Radioface: In Praise Of Peculiar Protagonists

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.

58 Comments

  1. Anthile says:

    Your Pootle looks a bit like a Gerard Depardieu playing Super Mario, trapped in the body of a dwarf.

  2. RedViv says:

    I was SO in love with DA2 letting me recreate that HUGENOSED face of mine. That’s rarely an option for gamemens, so it’s even less likely to see gamewomans getting to pick that. That was an honestly moving discovery, a tiny sliver of what representation can do for players.

  3. melnificent says:

    I don’t see what’s wrong with Pootles looks, unless he talks while eating then he can make his own way.

  4. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    I made a horrid looking fem Shep for Mass Effect 2. I almost couldn’t finish the game because of her. It wasn’t just that she was ugly, she was so inhuman it became extremely distracting whenever a cut scene triggered. I think there was also a glitch or something that made parts of her face blend with her hair or something, I don’t remember for sure.

    I think it was more of a disconnect between her persona and what she actually looked like: Sloth’s (Goonies) sister.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      My Shepard wasn’t pretty either, she sort of looked slightly like an Cate Blanchett, if Cate Blanchett was more angular and made of polygons with a big old scar down one side of her face with a mouth so narrow I’d be surprised if she could eat anything bigger than a hulahoop*.
      She also looked permanently pissed off, but that might have just been the way I played her.

      * the crisp, not the athletic equipment

      • ffordesoon says:

        I misread “Cate Blanchett” as “Crash Bandicoot” just then.

        The resultant mental image made me chuckle.

      • Shadowcat says:

        Having never heard of that brand of crisp, that was a particularly strange sentence to read. The footnote came as something of a relief.

      • Samuel Bass says:

        I also went the weirdly angular cheekbones / super thin lips route with my BlokeShep, Lucius. He resembled Tommy Lee Jones’ less compelling cousin, with the aforementioned unsettling cheekbones and thin, chapped lips, teeny deep-set eyes and the most scarred, weather-beaten skin I could muster.

        Lucius came out way older looking than the rest of the (human) cast, which pushed his relentless flirtation right into “creepy uncle” territory.

        He was an odd Space Jesus, but I was pretty fond of playing as him by the end.

    • RayEllis says:

      Yep, did this as well with ME1. I was so convinced I wasn’t going to like the game (which was a present from the missus) that I moved the character creation sliders to one extreme or the other, making the ugliest male Shep I could. He had ginger hair, stubble, a nasty leer and a face that made him look like the love child of Ron Perlman and Danny Trejo.
      When I actually started to like the game, only laziness prevented me from restarting with a less ugly character. But you know what? He grew on me as the game progressed and now I can’t imagine playing the ME series without his ugly clock to gurn and leer at the female crew.

  5. theodacourt says:

    I’d not be so worried about my beloved Pootle facing near certain death in battle. I’d be more worried that he’s not had any fruit since birth.

  6. amateurviking says:

    In fairness, DA has always done rather well with making hideous PC/NPC faces. Although I suspect that may not have been intentional.

  7. thedosbox says:

    Now I want to know what Adam’s Saints Row character looks like.

  8. Mister_Inveigler says:

    Any particular formula you follow regarding your character generation dice rolls? Rolling X means a nose THIS big?

    • Martel says:

      I’d like to know the answer to this as well. I often use random for the same reasons described above, but not all games have that. Not sure why I didn’t think of using dice, especially since a little jar of them are sitting next to me. So yeah, I want to hear the dice rolling mechanics for character looks.

    • Shadowcat says:

      I imagine it’s simply a case of figuring out how many options there are for any given attribute, and using appropriate dice to select a value from that range?

  9. ffordesoon says:

    I wish I felt comfortable doing this, but I’m too obsessive about character creation. What I generally end up doing instead is creating a blandly handsome character and then applying a smattering of imperfections that make them look more real.

    My favorite character I’ve ever created is Vestis Marquand, my Skyrim character. I took a fairly bland Breton woman’s face and aged it up, then made the cheek and chin bones jut out a little bit more than I was comfortable with. I gave her a fake eye and a scar across it, and finished her off with a very practical and reserved cut of jet-black hair.

    The end result was probably still a little too conventionally pretty, but she did look more intimidating than sexy.

    I also liked my BroShep Theo, who was kind of blandly attractive to the point of looking doofy. I liked him because his visual evolution ended up mirroring Shapard’s character arc. I made him look progressively more tired and beaten down in each game. By ME3, he had raccoon eyes.

    EDIT: Note to self: there are other words for “bland.”

    • Lowbrow says:

      I was thinking of replaying Mass Effect 2 as a dick, so I created Hepard Shepard. Hepard was bald, rat-faced, prematurely aged (I suspect meth usage), and just about the ugliest hero you could ask for short of an extreme medical condition. Could NOT take him seriously as a bad-ass though. Probably should have chosen a name that doesn’t make me giggle.

  10. tumbleworld says:

    I’m reminded of Sterv, Something Awful’s hideous wall-eyed Khajit, shown here via Heromaker, iirc. It’s the hideous ones that stick in your mind, for sure.

    • GameCat says:

      Oh god the horror.

      With face like that you can fight armies of dragons, because even they would be afraid of some furry face that screams “I’m mad, I have rabies, wanna play?”

  11. slerbal says:

    I once made a character in Saints Row 2 that was so hideous he made me feel ill. I picked the least appropriate voice and mannerisms. And then I dressed him in tiny short shorts and and an ill-fitting t-shirt. With each step I repulsed myself ever more.

    It was glorious. He was glorious and the cognitive dissonance when the Saints talked to him made it even better.

    Unfortunately after two hours of play I had to start again as he was too distracting and I kept crashing because I couldn’t stand to look at him. Still glorious though :)

  12. Oozo says:

    I do the same thing, even though I usually do not use randomization, but intentionally create not- conventionally attractive characters instead.

    There is a certain comedic aspect to it, because a lot of games are simply not prepared for this. I remember that my character in Dragon Age was everything but attractive, but the NPCs couldn’t stop talking about how beautiful she was. Which lead to an interesting new aspect of roleplaying: are the beauty standards of Ferelden so different to ours? Is Morrigan, in fact, considered to be not especially hot in this world? Or is Alistair just blinded by love, or especially clumsy in his compliments?

    It’s not really “breaking” the game, but things like this can make the game world a little less bland.

    Of course, sometimes I want to create somebody who is not conventionally attractive, but start to find the character more and more attractive nevertheless — like my Saints Row boss, who would never be on the cover of Maxim, but is, in her way, a total badass and fox.

    PS I always argued that it’s a tragedy that all BioWare characters must be boneable. It’s why, say, Mass Effect‘s team is so utterly boring in a “we put a person in a rubber suit” unalien way. It’s a scifi setting! You could invent any shape of creature! …but no, you insist I’d want to do normal sexy things with them.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    I personally think the Saints Row 2 character creation options were better, but I’m massively fond of my SR3-4 character: link to tinyurl.com

    I just can’t play the games without him now. He has the London geezer accent too :)

  14. Skeletor68 says:

    I wish there were WWE games available on PC. Smackdown 2 is one of my favourite games of all time with the procedural storylines and everything. So much fun.

  15. TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

    “they tend toward the photogenic.”

    I’ll answer with a single word: Solas.

    • Jimbo says:

      Cassandra has a massive scar on her face, Varric’s nose is spread all over his face, Iron Bull is missing an eye, Sera cut her hair with a lawnmower and Cole is dead. It’s not exactly Jersey Shore.

  16. Kojyr says:

    Another example of this is Mount and Blade Warband. Especially in multiplayer you start to recognize certain players by their hideous mugs.

  17. Jamesworkshop says:

    I pretty much just leave the character alone, they tend to do a better job than me by default

  18. Pich says:

    I long for a game where the default characters looks positively geriatric. i wanna play a grandma with a shotgun dammit!

  19. Monggerel says:

    Uh… the true Dark Souls starts here?

  20. Myrdinn says:

    You guys must have LOVED Oblivion. My first and foremost critique of the game was that the faces were SO HIDEOUS.

    link to youtube.com
    enjoy yourselves

  21. Geebs says:

    Oh, I thought this was going to be a case of making game characters look like Thom Yorke.

    Although come to think of it I don’t think even the Oblivion face creator would be able to do him justice…

    (P.p.s. Were you hungry when you made that face? Because that is absolutely the Burger King)

  22. Lacero says:

    Not since alpha protocol have beard fanciers been so “blessed”

  23. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Wasn’t Pootle from The Flumps?

    link to youtu.be

    • MrFinnishDude says:

      Well, as a finnish person I have to say that was certainly an interesting experience. So odd and so familiar at the same time.

  24. Zenicetus says:

    My main complaint with most character generators in RPGs is the lack of options for building an older character. I was able to get my DA Inquisition character looking like he might be a world-weary and battle scared late 30’s, but that was about it. Skyrim’s character generator did a little better. My guy might have been in his 40’s.

    I know there’s a limit, if you’re going to have a character saving the world with athletic feats and constant combat.. However, unless an RPG storyline specifies an age bracket like the opening of Neverwinter Nights 2, where you’re a young person leaving the village for the first time, I like to see some flexibility in the character’s age. Especially for wizard main characters, where age means more experience and they’re usually not as physically active in combat. It’s impossible to do a credible Gandalf archetype in most of these games.

    • Jimbo says:

      This was my attempt at a wizened old black dude who uses his bow as a walking stick and just wants to shoo the demons off of his lawn:

      link to i.imgur.com

      In the end I ended up playing as my pug-faced Qunari who got a little too close to the breach explosion and had his horns blasted clean off of his head:

      link to i.imgur.com

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Dragon’s Dogma has probably the best character creation I have ever seen. You can create frail old man characters for sure. Your body type will correspond to your stats as well. Unfortunately it’s not available on PC, but if you have access to a PS3 or X360 I highly recommend it. I think it got swept under the rug because it came out so close to Skyrim. The magic archer class is one of the most fun classes I have ever played, a badass Robin Hood who can fire lightning bolts that riochet off walls or fire an arrow into the air and cause a hail of darts.

  25. aircool says:

    I can’t remember an RPG that didn’t have a randomise option on the character creation screen.

  26. SlimShanks says:

    Huh… suddenly I feel kinda weird for preferring to look at attractive humans/human analogues. It’s also worth noting I once had a character in Oblivion who looked exactly like Lister from Red Dwarf. Aside from that almost all my characters are young redhead females.
    In Dark Souls I sometimes died because I refused to wear a helmet and cover my characters faces. I had one character, named Sukhoi, who looked so pissed off I once scared away an invader by walking slowly towards them.
    My sister is an artist and designs many characters, so she helps me make my in-game characters. You might be surprised by how powerful some character creation tools are. I find photos, and my sister can recreate any part or all of a face. She can make an attractive character in Oblivion. So for me there is no problem of ending up with generic characters. Like I said, they’re all redheads, but they all look quite different.

  27. Doganpc says:

    Something I discovered with Star Trek Online is that I enjoyed the multiple character cosmetic redesigns I got while leveling and how I had more costume bits the further along I got. So I started with a fresh faced Romulan with fairly neutral posture; slapped on some more armor/tech bits and weathered the face to represent her experience; finally got to the point where she has an eyepatch, scars, more status symbols than techie symbols; a more heavily worn appearance and aggressive stance… it’s kind of nifty and I would screenshot the metamorphosis if I wasn’t running on low definition.

    • Doganpc says:

      Also I really appreciate any game that lets me scale the boobs down to logical.

  28. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    Adam, can you explain your dice methodology a bit further? What type of dice do you use? How do you assign number values to sliders without clear numbers?

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Most games have a “random face” option. Most of my Wasteland 2 characters I just randomized until I got a look I was going for.

  29. Kala says:

    Huh :) So this is an interesting approach.

    For whatever reason, I spend a lot of time hmming and hrming over character creation. I probably devote more thought to it than the rest of the game in total. And *yes*…I do tend to create characters who’re ultimately fairly nice to look at but…I try not to make them bland or stereotypical? As in, they should look human in some way – something in them should look real, they should have some sort of character?

    I theorized I enjoy character customisation so much because:

    “I think I like character generation a lot because it’s probably the only part of the game I’m actually going to create…it’s letting me project my imagination into the game in a direct way, which allows me to identify with the character in a way impossible with pre-set ones, because I made that.”

    So to have a similar-but-opposite-approach through random die rolls in that you aren’t necessarily intending fugly, but it’s an attempt to have a warts-and-all person…that’s interesting. Though tbh…Perhaps I’m shallow enough not to really want to play with a truly fugly char :(

  30. Kaeoschassis says:

    I’m lucky enough to have a moderate amount of drawing ability myself and spend a lot of time coming up with characters, and I find I’m having the most fun when I’m drawing varied shapes and features. Once you do that for long enough, you soon start to run out of ‘conventionally’ attractive combinations. There was an eye-opening moment somewhere along the line where I realised it was far more fun to create people who looked interesting as opposed to same-y and pretty, and that quickly carried over to my gaming alter-egos. I definitely wouldn’t call most of them ugly, but they’re recognizable and distinct first, and that just feels far more important and satisfying to me than making them look ‘nice’.

  31. Discosauce says:

    As I recall, Dragon Age 2 had a fairly varied character creation tool. At least insofar as I was able to make one of my characters a grizzled, white haired old man. Which as others have mentioned about other games, really made some of the dialogue quite amusing. Interacting with supposed family members who called me “brother” or “son”, when my character looked old enough to be their grandfather was amusing.

  32. cederic says:

    Saints Row III and IV had the sadly rare option of adding facial hair to otherwise attractive female characters.

    I don’t know why I like doing this, especially given that last night I was dancing at a charity event and all the ladies had false moustaches on, and it unsettled me.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      “I don’t know why I like doing this.”
      Yes you do.