days of 02015, and I’m reminded of the sheer number of RPGs which came out. The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Pillars of Eternity, Xenoblade Chronicles X, to name a few. On top of that, games like Bloodborne included RPG elements, including the ability to customize your hunter, even if explicit roleplaying wasn’t its focus. But what this means is that for a large portion of 02015, I spent time existing in virtual and imaginative spaces playing characters largely of my own creation, and while The Witcher 3 gave me a wholly different experience as I played as Geralt, I’ve come to value the ability to create my character a great deal, even if they are largely silent (as in Bloodborne). This isn’t new, customization is a well-enjoyed feature for millions, but there’s certain elements which I’ve come to adore.
I’ve always been someone who if given the option, will likely play a version of myself rather than someone else. I have friends who see the character customization screen as a time to step out of who they are, and make someone wholly original, whereas I’ve always modelled my character after myself. Yet years ago I used to make a rather idealized version of myself, where this year I found that more and more, I began to design characters with my flaws, and it’s made all the difference.
It’s one thing to be perfect and beautiful, a truly stellar example of yourself, but I found it becoming more and more unfulfilling. When Fallout 4 launched, I tried to recreate my face as close as possible given my options. I’m hardly unattractive, but I’m certainly no flawless supermodel either, and so the ability to add a mole to my character’s cheek (in the same position as mine), or make her brow slightly more prominent, were welcome features.
This habit of character creation became an important one for me, because knowing and accepting my flaws in-game perhaps predictably helped me accept them out of game. I’ve always been self-conscious about certain facial features, but when they became a choice (matched against more-perfect alternatives), that decision felt all the more meaningful. I could have done so differently, so why didn’t I? Perhaps it was because to do so would be to ignore who I am.
And then I added a scar, which all of my characters since (and sometimes before) have (if given the option). I added a scar, right on my lips. An ugly, deep one, because that little addition actually helped me feel less alone in one important way. While I do not have a scar on my lips, I have suffered some major trauma there. In fact, at one point my entire jaw had to be broken in several places and rebuilt. The surgeon did a fine job, but even seven years on, I have never regained feeling in any of the affected areas. My lips, my chin, and the inside of my mouth are numb, and have been since I woke up from that surgery, and it has caused me some difficulty since.
Because I am numb there, I barely feel it when I kiss someone. In the years post-surgery, I’ve become an incredibly neat eater, because I won’t feel it if I get anything on my chin. Even then I’m in the habit of constantly wiping the area with my napkin. Thankfully I can still taste, because believe me if I had lost that too I would have offed myself years ago. However, there are still many sensations that I’ve missed out on, and while it might not seem like a big deal, the fact is that I’ve lost a lot of feeling in other parts of my body as well- including every area that has been operated on.
So a small cosmetic option has become more important to me than hair colour, build, or any other option in building my avatar. The scar on my character’s lips, without having to say anything, is a sign of similar trauma, and as I walk through those virtual spaces, not only can my imagination fill the gaps- to where when ‘in the zone’, I can practically feel the breeze across my cheeks, but I also know my character cannot feel that breeze across their chin.
A lot has been written about your ability to roleplay in the games of 02015, with most criticizing Fallout 4 for its curtailing of many explicit RPG elements. These are criticisms which I’ll echo, it is true that in many ways the four-option (Nice, Asshole, “Sarcasm”, and ‘More Information’) dialogue wheel is a glaring weakpoint, in an otherwise well-designed game. Even if the character is voiced, which admittedly makes them feel a more a part of the world, the limitation was often felt.
Further, all games currently suffer from the problem of limited content, and even in the most expansive games, once you run out of dialogue options, most characters will default to a set few lines. Again to use Fallout 4 as an example, romancing Piper (which is something I wasn’t planning on doing at first) was a lot of fun, with each stage of the relationship unlocking more scenes with her, by the end you’ve exhausted every novel thing to say or even suggest, and instead she (and every other character) defaults to the same few lines whenever you interact.
I don’t know what to do about this problem, naturally because and content must be programmed in, and is thus fininte. No RPG on PC or console will ever be able to replace the possibilities of a good DM and/ or a pen and paper group. Despite something novel often being behind every corner in The Witcher 3, eventually I ran out of events to discover and partake in, and it doesn’t matter if exhausting them took 20 or 200 hours, I find the most depressing part of every RPG is that moment when I realize I’ve done it all.
But that’s where the latent possibilities, and the power of one’s imagination, come in. The fact is that you don’t need the game to explicitly present you with character interaction, dialogue, or anything of that sort to roleplay. Earlier I said that I hadn’t planned on romancing Piper in Fallout 4, and that was because explicitly I was a widow, whose child was stolen and husband gunned down before my character’s very eyes. In fact, I was still wearing my wedding ring. And that ring is one of the most interesting elements of the game that I haven’t heard anyone else discuss, because it doesn’t function like any other item. Or at least, the one from your spouse doesn’t.
In Fallout 4, shortly after you escape from your crio-pod at the start of the game, you have the option to open the one which holds your deceased spouse. Explicitly, your character says something along the line of: “No, oh God, please- no!” (as one would expect), but then something subtle and odd happens. If you ‘Interact’ with their corpse (through the standard prompt), your character has another line of dialogue similar to the one before, and your spouse’s wedding ring is automatically added to your inventory. What’s strange is that there is no ‘Loot’ screen for this, where you basically ‘open’ a chest or enemy and may loot the contents (or store some of your own inventory items). And this slight change implied something- that my character chose to take the ring. A strange thing to do, but given that you can return to their body at pretty much every time, I considered it a keepsake, something she was ready to take. And later, a sign to move on.
I am all for monogamy, and nothing puts me in good spirits like a wedding, and for that reason I was dead set against romancing any character, because I/ my character had just lost their husband. However, I spent many real-world days playing that game, exploring the world, and interacting with people- and slowly this one strong-spoken reporter in a cute paperboy hat became my favourite companion. And so me and Piper went through some real shit together, and she was there at nearly every major story beat. Yet still by surprise, when the ‘Romance’ option first became available, I took it and never looked back. While I was ‘rewarded’ with some flirty and cute dialogue between them, the latent fact that I had chosen to move on was more powerful than anything that could have been programmed in.
And right before the final mission, where I had to be separated from Piper, I transferred the wedding ring to her inventory and found that I could have her equip it. There’s no in-game model for the ring, and no in-game dialogue which accompanies it, but in my head it was a rather sweet moment- basically my character wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and so she asked Piper to marry and the two totally in love went with it. And the fact that that ring wasn’t ‘looted’ from my spouse’s corpse, but rather given to me, made me consider that dynamic when one half of a marriage dies, yet perhaps doesn’t wish for the one they leave behind to be alone.
The limitations of games, particularly in a roleplaying and open-world capacity are often and rightfully critiqued, but I think one solution is to provide opportunities like the above. Where small touches requiring so little programming, can spark big moments in the minds of players. It’s the implicit and latent moments which were born mostly from my own imagination that have stuck with me. After all, XCom: Enemy Unknown (one of my favourite games of all-time, top 3 easy) had a bare-bones story, but what players remember is their unique squads, and how through so little (some light customization and permadeath) Firaxis Games were able to create thousands of little latent stories. Of the sole-survivor, the golden rookie who made a 4% shot, the noble sacrifice, or even one character’s mad dash to extract their friend/ lover from their mission against EXALT.
Ultimately, I think it’s these little touches that make the game, and the above are just to name a few. It’s particularly rewarding when developers think to add them, and just another reason that likely separates games/ stories that take on a life of their own, from those that don’t. After all, so much fanfiction is based on ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments, or interpretations of little canon/ explicit moments between characters. It’s just something I’ve come to enjoy, and 02015 was a particularly fine year for it.