I love me a character creator. Buried in the deepest recesses of my brain lies the eight-year-old me who loved dress-up Flash games. Character creators in today’s games scratch the same itch, letting my inner child play with an even greater freedom of expression. So when Baldur’s Gate 3 hit early access earlier this week, I made a beeline for the character creator and spent several hours fiddling to make my (near) perfect avatar.
In researching the game, I was pleased to see a community update in which developer Larian Studios went into detail about what its character creator would offer. “We decided to use scanned faces in our production to create characters that were as realistic as possible,” Larian wrote on its website. “We scanned 40 people of different ages and ethnicity.” Larian tweaked these scanned faces and applied them to the 16 races and subraces, creating over 150 options to choose from. I wondered if, among those 150 options, I would find something that works for me.
Though I enjoy tooling around with character creators for hours, they can be actively hostile toward me. Sometimes there are insufficient skin colour options, that only go as dark as a pale, paper bag. I had a horrible time in my most recent attempt to play Dragon Age: Origins trying to mod the game to give me a decent colour that didn’t come out blotchy and gross. Meanwhile, much to my delight, World of Warcraft’s forthcoming Shadowlands expansion has greatly expanded its skin tone options.
Baldur’s Gate 3, with its many races and subraces, does something with its skin colour choices that I found really neat. When creating my tiefling, I was initially dismayed that I only had shades of red and pink to choose from. Larian calls these the “canon” choices — which makes sense, I’ve played D&D tieflings before, I know what they traditionally look like. However, you can do away with tradition by clicking a button that allows all colour options to appear, thus allowing me to choose a beautiful shade of brown for my tiefling fighter. Having the expanded options was really cool because I still felt I was playing a Black person while also being a tiefling.
Those diverse face options lend a lot to that feeling as well, but seem to be unevenly distributed. For example, the two “Black” female face models I saw are not present in elves, dwarves, or halflings. There are also no Asian male face models present in humans — that option only exists for elves and tieflings. I know it sounds nitpicky and I don’t ascribe any malice to why things are the way they are. At least there are some diverse choices present, emblematic of Larian making an attempt — something other games don’t offer without extensive modding.
Still, as much as is possible, everyone should be able to create themselves in a game making such a concerted effort to give players so many different choices. I asked Larian Studios if it plans on adding more choices to the different races as time goes on.
“Not every choice is available for every race,” a Larian representative answered via email. “The technical reason for that is we’re generally unable to reuse the heads for these races on the fly because each race has a unique ‘rig.’ (You can imagine if you tried to simply cut and paste some of the Dwarf heads on Elves, for example, it wouldn’t work.) Since this is an early access game, however, we haven’t fully fleshed them all out yet. Adding more options for all races is an important goal for us in the short and long term.”
So far, Baldur’s Gate 3’s character creator is good. I’ve been enjoying my time with it. But now let’s talk about the part that usually gives me the most grief: hair. There are only so many times that I, blessed with a head full of the tightest, kinkiest 4c hair god ever gave a Black woman, can flip through option after option of long, wavy tresses before something in me snaps. That’s not to say most character creators are completely devoid of more “ethnic” choices. But those choices often fall into two categories, the Fade or the Locs, meaning I would usually have to be almost bald or have a full head of locs that most Black people with locs would call…”dookie braids.” As in extremely, unrealistically thick ropes of hair that are reminiscent of…well you figure it out. Think Lucio from Overwatch.
I’m happy to report that Baldur’s Gate 3 doesn’t suffer from “dookie braids” — two of its three dreadlock choices are actually really good looking. The third one is a mixture of loose hair and dreadlocks that reminds me of a Portland vegan who shouts on Twitter about how meat-eating is violent while ignoring a picture of migrant farm workers picking bundles of kale for $US.35 ($0)/hour. And that’s cool, those people need representation too.
I do have beef (no pun intended) though, and that’s with how the loc styles are distributed. For female models you can choose between a kickass-looking loc-hawk or the hippie locs. Males though, get both the loc-hawk and a full head of the most beautiful dreadlocks I’ve ever seen modelled in a video game. The great god Tyr giveth and he taketh away. How can you take the most incredible head of hair I’ve ever seen and restrict it to one gender? It’s 2020, gating a particular physical choice to a gender is passé. And it feels extremely passé to do it in the same game that allows everyone access to traditionally gender-gated choices like facial hair and makeup.
Thankfully, I won’t have to wait long to give Mira, my tiefling fighter, the hair she deserves. “Regarding hair, we do want to have all hairs available to both body types, we just didn’t have enough time to do this for EA 1.0,” said the representative. “We feel like there’s still quite a few we’re missing, and we’ll be adding more hairstyles throughout EA.”
Cool! So, after three hours in Baldur’s Gate 3’s character creator, I’d rank it as one of my favourites. There are already good choices present, and even more coming.
I recognise the limits of technology. Making hair is hard. Making anything in a video game is hard and Baldur’s Gate 3 gets more right than most even in early access. And honestly, as game engine technology improves, I hope this problem disappears completely, not just from Baldur’s Gate but from all games. I merely ask that when modelling the movement of every single hair follicle swaying in an errant breeze that you, a game dev, remember to toss in an afro puff or two for me. It might even make your work easier; breezes don’t move those around very much.