I am often surprised just how insane character design has become over the years. Sure, we’ve always seen the kinky and skimpy armor on female characters and the overbuffed and chisled jaws of the male “heroes” in our games, but once in a while a certain title just goes way too far and slides easily into the “extremely creepy” territory. It’s hard to find games or worlds that offer the flexibility to create what you want to create, and to do it easily. There are rare few examples of games that allow players to start out as blank slates.
Glitch is one of those games, though. If you are not familiar, Tiny Speck has created a wonderful browser-based sidescroller that sets players down inside a world literally made of imagination. 11 giants have created the world and its inhabitants, the Glitchen (that’s us.) Character creation is brilliant. For the sake of brevity, I will list a few main reasons why Glitch’s world of Ur is a wonderful place for those who want to be what they want to be.
1) The lack of an obvious pre-defined gender allows players to dream about the roles they would like to play. Would they like to farm? Perhaps they would love to decorate houses? Mining might seem like something that can only be done while wearing certain clothes, but tell that to the players who mine while wearing a grass skirt.
2) The genderless look of the avatars allows players to think about how different items make them think of “male” or “female.” I can spend hours testing out different hairstyles or outfits and each time I might look at my character differently. This ability allows players to explore, freely, different looks that they would not have considered before. A single piece of clothing might make a player’s Glitchen look completely differently, and the player might actually like it. It’s a form of roleplay, but one that has no permanent consequence on the avatar. If a player decides to try on a different look or to appear as a certain gender, so be it. For myself, I always prefer to make characters who look as close to the real life me as possible. This is for no other reason but to imagine myself, my real life self, inside a fantasy world. How would I survive? Would I be considered ugly or handsome within that world? If I am not able to make a character who looks like me, I roleplay the character to act like me within the confines of the particular universe’s speech or physical possiblities. I am proud to say I am not ashamed of how I look. The fact is that I love the way I look, big nose and all. I am happy when I find a game that gives me the ability to show that pride.
When we virtually step foot in a world, we are being delivered by a group of designers who often have no idea how their designs might make someone feel. If you want to play a female character, how far can you go in shaping your body, coloring your skin or wearing certain types of clothes? When you are faced with limited choices you very well might get past the annoyance and get on with your game while feeling much less attached to your character. Of course, if you want to play a muscular male character who wears no shirt, you are usually in luck.
We could of course accept that the creators of the world make the rules, and the rules say that in that particular society females look a certain way, men act a certain way and there is no in-between or mixing of the two. We can accept that. Or we can ask instead why the developers, the ones who have the ability to literally write any lore they want and to create any traditions they want for their virtual world have decided to go with standard, bland and often offensive takes on character creation. In all of my years in writing about games, I have come to accept that many developers and coders are not the most creative people in the world and often create characters they might have seen before; orcs, elves, dwarves. Even their art designers are often trying to recreate the successes of the past, successes that rarely stray from standards in design. We end up with a blander selection of games because of it.
Glitch’s 11 gods created a world out of their imagination. That means that they could have imagined anything, and could have made our little Glitchen in any image. They decided to give the choice to us, the inhabitants on the world, to make ourselves in our own image. We are simply a piece of clay, and the gods trust us with the ability to create what we want without judgment and without a harsh set of laws. This, to me, shows a sweetness that is rarely visible in virtual worlds. The gods are parents, true, and sometimes can be a bit demanding. But they are not cruel and do not demand that we fit within any certain set of guidelines. They let us be us.
It is important to note that even within an environment that allows for such player creativity, players still fall back on what they consider to be normal. Female players might wear girly, pink items while the men who play don skull masks and black, gothy cloaks. The rules of real life society can pass between any boundaries and can create the same divisions or harmful categories that they can in real life.
The giants had the right idea. Allow the Glitchen to do as they will, set them free in a world that is built inside imagination, and see what happens. There is also a protective slant to the story; the Giants are worried about us as we stumble around the world. They send us a guide to occasionally point us in the right direction. But, from our conception, they allow us to be the type of child we want to be and to look how we want to look.