Heroic Archetypes and Character Beauty in MMOs

One of the things that had me laughing most when South Park did an episode on World of Warcraft (“Make Love, Not Warcraft” in Season 10) was just seeing their Warcraft characters onscreen. You had Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman all playing these prototypical fantasy types – burly warrior, stout dwarf, and so on—but with the crew’s “real,” squeaky voices. It’s probably the thing that folks who don’t play RPG’s laugh most about – the geeky kid playing Conan the Barbarian, but in this case it was also cartoons playing cartoons.

Of course, anyone who watches TV or movies, or reads comic books likes these heroic molds, the archetypal hero with the chiseled, perfect body. But then I think back to shows like the 2nd run of Battlestar Galactica, and more recently, Game of Thrones, who had folks like Adama, with his weather beaten, harried look, or like Tyrion, the “bastard” dwarf of House Lannister, or the giant Brienne of Tarth in that same series, and I wonder if we can get to interesting rather than beautiful as the look for our heroes in these games. If we wanted to go back a little further we could point to Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood Stories, and of course the hobbits of Lord of the Rings, all rather non-heroic, yet interesting characters.

All MMOs have the initial character setup screen, where you have the options to choose the look of your character. More recent games have really increased the number of choices here—everything from eye color to facial expression to eyebrow arch and goatee type. Skyrim, especially, although it’s a single player game, has a huge number of options. I note, however, that most of these options are for facial features alone – nearly all games pick the well-known body type of Western culture perfection.

One of the latest and most anticipated MMOs on the scene, Guild Wars 2, is asking this question for its character creation screens, and others have been picked as particularly innovative here (e.g. Star Wars: The Old Republic actually allows overweight characters). It would be interesting to have a slider to scale your character’s age, girth, height or bust size to something that fits your concept of character personality. What if you could give yourself especially long legs or arms? Small or larger hands? Or, another idea – giving characters a starting point based on a personality trait – “brooding,” “jovial,” “cunning,” “studious,” “savage” – and then letting folks tweak their actual features from there. You’d end up with a lot more variety in the game, and perhaps characters that better fit your idea of who you want to play. And why limit it to just humans? All races should have the options, although perhaps each racial type might have different upper and lower limits on the scale.

I’m guessing that, from a development standpoint, one of the challenges of doing all this is scaling all the clothes and equipment to the various sizes. All these games have literally thousands of pieces of gear which need to scale correctly, and the more options you have here the more work you have on your hands – that piece of work among the thousands of other tasks needing to take place as part of building a game. But it is a question that comes up regularly, and more players are asking for less “cookie cutter” looks in their character classes. In an MMO, it especially rankles to pass a character on the street that not only looks exactly like you, but like every generic fantasy stereotype you’ve ever heard of or seen.

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6 thoughts on “Heroic Archetypes and Character Beauty in MMOs

  1. Mark Bozzuto says:

    The first game I ever saw to have a detailed character designer was a Tony Hawk skateboard game that a friend of mine was playing…but the first game with one that I actually played was NWN2 (2006) It let me alter height/breadth to make them wiry like a Jeff Dee drawing, or broad like a weight lifter… but not scrawny nor fat. I could set some head/face features, with assumptions being neutral to attractive, though with the right combo you could make someone look fairly heinous.

    In PS@home one can alter body from thin to fat, but not beefy-muscular, which is interesting considering the common assumption of the torso textures that you can buy at stores which reveal the belly are invariably cut with a six-pack… so if you make a fat avatar and buy a bare-belly torso… you get this bizarre muscular fatty effect.

    The first game I recall that let me make a character from near anorexic to rather tubby and from gorgeous to hideous was Saint’s Row 2 (2008).

    • gpili says:

      Ah, I played a ways into the first Neverwinter but never got to the 2nd one. I do remember the commercial for Saint’s Row though! Some VERY odd looking types in there, but I love the idea of being able to make just about anyone. Another person pointed out the good idea of being able to change the type over the course of the game, especially as a result of play style if a long-term MMO. A tailor might end up looking very different from a pure warrior, or bookish mage…

  2. Dan Johnston says:

    I think part of the problem is the limited amount of options an MMO, or any game, can provide to you. That being said, I was amazed at how many gnomes in world of Warcrafrt opted for the “Punk Rock Look”, I think it was a sub-cultural thing i was not tuned into to. The other thought is that people feel comfortable with” WHAT IS FAMILIAR” so do not expect this to change a lot in our generation. Maybe “down the line” people will demand more variety. and design characters that are more esoteric, but that will be because fiction/books/movies will have presented them with more options. Gaming is still very derivative of other “art forms” and is not cutting edge in this regard (sadly ?)

    • gpili says:

      Yeah, I am thinking that some games make to keep the options simple because they don’t think people may not be as heavily invested in a character look — especially if roleplaying is minimal within the game. I’m surprised at the number of options in some of the single-player games, given that no one will see the character except the person playing.

      • Mark Bozzuto says:

        In an MMO I imagine the primary reason for a lack of too much variety is that rendering all the differences between all the different players would consume lots of memory.

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