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February 26, 2008Glenn Turner

I've whittled away roughly ten hours of BioWare's Mass Effect and, I believe I can safely say, it does quite a bit very right. However, very quickly into the game, I realized I had done something quite wrong.

I did a poor, poor job of modeling my main character.

Since I don't play many MMORPGs, Second Life or the like, I don't often spend much time crafting playable characters. In fact, the last time I recall being struck by a character-creation process was in Sega's Phantasy Star Online, way back in the heyday of the Dreamcast. Mass Effect's character creation process may not be utterly groundbreaking, but I found it interesting, especially the way that many potential features fail to flatter your character. Poor complexion, loads of scars, nightmarish eye lashes, forgettable haircuts – granted, she's a Space Marine, but I was determined to mince together something striking.

Unfortunately, in my quest I neglected to take full advantage of the camera. My character cut a decent swath head-on while I was creating her but, upon seeing her in the game, her chin looked terribly weak and, even worse, was exacerbated by a mistakenly weighty neckline. Her lips appeared too be too taut, toad-like even, and her closely cropped jet-black hair, while smart on its own, did little to smooth out her face's rough edges. The first time I saw her turn her head, I cringed slightly. All because I didn't turn the camera 45 degrees!

I didn't want to admit that she was unappealing, at least, not at first. Partially because I had spent the better part of a half-hour crafting her facial profile, but also because I was anxious to just start playing the game, to experience BioWare's unique take on dialogue trees and to marvel at their alien universe. But, the further I progressed, the more and more annoyed I became at my character's presence. She simply felt fatigued, sometimes sullen, and her voice and body language certainly didn't match up with her physique. I thought I'd grow to love her face, to bond and identify with it. Instead, I looked to erase it.

Assorted female character possibilities (via TeamXbox)

Unfortunately, I came to this decision a bit too late, a tad beyond the point of no return. My initial time investment of several hours seemed to out-weigh the positives in creating a new profile, so I decided to simply settle. I've been playing with her ever since, feeling vaguely dissatisfied with myself whenever the camera cuts to her face.

So I'm left to wonder, why am I so upset with her looks? It could be that I'm just not used to playing a character that has incongruent features, but that's not true. The entire ensemble of Silent Hill had a litany of physical nuances and unconventional looks, and they never elicited such feelings from me. In fact, I loved them even more for it! Perhaps it's because I'm not used to being able to create an avatar that isn't conventionally attractive, that isn't a buxom blonde with a fair complexion. It's certainly a bit of a challenge in Rock Band, but several other titles have given me such opportunities, and I've never felt distressed whenever I've done so.

No, I'm frustrated that the character I crafted doesn't quite fit the role I wanted her to play. While I'm the one that created her face and mold her in-game responses, her overall physique is still very pre-disposed, not to mention her stance and voice. She doesn't feel like the character I set out to inhabit; her voice is gruff, but her shoulders are hunched, and she has a slack air about her. It doesn't match what I had hoped to create: a whip-smart and capable woman, ready for the wonders and dangers of space. Instead I ended up with a woman incapable of seizing breakfast, much less command of a ship. Her face and body are simply at odds with the lines of dialogue and actions I feed the character.

Assorted male character possibilities (via TeamXbox)

What's strange is that, if I were forced to play Mass Effect simply as this character, without being given a choice of gender, hair type, or complexion, I would have simply accepted it. I would have just pasted their physical attributes onto what I expected from the rest of the story, that the script would play off her looks and I would have been fine with that. But that game would be at odds with what Mass Effect is trying to accomplish, the sort of game where you craft your character's look, demeanor, and actions, where you only have yourself to blame for their faults.

And I do blame myself, but I'm still begrudgingly playing through Mass Effect with Ms. Helen Shepherd. I'm acclimating to her looks, although I still frown slightly when I see her from the side or when the light strikes her poorly (which seems to happen a lot). I can't help but wonder if her physical demeanor will affect my gameplay, if I'll eventually align myself with her body language and suddenly feel the need to call it a day. Maybe I'll simply give up on the game and lay slack on the couch until I can create a new character that can muster up a bit of energy and inspiration. That hasn't happened yet though as I've already restarted my trials on one planet, thanks to my initial lack of ability to handle the quests in a competent and diplomatic way, and not simply mindlessly slaughtering all who get in my way. While my character might not look the part, at least I can see through her features and disposition and see her for what I envisioned her to be, and I can play her accordingly.

7 comments for ‘Mass Effect: Playing Through Ugly’

#1 D. Riley Feb 27, 2008 11:27am

That's most of the reason I went with the default character. I love character generators. I've probably spent more time making guys in Oblivion than actually playing the game, but in THAT game I don't really have to spend a lot of time looking at whatever mongoloid dinosaur I've concocted.

Part of the problem is that on the girl side all the hair looks like it popped out of a plastic mold. My girlfriend made some pale black haired scary looking thing that she's quiet proud of. I don't have the heart to tell her it gives me nightmares.

#2 Glenn Turner Feb 27, 2008 02:05pm

I probably should have thought about that before committing to the character, but so it goes. I actually had the inverse experience with my girlfriend - her character looks quite smart.

Agreed on the haircuts - I wasn't all that happy with the available options. I wonder if they'll expand the hairstyles for the PC release?

#3 Joel Feb 27, 2008 08:31pm

I created a character around the name I had chosen: Tanaka. Unfortunately, he came out looking a little too mezzo American to be totally Japanese.

#4 WholeFnShow Feb 28, 2008 02:04am

I haven't had a chance to try out Mass Effect yet, but I am an absolute character customization whore. (Thank you WWE games) Given the extent to which I've been able to tweak and edit in the past, I'm usually underwhelmed by anything else I see in any other game. So it makes me happy that this sounds a bit open-ended.

Given that, I will have no problem taking a good 3-5 hours working on my character before actually playing, then test running, and going back to the drawing board. It's a commonality for me.

#5 Mrs. Mack Mar 2, 2008 06:09pm

It's ironic. I usually hate that I can't make a plain/unconventional character in games of this style.

I'm not a bombshell and I don't want to be forced into playing one. Nor do I want to play a severe-looking hag.

I've always wanted more freedom over character creation. Not all of us want the hourglass figure, the wide eyes, the full lips, the femme fatale. Some of us just want to look normal.

The day we're allowed to look that way, is the day I'll be a happy woman. I like to be different by being normal. That's pretty sad.

#6 M. Dyer Mar 15, 2008 03:46am

I was lucky enough to make a male character that I was satisfied with - everything matched, and I was surprised to see how well it worked, but experimenting with female characters on my second go-round made me realize that, like D. Riley says, they all look too fake.

The hair is not only a solid, highly reflective substance, but non-default Lady-Shephards tend to have deformed faces or wacky hair... I just went back (3 more times) with the same dude.

#7 unitdaisy Mar 20, 2008 10:06am

Mr. Turner - I'm glad you think so as I based her features on mine!

I think we as humans don't know enough about the balance that makes facial features fall on the comfortable side of the uncanny valley. I remember when they tried that odd photoshop experiment where they combined all the best feature of the then crop of super models and they came up with a scary, lifeless-looking mannequin. Even painters, sculpters, and illustrators use live models as a reference when creating idealized art. That's why I used myself as a reference when creating the character - it seemed the only way to make decision about proportion and placement that wouldn't look artificial (and I think I would make a great space heroine!)

Mrs. Mack - I agree with you that I have no desire to play Lara Croft style characters that are male fantasies of the female body. But did you mean it was ironic in this game that finally there was a chance to play a "normal" looking person but the controls were too complex to come up with a creation that looked real, or something else?