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.

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.)

If the lipgloss goes to 11, I’m going to take it to 11.

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.

My ACNH character has bad bangs and she’s living her best life.

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.

I don’t know why I thought to take a literal photograph of Sara Ryder, but this has sat on my phone for close to four years.

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.

Are you smiling? I don’t even know you, V.

What’s your favorite character creator, or your favorite character you’ve ever made? Or just say hi!

When thatgamecompany’s Journey came out on PS3 in 2012, it was immediately heralded as one of the best games of the year, lauded for its beautiful graphics, stunning music, and moving gameplay. It has a staggering Metacritic score of 92 and was nominated for all of (and won most of) the awards the following awards season: five BAFTA wins, a Grammy nomination for Austin Wintory’s score, and six wins at the Game Developers Choice Awards, including Best Audio, Best Game Design, Best Visual Arts, Best Downloadable Game, the Innovation Award, and Game of the Year.

If you have never played Journey, and I strongly recommend that you do, you begin as a nameless creature on a beautiful sand dune. In the distance is a towering mountain– your only objective in the game. The core mechanics involve jumping and float/flying thanks to a magical scarf that grows longer as you collect shiny baubles in the environment. The game is entirely linear and completely without dialogue. If you have network access enabled, you can run into other players in the environment who look identical to you, save whatever the progression of their scarf is. You interact with each other through chirps, and you can go through the game together or completely alone.

This game baffled me in 2012. I understood that people loved this game, but every time I started it, I immediately lost interest. It was beautiful, sure, but there wasn’t enough to propel me through its gorgeous landscapes and haunting music. I don’t like not finishing games, but Journey remained elusive. I just didn’t get it.

Then came late May 2013. I had been interviewing for a dream job with a now-closed game studio, even going so far as to bail on a burgeoning romance to prioritize my writing tests. “Well, anything for a dream job, right?” was the last text he sent me. It felt like mine to lose— in spite of my lack of experience— and a friend took me out for congratulatory drinks the Friday after my final Skype interview. Sounds like you nailed it, he told me over sazeracs.

The next week, I had a business trip to LA for a job that was slowly but very surely draining me of my creative spark. Landing at LAX, I turned my phone back on. I had two emails in succession: the first, from the lead writer for the game company with the title, “Following up.” Excited, I read that one first, not even letting my eyes scroll beneath it. “I’m so sorry that they sent you a form rejection,” the email said. “I didn’t want them to do that.” Beneath it was the form rejection. My coworker emerged from the plane to find me sobbing at LAX. I kept sobbing. At the luggage carousel, he joked, “Can you stop? People are going to think I just broke up with you.”

I spent a week in LA and flew home, defeated and trying to move on. On June 14th, The Last of Us came out. My specific memories around playing TLOU that first time are distant now, but I remember its impossible and unyielding darkness, how hard it was to slog through emotionally. It was a game I knew I would finish, its narrative pulling me along, but there were days where it was too hard to wade into Joel and Ellie’s world. All the while, Journey’s icon beckoned to me from my PS3 home screen.

It was a Saturday morning in June of 2013 when I started Journey again for my third or fourth time. I remember it clearly: firing it up around 10am and finishing it, somewhere around 1230, tears streaming down my cheeks. 

Sometimes a game isn’t about what it brings to us. Often, it’s about what we bring into the experience. For me, in 2013, it was about these moments of exploration, of discovery, of disappointment, of failure, and then ultimately of elation and of triumph. 

And what I brought to Journey was the story I had been missing back in 2012. I brought my own story. This is not to suggest that Journey doesn’t have its own story— but overlaid with my own, this became a profound experience.  

Then came 2020: a pandemic, a social crisis in the United States, and endless isolation. Connection has become rare, itself a game turned to maximum difficulty. I struggle, like so many of us do, with this sense of new normal and how to define it, how to find meaning inside of it. 

In July 2020, after months of not seeing another human being beyond Zoom parties and Webex meetings, I played Journey again, with my network access enabled, this time on PS4. When I originally played Journey all the way through that first time, the game was about my personal journey, and I turned off my internet in order to have it be mine and mine alone. It was about what felt like tremendous adversity and obstacles, and the hope that those obstacles could be overcome– by me, and by me alone. 

This time was different. I had forgotten about the online play element when I started this playthrough, but I also didn’t think about it. This game is 8 years old, and there’s so much content now, endless Crossings of the Animals and Nites of the Fort. What were even the odds that I would run into someone else?

In July 2020, other people are still playing Journey.

I ran into a few of them along the way. One in particular chattered away happily (I imagine) at me, maybe grateful like I was to see another person, even in this game world. We were companions through the descent into the depths, hiding from monsters together. We were in this adventure as a pair.

And then we got separated. I surfed down sparkling sand, away from a monster, and barreled into a wall of light– but my partner was gone. I turned back to look for them, even making my way back to see if they were just taking a break. I’d take a break with them, I decided.

I couldn’t find them. I set my controller down and made lunch. I came back, hoping they would have returned and be waiting for me, but I was completely alone. So I carried on without them, until I ran into them again— only it wasn’t them. This time the avatar’s scarf was much shorter. This was a totally different person.

We went on a little ways together until they dropped behind, backtracking. I waited for them, chirping a little, until it was time for me to move on. I hope they found someone else in the sands of Journey. I finished my game alone but no less elated— and comforted by— these tiny moments of human connection the game gave me.

So in the sense that sometimes games are about who we are, and not about what they are, what I brought this time was my need to find other people, to have companionship, to have a partner. Journey was no less affecting or beautiful in July 2020 than it was in June 2013, and in many ways its themes about connection and adversity resonate more than ever. I have to believe that we’re going to be okay. We’ve just got to keep going on a journey.

All images are copyright thatgamecompany.