The Uncanny Valley Of Character Creation

The Uncanny Valley Of Character Creation
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“Caitlin, please, just pick a name.”

It’s a Friday night and I’m playing Divinity Original Sin 2 with two of my girlfriends. We’re all huge fans of the franchise, but this is our first time playing the game together. They’re ready to start.

Me? I’m busy agonising over whether my character should have a killer bob or flowing tresses, pondering whether she would have a bad arse scar from her adventuring days or perhaps a mysterious name like “Mithrellye” and, very importantly, making sure to choose the appropriate instrument.

This isn’t the first time I’ve laboured over character creation. While I also love games with a set character like Tomb Raider or The Witcher, I find creating my own character from scratch one of the truly unique parts of what makes games so immersive. However, over the years I’ve also started to notice a bit of a trend with all these characters I’ve created.

To put it bluntly, they all look like me. Or at least, a slightly more idealised or cool version of me. I have three playthroughs of Mass Effect, and all three Shepards look like they came out of the same weird clone factory. Line up my Dragon Age characters and you’ve got yourself a pretty challenging game of spot-the-difference.

All these characters might have different haircuts or names, but the similarity is hard to ignore. Once I realised this, I started wondering why. Is it vanity, identity transference, or something completely different at play? From talking with friends, as well as trawling my way through research and the depths of some sketchy Reddit threads, it seems that I’m certainly not alone in this approach, but there are also many players who take the opposite view.

For those of us who choose to make avatars that resemble ourselves, the most repeated and obvious reason is that often we want to be able to imagine ourselves in the game and story. We want to pretend it’s us liberating the mages in Dragon Age, saving the universe in Mass Effect or slaying all the dragons possible in Skyrim. To do so, it helps to have an avatar or character that accurately reflects and represents us.

For those who choose to play as some other self, the reason is often the exact opposite. Games act as an opportunity to be someone else, to roleplay a completely different character or to put yourself in the shoes of someone whose experience is different to your own. You can see this in the significant proportion of men who choose female avatars 1 with reasons ranging from a classic “they are aesthetically nicer” to “variation” from their standard everyday life.

We all play games for different reasons, whether it’s a form of self-expression, an opportunity to be someone else or a chance to be the space cowboy you’ve always wanted to be. During creating our characters for DOS2 one of my girlfriends commented she wanted to play as Fane because she wanted to try being “a skelly boi”. On the surface this was because obviously skeletons are cool, but when I asked her later she mentioned she thought playing a character so different from herself would encourage her to alter her play style and get something different from the game.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck trying to figure out if I have more of a heart or round face.

Caitlin Cronin is a games expert at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), a Melbourne museum dedicated to the intersection of art and culture in film, television, and games.


  • I’m in the camp of making Avatars that look as much like me as possible (or at least that worlds version of me) unless there is a choice of different species, then I tend to try out one of them instead and try to link them to the culture of I can.
    (In WoW I always spoke with a think Rasta accent when playing my troll)
    I also have to remake my character if something isn’t right once I start playing, like skin being too dark or too light, ears look funny, features too wide of thin etc.

  • I’m in the camp of making my avatars look as hot as possible. After all, if I’m going to be staring at them for 100-200 hours I want to have some eye candy 😉

  • I’m in the group of people who couldn’t care less about the aesthetic element of character creation and it bores me to tears if I have to wait whilst another player creates a character. I have never taken more than 5 minutes on anything that’s aesthetic. If it has gameplay implications then I’ll obviously take a lot longer but I remember waiting for about half an hour while my friend made a Mii once. He’ll never know how close he came to getting junk punched.

  • I’m in the camp that chose female Shepard because everyone said her voice sounded better.

    Otherwise I don’t care much about the appearance but will agonise over the character’s back story if I’m allowed to choose that.

  • Yeah I take forever making a character, naming said character is always the worst part though. if I’m going to play a game from the start with friends I’ll generally try to log on a day or two beforehand to get all the character creation out of the way (still doesn’t stop me wasting everyone’s time with inventory management, but it’s a start).

  • In an MMO I played the guild leader put character notes… some would end with “DT”. People ignored it until one day someobe blurted out on chat “oh I get it now Digital Transvestite”

    The guild leader flagged all the players who were different genders to their toons.

    Interesting note female players will create more male alts to avoid harrasement if they experienced an inappropriate behaviour before… but not if they are in a relationship with a fellow player already.

    Male players will choose female alts more based on class and the armor types in game. More clothies were female due to robes… lots of plate wearers due to metal bikini but not if they were tanking mains who were the ego tough guy fantasy.

  • What I remember about the first mass effect is going through the background options of the character. Did they grow up on earth or a colony, are they a battle veteran or hero… having that helped me make my Shepherds. My battle hardened male Shep with chiselled features and neck near as thick as his jaw.
    And my Earth born fem shep who had won a battle with a cost, and maintained a strong but gentle appearance. It also affected how I played the paragon/renegade options with my male shep going renegade to more paragade because of the “victory at any cost” background and my fem shep going full paragon.

    I really enjoyed having the history creation first and it really helped me create the character. So I’ve also considered basic back stories when creating characters in other games.

    Backfired in neverwinter nights 2 when i created a battleworn dwarf with long white hair and beard and scarred face… only to find you start the game as an adopted child of an elf…

  • The worst games are the ones with extensive character customisation that take an age to GET to that part of the game, and/or get back to should you restart and want to fix something… And then provide no way to fix things after you start.

    No way to save character customisations you might create for use in a later playthrough bothers me also, but that’s probably pretty specific to me.

    And there’s games like Dragon Age Inquisition… Where the lighting during character creation is horrendous, so how your character looks can be quite different when you see them in game.

  • Always go with the default, unless your playing pre-patched Andromeda then, (unless you want some nightmare fuel) change that shit.

  • “It’s a Friday night and I’m playing Divinity Original Sin 2 with two of my girlfriends.”

    Why can’t you just say ‘friends’? This is the year 2019, we don’t just assume everyone is straight, if you say that I can only assume that you’re in a lesbian threelationship. Guys don’t call their friends ‘boyfriends’ and neither do females call their platonic male friends ‘boyfriends’ or vice versa. Can you even imagine how confusing and stupid that would be? Every time someone refers to their friend you have to ask ‘romantic or platonic?’.

  • “Uncanny Valley”. You keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means. Unless of course seeing yourself in your avatar causes a sense of unease, eeriness or revulsion then maybe you have bigger issues to worry about.

    Because I’d otherwise spend more time in the character creator than the game, for me I have two character archetypes that I always model, both of which are nothing remotely like me. One is a medium length red haired, purple eyed, dark tan skinned, glasses wearing, horned female who prefers being a brawler called Angrifter. When I want a change or need to observe an 8 character limit there’s Fuerie. She’s a blue, long (or fancily tied up) haired, pale skinned, green eyed, eye patch and tattoo sporting warrior female that wields a great weapon.

  • Worst thing ever is when you create a character and they look different in game as they do in the character creator, and it all just looks shit now.

  • I fit them to a role. A tank needs to be big and gruff. a rogue small and lithe. a sorcerer is middle of the line and all. Typically I try to make them all look badass unless of course I feel like making someone look homeless or something.

  • I’ve never bothered to make myself in games but my characters always tend to have certain similarities, usually dark red hair and green eyes. Which come to think of it have been a lot of my ex’s..

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