Thinking back to early 90's and even before then, I hardly consider the characters even relatable. I don't think of Mario or Sonic as characters as much as a tool or prop I am using to get through the stage. Maybe this is the reason that many characters from this era have some really far-out character designs - like Plok, Chuck D Head, Dynamite Headdy and every animal in the animal kingdom. The games were then often designed to fit those characters. And eventhough character creation in terms of stats had been around for a long time, in terms of looks has only been more common fairly recently.
|I think he/she is supposed to be laundry.|
It's almost always been limited to role-playing games, and it makes sense. RPG's are the games where the creators want you be yourself playing someone else, hence the term "role-playing". In this way character creation is about identification, either about identifying with the character you're playing because they look like you or because they look like someone you want to be within that game. Sometimes these decisions have actual practical outcomes within the game and I realized that for me at least, that was by far the most important factor for deciding what kind of character I wanted to play.
Back when I started gaming, being able to identify with the character I was playing meant having to accept I was playing as someone who looked nothing like me. As a white female there were few games that allowed me to play as a character where I could pretend she was me (Perfect Dark and Lara Croft comes to mind, none of which I've actually played) and I just never did. Even removing all the games where anyone would have trouble identifying themselves with the main character (like the above-mentioned games) there were plenty of role-playing games (and still are) that don't offer any choice. I got so used to it that I stopped thinking about it and thought that is not even an effect I am after when I play video games, the same way I don't look for that effect when reading a book. I can get immersed in the story, sure - so much that it really deeply resonates with me. But I really didn't need to feel like I was the main character for this to happen. At least not until recently.
|Definitely recommend Divine Divinity.|
But let's linger in the 90's for a bit longer, even early 00's. The vast majority of games I played had a male, specifically a white male, as the main protagonist. I don't think it ever bothered me. Because the story was told to fit that character - think Final Fantasy, Deus Ex or Thief. I got so used to this that even at first, when I suddenly came upon games that had a choice, I chose to play as a male as long as the gender had no further impact on the game. When I played Divine Divinity I played as a male. When I played Diablo 2 I chose solely based on class and didn't care about gender. Same thing in Geneforge. Being used to only think of the character as a tool it took me a while to identify with it and I still don't really care when I play older role-playing games.
But then came the character-interaction heavy games, like the before mentioned Dragon Age, or games like Mass Effect and in a similar-but-different-sense any MMO really. Either I have to interact with other players or with other characters in a character-developing-social-kind of way I realized that I wanted to play as a female. Suddenly, when characters were interacting about anything from their favorite wine to whether to get all smoochy, I felt like doing this in a gender I didn't identify with would feel odd somehow. I know I can do it, and will have to do it in games like The Witcher for instance, but given the choice I definitely prefer doing it as a female.
|Morrigan gets on my tits though, and not in the good way.|
I had this thought initially in WoW as well. All my first characters were female, I guess so that players around me would now that I was also female. Funnily enough, eventhough anyone can choose any gender for their characters, I found that female characters were treated differently from male ones. After I had played the game for a while I lost all interest in representing my gender in my character and went with whichever had the best fighting and casting animations (male tauren is so much better than female tauren for instance and female orc wins over male orc any day). But in games that are dialogue-heavy this still matters to me. I have no idea if it would even if I knew the dialogue and options would be exactly the same between the different genders however.
One could ask the question why? Why do I need to interact "as a female" in a game just because I happen to be one? Of course it has to do with relatability, but since most female dialogue and interaction is also written by men (just my guess), I am in fact ending up playing a male interpretation of a female anyway. I don't want to make this a big discussion about gender differences, but in games they generally are very few and only stretch so far as to whom you can date (some games have even removed those restrictions, thankfully enough). So why do I feel slightly more comfortable doing these social interactions looking like a girl? Especially since it doesn't seem to bother me in other situations? Is it just so I can come on to the male characters if I want to (and I rarely want to anyway)? I honestly have no good answer to these questions but I think they are interesting because it really comes down to how we enjoy games. It's just something about what feels right.
|It's impossible to convey in a picture how awful the 3rd person view is.|
Looks still holds no importance to me however. When it comes to looks I seem to be able to identify with anyone. In fact I played as a black character in Fallout 3 and was thrilled to see that my "father" had my looks. At first it confused me because the only father-character I had seen in trailers and the like was a white male so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Bethesda had taken this part into consideration when giving you free hand to create your character's looks. In hindsight it is obviously perfectly logical.
So I thought maybe the looks of a character doesn't bother me at all because I know that no matter what I make my character look like, the game will treat me the same. In fact many games, Fallout 3 being among them, you are given the option to put a lot of time and effort on your character, only to find you won't even see them that often (unless you play in 3rd-person view, and in Fallout 3 you really don't want to). I spoke to a guy who was playing Destiny, if I remember correctly, and he told me he had spent up towards and hour on his character, only to find it looked exactly the same as everyone else once the armor came on. And generally, the armor stays on.
I know people to whom character creation matter a whole lot and who spent a lot of time to make their character look just right. I wonder how they feel about playing games where there is no choice as to what your character is going to be. I guess I have a more pragmatic look on it where I only care as far as it will affect my gameplay (this is why I loved playing as Oddjob in Golden Eye). I'd like to think that gender is only important when it affects gameplay. But then I remember that I always choose to play as a female in Pokémon (ever since the option was introduced at least) and in that game the gender truly does not matter. And then I think that maybe I thought I didn't care about having to play a guy because I had to stop caring, because if it bothered me too much there wouldn't really be many games out there for me to get enjoyment from. I truly loved Deus Ex and Thief, but I can't help thinking that I might've enjoyed them a little bit more if I got the option to play as a female.