I am the embodiment of the jokes about RPG players clocking two hours in a game without leaving the character creator. Here I am 120 minutes in, still meticulously tweaking “cheekbone depth” and “outer iris color” and the exact position of all my battle scars. At this point, I’ve accepted and leaned into my status as a character creation tryhard. I know there are thousands of other PC gamers out there like me—which is why the most soul crushing, pride annihilating thing in an RPG is pressing play, getting to the first cutscene, and realizing “oh no, I’m ugly.”
It was Dragon Age: Inquisition that broke my spirit for the first time. My first feeling in Inquisition’s character creator was glee. Though players would later have plenty of opinions on BioWare’s switch to Electronic Arts’ proprietary Frostbite Engine, we were all feeling pretty giddy looking at the glossy skin and glistening lips of our custom Inquisitor faces on launch night.
I was flush with power, tweaking cheek concavity and nostril size and using a full color picker for eyeshadow. Dragon Age 2 had a decent character creator, but I personally went with a default Hawke more often than not. I let loose on all the options in Inquisition.
When I first hit accept and watched my soon-to-be-Inquisitor push her way through the first cutscene in the murky green of The Fade, nothing seemed amiss. After that there’s a dark, torchlit dungeon interrogation scene and, yeah, I still stood by those cheekbones. But then I was hauled out into the bright light of winter and looked up at the giant green rift in the sky.
This was the moment I knew I’d fucked up.
Sorry Herald of Andraste, it’s just that you look a little different from your profile pics.
With my inquisitor staring into the sky, cheekbones bared to the judgment of The Maker, I knew I couldn’t live with this face. And, look, beauty is not a measure of a person’s (or Inquisitor’s) value as a human (or elf) but that was not the face I thought I’d designed. I’d been bamboozled by the green Fade clouds, a trick of lighting trapping me in a character that just wasn’t right.
Even being asked by a game if I’d like to lower the difficulty level after losing a boss fight twice doesn’t compare to the total failure of being bad at character creation. The assignment was “just make something you enjoy!” and I managed to muck it up.
And it wasn’t just me that Dragon Age: Inquisition tripped up; this happened to tons of people. It was a whole thing. Even some of the best Inquisitors we collected from readers at the time came with notes referencing their multiple stabs at the process. We begged to have back the Black Emporium, an underground black market area from Dragon Age 2 which, among other services, offered character appearance changes via magic mirror. The Black Emporium did wind up being added to Inquisition as a free DLC, albeit half a year after launch. In the meantime, we all had to swallow our pride and get back into the character creator to try again.
Nowadays I’m less impressed by exhaustive face sliders. Even Fallout 4 offered a surprising amount of facial editing compared to its very same-face-producing Fallout 3 and New Vegas editors. The bar for bone structure fidelity is just higher these days. But sometimes these exhaustive character creators still fail to depict how I’ll look outside a menu.
The character creator setting I treasure most now is alternate lighting options like in Final Fantasy 14. If you can’t show me what my character looks like at dawn, dusk, and on a beach I simply cannot trust that I’m winding up with a character I’ll like.
With Dragon Age: Dreadwolf lumbering towards an eventual launch, I’m adding “character creator lighting toggles” to my wishlist of features. Because whoever my protagonist ends up being, I cannot suffer this shame again.