There are no spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077 or any other games in this post.
A few days ago, a video game asked me to evaluate some nipples. My character’s, specifically. After a not insignificant portion of time moving toggles back and forth between different nose types or trying to choose the perfect dead eyes, here I was, being asked to choose which set of nipples I wanted. This is Cyberpunk 2077’s character creator, and it’s been causing quite the stir. The nipples made me think, as one does, about the humble character creator, the quiet workhorse of any good RPG design. Whatever your intention as you go into a game’s character creator, if you’ve spent any time at all customizing a character, you’re in it. You’re invested now.
My first personal experience with character creators came in the form of Neverwinter Nights (2002), developed by BioWare and Obsidian. I was raised on a heavy diet of point-and-click adventure Mac games with clearly defined protagonists like Guybrush Threepwood or April from The Longest Journey. These weren’t roleplaying games, and the story I was playing through was theirs, not mine. Like every good DnD-style game, you chose your race, character class, attributes and abilities, and then some basic character customization. Back in 2002, this was novel to me, and I spent hours choosing which head and tattoo color to put on my batch of polygons.
Character creators have come a really long way in the last 20 years. You can create alien and mythical races, specify ear size, and choose the inner and outer rings of a character’s iris. Saint’s Row IV even lets you be Nolan North. And a character creator is about so much more than simply choosing an aesthetic.
A good character creator helps you build your ideal avatar, whatever that may look like, so that you can send them out into the game world, to experience it, to impact it and be impacted by it.
There are some games where you spend a lot of time seeing your character. BioWare games, for one, feature your character so heavily that I’ve occasionally spent 20 minutes customizing my character, only to redo it all when I actually see her in gameplay. Nobody can stand 60 hours of a game looking at a nightmare. (I once created a character in Dragon Age: Inquisition with the “lip gloss” feature turned all the way up. It took so long to create her that I stuck with it, but on a sunny day, she’d blind everyone with her lips. I had a constant lens flare.)
This level of investment in a character’s face, a character who, for better or worse, comes to represent you throughout a game’s run time, can backfire. Take, for instance, 2012’s Mass Effect 3, the third in a trilogy of space opera games that began in 2005. If you’re unfamiliar with it, you take the form of Commander Shepard, a badass space soldier you’ll be seeing a lot of through Mass Effect’s cumulative 100-hour game time. Mass Effect 2, and subsequently Mass Effect 3, let you import your character and their major choices from game to game. But there was a problem with ME3: if you imported your ME1 character to ME2, there was an issue with the face codes, meaning that your ME3 Shepard wasn’t going to look like your ME2 or ME1 Shep.
As someone who had played through both the first two games in order to have my canonically perfect run to import into ME3, imagine my dismay when my dream Shepard didn’t– and couldn’t– look like the one I’d just devoted 60 hours to. It was an immersion-breaking issue that led to creative problem solving.
At least default FemShep is a badass. She took me all the way through ME3, and I loved her, but I couldn’t avoid the feeling that she wasn’t the same Shepard I’d taken on all of those adventures that had come before.
When Mass Effect: Andromeda came out, it also had a problem. It had many, but one in particular seemed to rattle the cages of even the most dedicated Mass Effect player (of which I consider myself one): the character creator. BioWare, who not too long before Andromeda had released a pretty great creator along with Dragon Age: Inquisition, took a few steps backwards. The biggest complaint? You couldn’t deviate much from a handful of preset faces, making true customization impossible. It bothered people so much that BioWare dropped a patch a couple of months after the game released, which significantly changed the creator and included an on-ship facial reconstruction station in case you really couldn’t stand your Ryder build.
But I’m the person who took four days off from work to play Mass Effect 3, and an unattractive character wasn’t going to prevent me from my space romances and pre-order pink tracksuit. A lot of us had already finished the game by the time this patch rolled out, and no, I wasn’t going to go back to Andromeda until the memory of it had long faded and I thought I might be up for it again. So I made Sara, featured above, of indeterminate ethnic background, a mop of shockingly (and clearly fake) blonde hair, and roots for days. And we were in it together, for all of that game, for better or for worse.
I stared at those roots a lot. Sara, I thought. If there’s a space bar on the Nexus, surely there’s a hair salon?
I haven’t seen much of V in Cyberpunk 2077. In spite of the extensive character creator, she’s hardly there, buried behind a first-person view. I know she’s there. I’m conscious, even, that she has a face, the way it feels once you learn Lisa is programmed to always be behind you in PT. Sometimes I’ll stop and make her look in a mirror, just so I can remember what I did to her face. Her eyes are soulless, and her pink and blue ombré hair in delicate finger curls felt right for a Corpo but less so for what (who?) she’s becoming. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of her when I am forced to go third person to try to drive a vehicle rather than sprinting through Night City. Whenever I access my inventory, I can see her there, too. When I change her clothes, I even get to see the nipples I chose. I don’t know why I got to choose them.
But I did. And this V, whatever she’s worth, whoever she is, is mine.