I was writing a short, one-scene play back in high school, and one of the things I was trying to do is keep the details of these character’s experiences and lives as vague as possible, thinking that this would allow the audience to connect more with the characters because they could project further.
It didn’t work at all. The reality is that those character experiences and traits are what allow us to empathize and connect with them.
When a video game wants you to step in the shoes of their main character, they make a lot of decisions for you. In a lot of games, you’re playing as a character pre-existing, Link, Bayonetta, et cetera. The disjunct we feel between ourselves and the character doesn’t feel as strong because we know we aren’t being as expressed through the character. You’re not the character, you’re just playing as them.
But when you create your own character, this disjunct can creep through. This is because your choices, which are the expression of identity, are necessarily constrained by the designers. Not only your choices but your history. There is a very specific framework of identity and that is narratively and mechanically recognized in these games.
Fallout is a great example. As much as I enjoyed New Vegas, it’s pretty limited in its scope on US history and culture. There’s probably never going to be a Fallout game that has Black Panthers, or Indigenous movements, or queer communities. That is just not within the purviews of Fallout. It’s not going to explore those things.
My Fallout character’s identity is constrained by those purviews. There’s no affordance for expression outside of them. This isn’t an intrinsically evil thing by any stretch. I would argue it’s just a natural constraint of the medium. But so few games provide the playspace to express marginalized aspects of the self due to their pre-existing framework of expression. Hell, most games only let you express whether or not you want to act out violence and onto whom.
As a counterpoint, I think Prey does something interesting. There’s something really cool about how it handles the player’s identity. Minor spoilers: You are playing as Morgan devoid of history and memory. Major spoilers for Prey: At the very end of the game, it’s revealed that you are Typhon-hybrid clone-thing of Morgan. You aren’t playing as Morgan, you are playing as something roleplaying as Morgan. The result is that the identity of Morgan is defined by your in-game actions, and not by their past.
I think there’s a similarity here with “movement” and mechanical based expression that you were talking about, Blacksentai. I’m able to connect further because my preferences and thoughts are expressed solely through the game’s systems, and importantly, they are expressions about the systems, and not any broader realm of morality, ethics, identity, love, personhood, or anything else.
This has all been lofty, and too wordy, and way too long, and I’m risking major derailing, so let me ground it. I feel this deeply. Most games that allow you to create a character are (quite literally) only skin deep. You can change the appearance of who they are, how they sound, maybe even tinker with ancillary parts of their past. But you can’t really make a lot of meaningful expression and customization in their personality and identity. And the experience of playing the game is similarly limited. There are just kinds of people you can’t be, and kinds of lives you can’t lead. You can try to find ways to represent them, but they usually won’t really take shape. They’re devoid of those personal lives, oddly flat, gesturing at a greater level of humanity, like the characters in my sophomoric play.
So… as for Cyberpunk 2077, while being able to change voices, pronouns, and so on is a step in the right direction, the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is constrained by the perspectives of the creators. And as a result, so is the range of expression within the game. There are going to be choices, lifestyles, identities that are just simply unavailable. There might be a huge range of backgrounds and identities that are represented in the world of Night City, but that range is not infinite. That’s how these games are. That’s a pill we’ve got to swallow. But what’s important is to be conscious, as players, critics, and designers alike, is that these systems have those blind spots. That the lives we express through these systems aren’t universal. And that we can do better.