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The Clothes That Make The Man

I’ve found myself in a very strange position regarding Realtime Worlds’ latest MMO, APB: All Points Bulletin. The game has been receiving very average marks from reviewers: though the level of customisation available to you- from your avatar’s appearance to your car radio’s playlist- has been universally praised, heavy criticism has been placed on… well, pretty much every other part of the game system. As Rob Fahey put in his review on Eurogamer:

It’s a game about shooting and driving. Unfortunate, then, that so little attention has been paid to the crucial task of making the shooting and driving entertaining. Instead, this is a game whose combat bears all the finesse and refinement of the early 3D GTA titles, and whose driving, although greatly improved since earlier betas, remains a reasonable facsimile of attempting to sail a bathtub down a canal.

Now APB has vowed to fix these issues in upcoming patches, but at the moment the gameplay is less than desirable. Yet I’m still tempted to shell out the money to buy APB. Why would I want to do that? The game’s main strength: customisation. I absolutely adore avatar customisation.

I have a hard time getting into any MMO (or MMO-like game, such as Phantasy Star Online/Universe) if I can’t create a “character” in my mind, with his or her own background and motivations. A big part of this comes in the ability to dictate the look of your character, to make them stand out from the crowd. City of Heroes/Villains is an MMO that has received well-deserved praise for its character creation system, offering a wealth of options that ensures that you’ll never see two avatars looking the same: a rarity in most MMOs that only offer a set number of appearances. Appearance is so important in Second Life that people will pay real-world money to buy custom avatar skins from other people.

Why is it so important though? I suppose the main answer is that it allows you to identify with the main character more easily, to be a part of something that you’re creating instead of just watching a movie. I created a blonde-haired, female Shepard when I was playing Bioware’s Mass Effect, and I honestly can’t picture that character any other way now. To me, that female is Shepard, and I feel far more of a connection to her than the default male Shepard that adorns the cover of every game in that series so far. Bioware games tend to feature an overwhelming number of options for customisation, allowing you to adjust everything from nose size to jawbone height. Sometimes I feel it’s a little excessive: I’d rather have twelve interesting, pre-determined faces than the possibility of millions of generic ones. (And despite the ability to adjust every single facet of facial appearance, my first Dragon Age character bore an accidental and uncanny resemblance to optional party member Leliana.)

Another factor is that we like to be unique. Most people spend hundreds of pounds a year on clothes, makeup and other fashion accessories with the sole purpose of reaffirming their identity and standing out from the crowd. We like to think that there’s something special about ourselves. We don’t like to think that the epic stories we’re playing through have already been experienced hundreds of thousands of times over by other players. Customisation allows us a degree of freedom over our personas and appearance that you can’t get in real life without a spare hundred thousand pounds and a willing plastic surgeon. Part of the appeal of gaming is escapism, after all: to become something different from your regular life and experience something exotic and new.

Even JRPGs, which traditionally have a roster of pre-created characters, generally allow you some measure of control over the appearance of the main characters. Some opt to change the physical appearance of a character based on the armour they have equipped (taking a cue from MMOs). Some, like several entries in the Tales Series, give you an additional option to change a character’s costume; the PS3 version of Tales of Vesperia has been releasing (paid-for) DLC costume packs for months after the game’s release, each of which are eagerly snapped up by the game’s fanbase. Resonance of Fate is notable for not only providing an extensive wardrobe for each character, but allowing you to use contact lenses and hairspray to change their eye and hair colours. These don’t provide any in-game stat bonuses,but I loved the option none the less for the reasons I’ve stated above: it let me contribute to the personalities of the characters using my own perspective, strengthening my connection to them. For JRPGs, the ability to change a character’s appearance comes with an additional benefit: after sixty of so hours, the character designs start to look a bit old. It’s nice to be able to change it up a bit.

Of course, customisation isn’t the be-all and end-all of a game. The reviews for APB have shown that no matter how good the customisation available is, it can’t compensate for poor core gameplay. Conversely, I have no problem playing a game with no customisation if the core gameplay is sound: I’d rather have the latter than the former. But for me, customisation is that extra flavouring and polish that makes a game better. Even small options like hair or eye colour go a long way to establishing a connection between the player and his avatar, which enables better storytelling and a more satisfying experience.

[Images courtesy of Game Watch and Eurogamer.]

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