For the Most Commercialised Time of the Year, I asked for, and received supernatural horror MMO The Secret World, after learning that developers FunCom had changed their subscription model to something similar to that of the Guild Wars series: you buy the box and get to play all currently-available content (as of early December) in full for no extra charge. Only thing is, you have to shell out for future expansions when they come out, but at least you can buy them when you’re ready for to play them, so it’s all good.
It’s an MMO, but stands out for its modern-day setting and approach to missions. You’re not in some fantasy land slaying dragons with magic swords bearing unpronounceable names or stomping around a distant planet chargin’ yah lazor, you’re helping the police of a beseiged New England town by emptying pistol clips into the faces of sea-spawned horrors and other such otherworldly threats to humanity and maybe following it up with a lightning bolt up what’s left of their arses if they’re still standing.
After a couple of nights of downloading (a delay in part caused by Windows deciding that certain web addresses were a no-go until I rebooted… up yours, Microsoft), I jumped in and created a character. I watched the introductory vids for each of the game’s three factions: The New York-based Illuminati (“Sex, Drugs, and Rockefeller” being their slogan), the Templars in London (the kind of people that would nuke a city to get to a single demon) and in Seoul… the Dragon. The Dragon appealed to me because they liked to experiment with chaos. They made small changes to the world and observed the chain of events that spiral out of it. So, my first character would be a Dragon.
My next order of business was to create my character, choosing gender and adjusting the usual head details – hair, makeup, facial features, that sort of thing – before moving on to clothing. This is one of the things I like about TSW. With most MMOs, you have to wear a specific piece of armour to maintain certain attributes and stats on your character, even if it looks like a piece of crap on your char. TSW does away with this in favour of invisible “talismans” that give you all the stats you need, leaving the matter of character clothing an entirely cosmetic affair for the player to choose as they see fit. Dress how you like, it won’t affect your character’s performance. Knowing that, I went for something decent: Capris, a decent shirt and one of those chest-height half-jackets that Squall Leonhart was rocking before they were cool. I’d later pick up a turtleneck and suit jacket for the look pictured below.
Molly Longstaff, going against the grain of most female player characters running around in bikinis.
I chose a name, spent about fifteen minutes trying to find a nickname that nobody else was using, and started the game. I watched the lengthy introduction/origin of Molly “HighForce” Longstaff’s powers (glowing bee in the mouth… gotta remember that one), her incapacitation and kidnapping by a mute monk, and finally got control of my character once she was kicked out of a van onto the streets of Seoul, South Korea. Following the tutorial mission’s waypoints, I was led to a man in a karaoke nightclub fussing over a mess of papers. After listening to his lecture, I followed the next waypoint upstairs.
Molly knocked on the door at the waypoint only to be greeted by a very tall tattooed man dressed in almost nothing bar a single undergarment over his modesty before a woman in a dress told him to stand down and let her in. This woman took Molly over to a king-size bed and sat her down at its foot, after which said woman started caressing her as she blathers on. The next thing, Molly was pushed back on the bed and the woman proceeded to start kissing her around the neck, which my character seemed all too happy to allow her to do and didn’t seem to resist when this stranger then slipped just off-screen…
…and gave my character oral sex in order to give her a vision of past events. Everything from the tattooed man to that point was one big cut-scene that revoked any and all control of my character. She was at the mercy of the game’s writers for the entire duration of it all.
And, as a former City of Heroes roleplayer, that just pisses me off. Through this single cut-scene, FunCom has dictated that my character is unconditionally happy to get some from a random stranger she’s only met for all of half a minute, regardless of the player’s approval or disapproval. Which I find jarring, and kind of sucks for roleplayers and the few non-roleplayers that aren’t above establishing a backstory for your character. What if my character was heterosexual, or even just asexual, regardless of romantic orientation?
FunCom says “No”. In fact, FunCom says “LOLnope, fuck you” and gives you the middle-fingered salute. “Your character’s getting some hawt gurl-on-gurl action and she’s going to like it, even if you don’t.” Whether it’s a foolish attempt to appeal to desperate boys younger than the PEGI rating advises or a sloppily written show of the game’s “dark-n-gritty”-ness, I don’t know. Now excuse me while I flush those awful deliberate misspellings from my head with industrial strength brain bleach.
This is a problem I’ve found with many MMOs that offer total character customisation. They’ll give you all the customisation options under the sun, plaster blurb on the box that promises “play the character YOU want to play” or “create your own hero” but one stupid little thing on the part of the writers always dulls that feeling that the character I’m playing is entirely mine.
In City of Heroes it was the constant feeling that you were always the errand person of the game’s NPC signature heroes and villains, which was then followed up by a moronic retcon later in the game’s like that tore up the game’s first novel, The Web of Arachnos, and established that everyone’s superpowers were the doing of an interdimensional being posing as a sodding WELL. Yep. Your mutant can puke fire? A hole in the ground gave him that. Your power-armoured tech-based hero is a genius that built her own equipment? The Well made her smart. Natural and non-powered kung-fu master? You got those mad skills from the Well, bro. NO.
Equally guilty is DC Universe Online. “Create your hero!” it screams at you. Just one catch. Your hero has to be a mundane human walking the streets just in time for a future Lex Luthor to dump nanomachines charged with superpowers into Earth’s atmosphere, again, from the future. So, regardless of whether your character is natural, tech-dependent, or magic… you got them from microscopic robots. There’s no option for a backstory here at all. You get one, and its forced upon you before you pass the login screen. Considering the DC Universe has characters of all kinds of origins (Superman’s an alien, Wonder Woman’s a magical construct, or was before the New 52 reboot. Batman has money and a personal reason for fighting crime. See what I’m getting at here?), it doesn’t feel like I’m creating my own hero in this game.
Then there’s TSW, which promises that I can create the character I want to play, and to a degree, it does that with the customisation options on offer, but then the game’s opening cutscenes have your character gladly consenting to sex without any input from the player, and past that point I can’t help but feel that this character isn’t entirely under my control.
Which is the point I’m getting at here. In the case of character origins, I can understand that there have to be certain rules for the universe, including the forces behind an individual’s powers, but there are limits. Being able to throw a grenade purely because a magic hole in the ground said so crosses that line. Player character personalities, for the most part, should be off limits. If a character likes to shag complete strangers, then that should be up to the player.
So MMO developers: if you’re going to promise players total customisation, or that they can create the character they want, don’t try to dictate my character’s origin past a certain threshold of sensibility and, more importantly, don’t try and establish any part of my character’s personality. That should be up to the player and the player alone.