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Character Editors: Why Skyrim's is Irrelevent.
by Timothee Garnaud on 11/28/11 07:08:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Character editors, which allow players to customise their avatar before and/or during the game, are more and more common in occidentals RPG, and also in other games. From simply choosing clothes to defining the very curve of an eyebrow, this is one of the gimmicks that a lot of players enjoy.

With Skyrim's release, Bethesda, as usual, gave player another character editor, more sophisticated than Oblivion's or Fallout New Vegas'. But it is legitimate to wonder : in a first person game, is it really useful ?

Character editors are one of those things with which the player wants to put a lot of himself in his game. For those who don't like it, they just have to select « random » and play the game.

For the others, they can easily spend half an hour before actually playing the game, even if it cost a little frustration to not play immediately. Because a created character, whether he looks like you or not, has something that comes from within you. Automatically, you get attached to him and you are happy to see him along the game.

The very best editor today is probably the one from Mass Effect. In this game not only you choose the gender, face and voice of your character, but you also pick up his background ; and with the dialog system based on emotion more than content of text, it's like you create/control his personnality during the game.

In Skyrim, the creation is only physical. Choosing a race and a sex is different, it's not part of the gimmick because special attributes and PNJ reactions will follow that choice. The creation contains shape of the face, scars, war paintings... There is a lot of things to please aficionados. But Skyrim is a first person game, which means you don't actually see your avatar during the game. Skyrim lacks everything that make a character editor relevent for the player in first person games:

    • Third person cutscenes. The introduction is in subjective perspective. I haven't finished the game yet but I am pretty sure the ending will be the sam. And scripted event such as dialog between PNJ are also visible in first person.
    • Mirrors. Although it may sounds insignificant, without cutscene that's all you need in a FPS to see the face of your character. Is this really hard to implement ?

    • Multiplayer options, local or online. This one is just to prevent spreading the problem to every first person games. I'll quickly name BRINK, a multiplayer FPS with a character editor, edited by... Bethesda, precisely. If you don't get to see your character, other players will. And that become more important to have a very unique avatar.

Before someone tells me, I will say it : yes, there is one way to see the face of your character in Skyrim : you have to use the third person view (which, although a little opitmized from Oblivion, is still not very practical), and hold still while moving the camera. Then you can see your avatar's face, completely on the left of the screen, and if you are lucky with the camera it won't be cut.

So in order to see the face of your character, you have to... well not make a move at all. That's not really interesting. But don't worry, you can still keep the camera set on third person and enjoy the current armor of the character, and his haircut. All of this while having problems to fight properly.

My question is simple : is it relevant to implement a character editor in that case ? Not only it's a source of frustration for the player who would have lost half an hour or more to create a character he won't really see during the game, it is also a waste of time for developers who implement it.

So, designers of today and designers of tomorrow, before creating a character editor, ask yourselves if it is going to be really usefull. It is only a gimmick of course, so useful might not be the correct term, but think about if it will really bring something to your game or not.

Take a game like Saints Row, where you choose appearence, clothes and voice of your character, so that players enjoy seeing it in every cutscene, and think about Skyrim, where the best view on your character is actually given by the character editor. Ask yourself if it's worth for the player to use it, and for programmers to implement it.


P.S. : I have to say that I love Skyrim, I am having a huge fun playing it, but it is the most recent example I had for this article.

P.S. 2: I also apologize once again for every grammatical/spelling mistake there might be, due to my lack of English as a native language. I'll keep re-reading this article in search for any. Negative feedback on it could be constructive with help instead of empty criticism.

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Christopher Braithwaite
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You are ignoring the fact that many players imagine the events of the game happening to their character even if they are not viewing the character. Jesse Schell calls this the "binocular effect" in The Art of Game Design. The character creator is a powerful tool for stimulating the player's imagination; a game like Skyrim is all about stimulating imagination so the character editor is actually extremely relevant.

BTW, I play Skyrim exclusively in 3rd-person because it is important for me to see my character in the world. I find combat mechanics from both 1st and 3rd person views to be equally frustrating.

Eric McVinney
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I've always been on the fence when it comes to this sort of discussions. I really like being deeply involved in the story of a game when creating my own character, and going through the quests and feats with them as well (often defeat too!). Take Dark/Demon's Souls for example. While you play the game in 3rd person, there are plenty of cut scenes that involve cameras pointing at your character (and their face), compared to that of Skyrim.

Skyrim was made for 1st person, IMO, but has allowed the option to be played in 3rd person but disregarding the viable features to make use of that mode, if any were to be made.

Eric Schwarz
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Some players like the fantasy of playing as a particular character. The Elder Scrolls series has for a long time been about more than just raw mechanics, and character creation, even if nor particularly important mechanically, is still useful in narratively grounding the player in the world and making he or she feel like a part of things, not just a generic, nameless figure being piloted from beyond. Moreover, one doesn't have to be heavily into the role-playing (in terms of, say, eating three meals a day, acting in-character) in order to appreciate something like character creation.

If anything, I am disappointed race doesn't factor into the game more. In Oblivion and Morrowind it determined everything from your perspective (how tall you were) to your skills, inherent abilities and, especially in Morrowind, how other people perceived you. In Skyrim, save for the odd dialogue line that changes, you won't see much impact. Having my High Elf been told about "those damn elves" by an NPC is pretty off-putting, especially when I'm not given a chance to talk back. Creating fantasy races is a great way to explore real-world issues and that's something I rarely see in Skyrim on any more than a very basic background level.

Harold Myles
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First a comment on one statement from the article: it is also a waste of time for developers who implement it.

I don't work at Bethesda and I have no idea what their toolset looks like. However, I can imagine this character editor is similar to an editor that their designers use as a tool for creating all the characters that appear in the game. Considering that they have put time into creating the tool for internal use, its just added value for them to turn that resource directly into content, as a feature for player use.

The first question from the article: in a first person game, is it really useful ?

Useful? Yes. Necessary? No.

Another question from the article: is it relevant to implement a character editor in that case ?

If by relevant you mean significant then it depends. Is it a significant source of 'fun?' Is it a significant source of role-playing material? I'd say for many people the answer would be yes. For many players this feature is a significant source of both fun and role-playing material. And again, if it is simply a matter of adding some polish on an internal tool, then why not do it?

For me, personally, I get alot of use out of the character editor while playing. Every save game created takes a screenshot for use as an icon. I typically go into third person mode when saving my game and use that feature like taking a photo of my character in what ever situation he happens to be in. And it is pretty satisfying looking through the save games, looking at the photos of my character, and thinking 'Oh I remember that... good times.' And usually also wonder how anyone in the game could possibly trust my character, because I made him look so crazy.

P.S. Oh and despite gender norms and such... it is apparent that many guys (large portion of game players) actually do like playing dress up with little dolls.

Jesse Tucker
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The character creation portion of the game is in fact very relevant. It gives the player the opportunity to invest personal interest in the player character. In a game like Skyrim, that is vital.

Instead of saying that character creation is irrelevant, perhaps a better perspective would be that there are many missed opportunities to display the player character's face, and that gender/race/skill choices could have been made more relevant.

Tony Dormanesh
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On the question of if it's worth it for the developers of Skyrim to put the time and effort into having such a complex character creation system.. This is Elder Scrolls 5, the character creation system was made a loooong time ago, I'm sure it's the same system just being iterated on and getting better. So if they have this great tech and they decide to throw it away and not use it, that's kind of more of a waste. Of course that is specific to this situation.

Just because the game defaults to 1st person, I'd bet ~50% of the people play it in 3rd. (I switch) I actually like to fight in 3rd, it's way better. I'm not sure why anyone would think the combat is broken in 3rd person view? I have a better view of the battlefield, I can avoid/jump over obstacles much better. I only switch to 1st person view in tight corridors or when I'm looting a bunch of stuff.

I love the Elder Scrolls character creation system, I'm with Eric above, it binds me to the world.. not only can I scroll through all the races and become familiar with them (Examples: The Kajiit wear earings, Elves are kind of alien looking, or Orcs can have horns in this world!) Those were a few things I remember learning when making my first Skyrim character. I bond with my particular character which extends to every action I think about in game. I may be geeking out a bit, but this is an RPG and when I put scars on my Orcs face it instantly makes him feel rougher/tougher and that's how I play him.

My Orc is a badass warrior and he looks like it, my Kajiit is a slick talking thief, he would die before wearing a scar on his beautiful feline face.

I've gone into creating a character thinking "I'm gonna make this ugly barbarian." and other times I just fiddle around with the levers and get inspired by some strange creation I make. And in both cases, it's magical.

You mentioned ME2, I dig the way they did their characters too.. You can't even pick a voice in Skyrim.

I think it's a cool article and sparked some thought... But I think in this particular case, it's totally rad and totally worth it!

A few other thoughts:

- They have a randomizer button if you don't really care.

- Skyrim is kind of all about being this mega RPG. Part of being a mega RPG is having a mega character creation system. Anything less than the most advanced system out there would be a let down.

Joshua Sterns
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I don't believe the author wants to do away with character editors in Elder Scrolls. He, if I'm not mistaken, feels that all the detail he has put into the character is wasted in the game world. No mirrors. No up close shots depicting an emotional response. No other player to tell him he looks badass in that hat. No feedback at all about his customized dolly--err character.

I totally understand. Felt that way in Fallout 3. After playing the most recent string of Bioware games it is really difficult to play the silent emotionless main character who's face is almost never depicted.

Timothee Garnaud
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That's exactly what I mean. Skyrim is just an example. I think it's a shame that you invest time in creating a character you don't see enough during the game.

Like Harold Myles said, I am one of the players that do like playing dress up with dolls in video games.

Dave Endresak
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There are automatic kill moves in Skyrim for melee players. You see the character during them, as you have in every preview video prior to the game's release.

Improved from Oblivion? You must be playing a different Skyrim than mine. I can't even choose the shade of my character's hair color, let alone choose a character that is actually aesthetically attractive to me and who I feel represent the real "me" inside (i.e., my avatar). Ugh!

And Mass Effect? C'mon, really? Same problem, different package. Same with Dragon Age: Origins and pretty much any other Westerrn RPG. The only exception in Western developed RPGs that I can think of offhand is Guild Wars. The state of the art in character creation is probably Guild Wars 2 (when it comes out) or Eve: Online. Those games offer extremely flexible character creation.

As I have stated in the past, Bethesda mismarkets their games by claiming that players can be any character they want. No, we cannot, which is very ironic when they claim we have freedom of choice and that that's the major marketing point that sets them apart.

I love Beth's games and heavily promote them as pedagogical tools. They know environments better than anyone. However, their ability with character creation is just the opposite from their ability to craft environments.

Oh, and to offer a followup to Eric's example above about nonsense dialogue from NPCs... as a Breton, it's rather silly for an NPC to refer to me as "A Nord like you".