Why Character Creation is Always Going to Suck

Why character creation is always going to suck

So a couple of years ago I bought Dragon Age Inquisition, even though there was another game, doing pretty much the same open-world RPG schtick only better in pretty much every way (I’m talking about the Witcher 3, no I haven’t played that game yet). Yes, I knew what I was doing, it’s because I was invested in the lore.

Sexy, sexy lore.

So far though, I’ve spent about nine hours playing the game, and I’m pretty certain that half of that has been in the character creator and you know what? I still look ugly as fuck. Being the narcissist that I am, I tried to model the character after myself, and after two abortive tries, I ended up with this.

Success!

Yeah. I mean, not necessarily super ugly, just kind of… off. So clearly the Witcher was always going to win this round because there you had professional face-makers spending two years lovingly face-making every handsome scar on that handsome Witcher-face, whereas Dragon Age is going to have normal people who really don’t know what they’re doing, just bumbling around with features like earlobe size and jowls (seriously, what the hell are jowls?).

Look at that smouldering face.

This is a problem for Dragon Age, but actually,  Dragon Age characters are always going to be the post-accident Gerard Depardieu to the Witcher’s George Clooney and the reasons are always going to be more complicated than me being a bumbling amateur and the Witcher people being proffesional Wicher-makers. Like, I totally swear you guys, this is not just me deciding that because I couldn’t make a good character, all character creation is forever the pits.

So yes,, this is not necessarily a knock at the Dragon Age Inquisition character creator. As far as these, things go, it’s a lovely effort, you get to multiple sliders for every feature you can imagine, and then some (fucking Jowls). The problem is that the process of character creation as it stands is always going to be deeply fundamentally flawed. This is true for pretty much every game out there and it has to do with the way that the brain process faces.

To explain why I’m going to have to drop some psychology on you. See, usually, when we look at an object, say a tree, the brain takes the different parts of the image, branches, trunk, leaves, and all that, and then puts them together again, one by one, like a puzzle. When we look at faces, though, it’s different. The brain doesn’t take in eyes, mouth, nose separately, instead, it processes the entire thing in one go. In fact, there’s even a specific brain area tasked with doing only this kind of processing.

Exciting stuff, huh? Actually, it gets more exciting than that, because in what is a fascinating neurological debate, a lot of scientists actually argue that what that area isn’t for processing faces at all, but rather just stimuli that we come across very frequently and… oh what? You want me to keep talking about stupid video game characters? Fine.

This is why police sketches end up looking so ridiculous, because witnesses are asked to describe the face feature by feature, nose, ears, one by one. And they’re astoundingly bad. When people are asked to describe celebrities to police sketch artists, the recognition rate for people who later look at the picture is in the low single digits. As in the low single percentage points. And these are faces like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, that both the witness and the judge should be intimately familiar with.

Bill Cosby in a police sketch? Feels like there’s a joke in there somewhere…

If the above process sounds a bit familiar to you, it should, because this is also how we make characters in video games. The problem is, as we are sliding the size of the nose bridge up and down, our brain has no idea what’s happening, but it knows it doesn’t like it. We may have a rough idea of how we want the face to look in the end, but getting there is just really, really hard. In this case, getting more options may actually be a hindrance rather than a help.

Seriously, what the hell is going in in this video?

So, is there nothing we can do? Are we just doomed to using ugly characters for the rest of our lives? Well, not necessarily. Psychologists have developed tools that allow eyewitnesses to create sketches that are actually pretty accurate. At identifiying celebrities. Which is, you know, a part of the process. Basically, what the most successful approaches do is take a bunch of random features, smash them together to create seven or eight faces and then ask the witnesses to say which faces are the most similar to the person (the celebrity) they saw. The face that is chosen is then used as a baseline to create new faces and the processs is repeated until you get something that’s reasonably accurate.

This is all well and good, but I think the question we’re all really asking is can this be applicable in gaming? And really, I don’t see why it shouldn’t. So hey, Bioware, if you’re read this, and I’m pretty sure you are, you know, get on it.

In defense of Iron Man 2

So Iron Man 2. By now, it’s just kind of an accepted fact that it’s just the worst, so I don’t feel I have to go into why that is. It’s bad I get it. But like a fool I’m still going to defend it. Basically I’m just going to ignore the attacks everyone is making and instead defend the film from the attack that almost no one is making. Because I hate being accessible? Maybe. What almost no one (but not actually no one) is saying is that the film is an a tribute to everyone’s (no one’s) favorite  (not actually a) philosopher and all-round grumpy person, Ayn Rand.

So accessible.

You can find articles arguing for that here, here and here. What I’m going to argue is that this interpretation misses a lot of the nuance of the film, which actually works as a deconstruction of the Randian ideal. And actually, I’m going to go even further than that and argue that Marvel’s most capitalist hero is actually a full-on defender of the role of government in… well a lot of things. Some thing anyway.

But I can see where the criticism comes from. In fact, you can see it in the very first scene. For those who don’t feel like re watching two hours of tedium (or even like, ten minutes), that scene is all about Tony Stark defending his right to keep the Iron Man suit and not have to give it to the government so they can repel foreign invasions. And it’s true, the scene has a lot of parallels to a similar court scene in Atlas Shrugged, which I guess is about this character, Hank Rearden’s right to not to have to give up his Iron Man suit so the government can use it to build railways or whatever (full disclosure: I haven’t actually read Atlas Shrugged. But come on, who wants to do that? Have you guys seen atlus shrugged? It’s a friggin tome! And anyway, I read the sparknotes summary. Well, some of it.). Both Rearden and Stark are super-rich genius inventors who have invented this amazing new way of making Iron man suits. In both cases, the government wants to take away their invention (remember: Iron Man suits) and use it for the public good and in both cases the protagonists argue that the public good is best served by keeping the Iron Man suits in private hands. Both Rearden’’s and Tony Stark’s speeches basically amount to “you want my stuff, well you can’t have it” and focus on the sacred right of property. So there’s a pretty convincing link between Stark and Rand.

Is this Iron Man 2 or Atlas Shrugged? I can’t tell either!

Then there’s this whole capitalism thing. Obviously, there’s the fact that Stark is super-rich corporate executive and did I mention he has a lot of money? He does. Also, there’s the fact that the courtroom scene ends with Stark saying something like, “I have successfully privatized world peace. You’re welcome.” Look, I never said this film was subtle. So, I guess it’s not strange then that people look at the beginning of the film and see the similarity between Tony Stark and Ayn Rand,  and go “yep. That’s pro-capitalist all right. Nothing could possibly disprove that”.

Except, that’s not exactly true. First, it’s important to note that Iron Man 2 and Atlas Shrugged differ in where they place the speech. In Atlas Shrugged, it’s near the end (or somewhere, whatever, space is relative right?), right before the government collapses in an explosion of Iron Man suits (because they’ve taken them all. Moral of the story: don’t take all the Iron Man suits. They explode) but in Iron man 2 it’s actually the first scene. The Hubris scene. In fact, the entire rest of the film is spent showing that pretty much all of what Stark says in this scene is false. Tony says no one else is even close to building a similar suit, but in the next scene we are introduced to evil Russian, Whiplash who has built a similar suit. Tony says he’s never going to give the suit to the government, but later on, he does just that. And if we go back to Atlas Shrugged, the outcomes are completely different. In Atlas shrugged, everything goes to hell because the government wants to take the suits (remember, they explode). In Iron Man 2, when they are denied the help of the premier inventor, the government goes to his inferior rival, which is the catalyst for everything bad that happens. So basically, everything goes to hell in Iron Man 2 because Tony Stark won’t help the government.

Then there’s the case of Stark’s illness. In the courtroom scene, Stark claims that he can sustainably protect America from outside threats. This is not true. If he dies, which the film goes to great lengths to make us believe he will, he won’t be able to protect anyone. And, in fact, what’s killing him is his own invention. Although it might be tempting to make the connection to the unsustainable way we are treating the planet, even I have to admit this is a bit of a stretch. But, remember, the explicit connection between Tony Stark and privatization was made already in the courtroom scene (that whole, privatized world peace line). So, if Stark is capitalism, and Tony Stark has a problem in his heart, then I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the film implies that capitalism has a problem in it’s very heart.

And speaking of that illness, let’s think about how Tony deals with it. For a superhero famed for his resourcefulness, he deals with his impending doom incredibly poorly. He shuts out his friends, he drinks, and he behaves just generally irresponsibly. In the end though, he solves the situation by creating a new element which doesn’t kill him. Yes, this is incredibly stupid, but if we look past stupid it is, the way it happens is pretty revealing. On his own, he flounders he can’t do it. Instead, it takes the intervention of SHIELD and a message from Howard Stark from the past to help him solve the riddle. How does Tony’s dad know he’s going to need a new element in 50 years? How does Nick Fury know that Tony’s dad knows the secret? Best not to think about these questions. What is interesting to think about, however, is what Howard Stark and Nick Fury represent. As head of SHIELD, Nick Fury, clearly represents the government.

Clearly the government.

Howard Stark, Tony’s father, is maybe trickeir to parse, but I think that probably the simplest reading is that his role is meant to further emphasize the fact that Tony didn’t build himself up from scratch. His wealth, his power, and now even the idea for a new element that saves his heart, was handed down to him, essentially given to him. Are these interpretations a bit of a stretch. Maybe. But remember, these are choices made by the filmmakers. They didn’t need to have Stark be helped by SHIELD or his father. In fact, the film would probably have been better if it didn’t involve these elements. Instead, the plot jumps through unnecessary hoops to work in these interventions, I take this as evidence that the film really wants be saying that the free market, as embodied by Tony Stark, can only be effective through the help of government intervention, as embodied by SHIELD, and the legacy of earlier innovators, as embodied by Howard Stark.

And if you look at the ending, it’s not Tony Stark working by himself that take down Whiplash. Instead, it’s Stark, working in close coordination with Rhodey –  the government soldier who, despite all of Stark’s grandstanding in the opening scene, is actually given an Iron Man suit. Private enterpise assisting the government to take down problems. So, using this analysis, a surprisingly consistent message has emerged. Private enterprise owes a great deal to the government, and as such has an obligation to contribute to the good of society. While this isn’t exactly a radical idea (if I ever get around to doing an analysis of Iron Man 3, I’ll show that film is way more radical) it’s a far cry from the Randian ideals that a lot people attribute to the film. Shame it’s still kind of a terrible film.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the main characters’s name as “John Reardon” not Hank Reardon.

Correction 2: An earlier version of this post described the plot of Atlas Shrugged as being about trains and metal and some other bullshit. This was clearly wrong.

It’s a new thing!

Hey what’s going on here? Well, I’ll tell you you what’s going on.

Apparently there’s is new trend going around, people are posting on “blogs” or whatever. I think it only makes sense for me to jump on while the jumping is hot. I have a lot of thoughts about things and I sometimes like to write down those thoughts. Most of my thoughts are weird and unusual, but my hope is that you (yes you, I’m talking directly to you) will appreciate it. Upcoming posts include an impassioned defence of the worst Iron Man film and a stinging critique of the best Dragon Age game. In general, expect mostly pop culture analysis with an infusion of a bit psychology, some moral philosophy, maybe a bit of feminism. Really, it’s a collection things I find interesting, and since I know that I am a perfect representation of all the people, I’m going to assume everyone else finds those things just as interesting.

Expect maybe two or three posts a week, though this may vary (and really, what I mean is, I’ll usually be slower than that). Right now, this website looks really, super simple. That’s because I don’t know anything about making blogs or websites or anything really. So… don’t expect that to change.