Saturday 6 October 2012

Guild Wars Diary #2

OverviewGuild Wars 2 is my first experience playing a massive multi-player online roleplaying game (MMORPG). It's an involving and sometimes overwhelming experience, since the game is steeped in genre conventions that have been built up over two decades, but also revolutionises and revitalises some of these conventions. My aim here is to record my critical response and analysis in such a way that it can be easily followed by gamers and non-gamers alike!

Links to previous entries:
Guild Wars Diary #1: Induction, The World

3. Character Creation

In most computer gaming genres, it's someone else's job to create the character avatar. Although you might be the one who guides Lara Croft or Manny Calavera towards their eventual destinies, their histories (and their futures) are already written. Western role-playing games have ploughed an almost unique furrow through the past half century of gaming in persistently asking the player to conceive of their own avatar and mould him or her through a combination of possible characteristics, such as race, profession, class, sex, special skills, moral alignment and some elements of their past.

The trade-off is superficially simple: the player is likely to feel closer to, and more protective of, their avatar if he or she is responsible for creating them. In a way, they're like children. The avatar might also represent personal fantasies of the kind of person we might like to be, and enable us to live out these fantasies in a safe environment. On the other hand, with the game developers unable to predict or account for the thousands of iterations of character which a player might opt for, the ensuing story inevitably revolves less around the character and more around events at large.

Guild Wars 2 reliably follows the RPG route, offering you five races (of which human is one), eight professions and an array of physical characteristics with which to distinguish your character. There are also a few choices which determine your personality. For my first character, a Norn, I chose to be defined by 'charm' (as opposed to 'ferocity' or 'dignity' - the other options), wisdom (through the choice of Raven as my guiding spirit of the wild) and drunken antics (through the selection of a recent memorable incident in the character's life).

The first two of these, as far as I can discern so far, have little to no impact on the way the game plays. My character is generally a braggart and a brawler and not at all who I envisaged when I was putting her together in my mind. My 'charm' simply gives me very occasional dialogue options when speaking to non-player characters (NPCs). The last choice, the recent incident, does affect which path you take in the story - it turns out that in my drunken stupor, I absconded with an expensive war machine and lost it, which results in me being seconded to a Charr warband in an effort to retrieve the lost vehicle. After this arc of the story, however, nothing more is said of it.

Norn ranger Soudoutsubame

For a profession, I chose ranger, a choice which gives me the option of an animal companion, which held some appeal for me. The profession choice, however, only affects combat; it changes the story not one iota.

As for the options for physical appearance, these appear to be expansive but are actually oddly limiting. I chose a female avatar because male Norns can only be hulking goliaths. Skinniness is not an option (unless you opt for the Sylvari race instead, who are half-plant). The women, on the other hand, are not permitted any girth whatsoever, and although I picked the smallest possible chest-to-hip ratio, my Norn still has ample bosom and a lithe figure.

Across the five races, there doesn't seem to be any option at all for overweight characters, or even middle-age spread, and precious few chances to inscribe age and experience into their faces (I found one face with battle scars and opted for that). And although noses can be lengthened, chins squared and eyes angled, the most extreme settings only result in a look like cosmetic surgery gone wrong, rather than faces full of character, or anything that conveys everyday oddballness.

Things are even worse when creating humans, as these pictures demonstrate:

The widest frame available when creating a female human character.

The only face available with any 'lines' or signs of ageing.
My best attempts to stray from bland prettiness, resulting in a sort of Asian look.

A similarly problem exists with regard to the height slider. Shorter characters are not, as you might expect, stockier, and taller characters never come across as willowy. Instead, the game permits a world of perfect miniaturisation and proportionate scaling that is quite disconcerting when you get close to other players:

Here, a human stands next to a Norn (not the sword is behind the human). Fair enough; the Norns are supposed to be giants. However ...

... here my Norn character stands in front of another Norn.

There are a number of options for tattoo patterns on the Norn, in a choice of colours, as well as a wide range of colours to choose from in customising clothing. In the end, I did manage to create a black Viking with a Japanese name, so there is, at least, the possibility of doing something unusual.

I've also spent time creating human and Sylvari characters (the other two races, Charr and Asura, being more animalistic) and the upshot is this: character creation in Guild Wars 2 denies the player the ability to create characters who are physically representative of the vast majority of human beings. What it does attempt to do is to suggest other features - primarily colour and personality choices - as the principle way of expressing individuality. This is both a strength and weakness of a genre whose appeal lies at least partly in finding ways for human beings to explore aspects of their personality that modern life doesn't permit.

Sylvari thief Weatherteller. You can choose what colour he glows in the dark as well as kitting him out to be a walking  rhubarb stalk with autumnal beech leaves for hair. 
This potential for self-expression is particularly evident in the profession system, the part of character creation that has the single most noticeable impact on the way the game plays. Arguably, this is where Guild Wars 2 is most steadfastly conventional, for although its professions have unusual names and features, many of the archetypes are instantly recognisable: the weak but highly dexterous thief, who attacks from the shadows, giving life to our predilection to exercise subterfuge and predatory cunning; the Prospero-like elementalist, whose intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the four elements speaks to our need to be endlessly adaptable and balanced; the simple warrior, whose brute force is for those players who tire of thinking their way through problems, and so on.

And rangers? They just like having wild animal companions. Here is Shodoutsubame again with Nook the juvenile raven.

It's a shame, however, that this mode of exploring the self has to be enacted through a gaming system that adheres too readily to Western standards of beauty. The humanoid characters may not always be sexy, but they never stray too far from the symmetrical sportsman/sportswoman physique which we hold to be more desirable. The clothing is, thankfully, somewhat practical on the more heavily armoured classes, if not on the lightly armoured magic users. As a 12-rated game, it's unsurprising that Guild Wars 2 treads the somewhat hypocritical ground of avoiding frank treatment of sex and nudity entirely whilst still allowing for titillation (not to mention excessive violence, which I'll come onto).

Human mesmer, as ready for battle as she ever will be.

It's only through the non-humanoid races that Guild Wars 2 strikes a blow for acceptance of the wider field of physical individuality, and I wouldn't be surprised if many players identified more readily with characters from these races than the mannequin-like humans, the women descended from Barbie, the men from Marks & Spencer catalogue models. The most played race, as I write, however, is human, which perhaps suggests that many people are more interested in the fantasy of being 'normal'.

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