Thursday, November 22, 2007

No! I wanna play dolly!

One of my favorite Simpsons moments comes during the hearing in which the family is suing the Sea Captain’s “all-you-can-eat” seafood restaurant for false advertising. Pressed to tell the court what they did when they couldn’t find another all-you-can-eat fish place to satisfy Homer’s cravings, Marge breaks down and sobs: “We went fishing!

I’m right there, sobbing along with her. That’s what can happen when you get a taste of something and it simply isn’t enough; you take whatever you can find that might sate that hunger, desperately cast your line. But even the finest line-caught trout, shining silvery in your bucket, isn’t the same as a restaurant-poached salmon, or even a manky plastic basket of deep-fried shrimp, unless you can go all Gollum-style and dig in right there on the pier. Still, you’re so hungry for fish you’ll take whatever the water puts on your hook…

Extended metaphors aside (I’m not really hungry for fish; apparently, I have to cut down if I want future generations to know the joys of sushi), it has been a hard few weeks of craving, ever since those schoolyard pushers over at BioWare gave me my “first one’s free” taste of Mass Effect. But it’s not so much the sci-fi RPG gameplay itself I’m jonesing for – though, you know, duh -- it’s the primary, adventure-starting act of character generation itself. Those few sweet minutes of tweaking an avatar’s face, facts and stats have had me itching.

Any – or maybe just many – old-time Dungeons and Dragons players will tell you the same thing: the purest joy in role-playing gaming is the making of your character, the process of turning rules, points, dice rolls and wish-fulfillment power fantasies into a brand-new, never-before-seen spellcaster, karate man, mutant laser-eye dude or hired killer. A new character, all pristine on a fresh sheet unmarked by grimy eraser-scars and pop-stains, represents a pure product of imagination and fantasy, a clean idea not yet grimed up by the frustration, compromise, disappointment and tedium of actually playing the game along with four or five other nerds and their own (clearly inferior) little dream-puppets.

Role-playing video games – especially single-player games – don’t have the same limited-only-by-the-imagination quality of the tabletop, though, even when they offer as much freedom of characterization, or a convincing simulation thereof, as Mass Effect. The options for your character’s profession and background are relatively few, and choosing from a handful of dialogue choices isn’t the same as extemporizing your character’s words, but let’s be honest; in practice, imagination can be quite limiting. Ninety per cent of characters’ backgrounds are plucked straight off the stockshelf, and a similar portion of players’ improvised dialogue comprises hackneyed threats and other tough-guy inanities. More important than character itself is external detail: “Yeah, I guess my dad was killed and I swore revenge, whatever; anyway, I’ve got these glowing red eyes, right, and these two wicked swords that…”

The magic of character creation in a game like Mass Effect is exactly in these externals, starting with the hours spent tweaking your character’s appearance in the face-building tool. This can be obsession at its best, fiddling with the scores of little sliders that adjust your Space Marine’s skin tone, the length of the bridge of the nose, eye shape and size, chin strength, lip poutiness, brow thickness, cheekbone height, haistyle, makeup…

Makeup? Yeah, makeup; given the choice – in videogames, not on the tabletop -- my characters will always be girls. Maybe there’s some sort of theory-level psychological reason why this is so, something about being able to use a play environment to safely experiment with gender roles or something, but it really boils down to simple aesthetics: in a dialogue-heavy game like ME, the camera’s either right up in your character’s yammering face or following obediently behind, and if I’m going to spend 100-plus hours in this virtual world I’d rather have my field of vision filled with the face and backside of a simulated pretty girl.

But it’s not all Weird Science wank fantasy, a digital Pygmalion trip. Building a character at the facial-detail level creates a deep investment in the game world, a bond of significant power. My cravings right now are not so much for the opportunity to whip up some kind of fantasy asskicker – I’ve been desperately downloading freeware and shareware RPGs, the role-playing addict’s cheap fix, and they haven’t cut the jones – but for making that investment, feeling that bond… and then playing hundreds of hours of action-packed, sci-fi dress-up-dolly. I’d felt that connection forming at BioWare’s press day, and having my bonding time with “Irene Shepherd” cut abruptly short gives these pangs their special bite.

So, it’s back to Oblivion, I guess; I’ve got to do something before I go crazy and start searching craigslist for a local LARP chapter. Gronking again through that played-out world, trying to find bits of unplayed game, doesn’t really appeal to me, but that’s a secondary problem which can be smoothed over with gallons of Gallo; the character customization is there, the face-creation is there and the dress-up dolly is there, even if the novelty’s gone. It’ll be another couple of weeks before I’ll be served fresh fish, so for now I’m going fishing.

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