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Radioface: In Praise Of Peculiar Protagonists

No more movie stars

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I had to take out a stack of dice when I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition over the weekend. Not to re-roll the complexities of combat – the numbers thrown around are too big for my collection of bones – but to generate a face for my character. Above you can see my knobbly-nosed dwarf. His name is Pootle and he has a Radioface.

When a game gives me a suite of digital flesh-moulding tools, I don’t carve out a handsome version of myself or a pretty lil’ protagonist. I leave the contours and caverns of my face to the will of the dice gods. It’s closer to taking a dip in the gene pool than the alternative, and I’m more attached to my gallery of occasional grotesques than I would be to the blander designs I’d probably cook up given the freedom of the face.

Like Hollywood films, games tend toward certain body types and sets of facial features. Your spaceship’s crew or your questing party might include all manner of races and character types, but from the brooding dark elf to the man-hunk Mandalorian and alluring Asari they tend toward the photogenic. The gaggle of heroes in almost any given game usually approaches Young Adult fiction levels of handsomeness in the face of peril and, in BioWare games at least, they all tend to be similarly keen on romance even (ESPECIALLY) when there’s a war or an apocalypse happening right next to them.

Has the Normandy ever been captained by anyone with a true case of radioface? My Shepard, sadly lost in a cloudless sky, was a pug-faced paragon. He looked like he’d seen his fair share of combat and taken one too many plasma blasts to the noggin. I imagine you’d burn the bed after kicking him out of it. Occasionally, hanging out on the Citadel, security would approach, believing him to be a member of a previously unknown alien race.

I don’t want all of my heroes to be extraordinarily unpleasant to look at but I don’t want them to be handsome in a nondescript way either. How many times have you seen (or made) a ranger whose red hair and green eyes suggest a fetish for the Emerald Isle or an appropriately unkempt Aragorn analogue? I want my player characters to come from a broader pool. Character actors rather than movie stars. Edge of Tomorrow starring Steve Buscemi and Kathy Bates, and Lord of the Rings with Vincent Schiavelli as the returning king.

To an extent, that’s what I’m trying to achieve with my randomised protagonists. Something approaching the variety of life rather than the narrow confines of the casting call. Of course, there are limits to what a game allows. The Sims 3 was particularly kind, giving me leeway to make families that were barely recognisable as human, while many sports games don’t even let me have eyes parallel with my nostrils, and only have four hairstyles.

Wrestling games usually have brilliant character customisation but they also tend to avoid the PC in the way that most people avoid wrestling fans. Saints Row IV is probably the greatest example of the form available, allowing proper tinkering with clothing and body shape as well as the more usual facial features.

Even if the character I end up playing as is distractingly ill-featured, I’m happy to spend time with them. I’d rather be in the shoes of someone remarkable than another in a long line of posterboys and pinups.

Just look at Pootle.

He’s an odd little chap and I bet there won’t be many people creating characters that I’d mistake for him in a crowd. I wish Dragon Age – and every other game with avatar customisation – had built-in randomisation options during character creation, but I didn’t mind rolling the dice. I’d never have met Pootle otherwise and I’ll never forget him now that I have.

This article was originally published as part of, and thanks to, the RPS supporter program.

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Adam Smith

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