Like many people who were avid gamers in 2013, one of the best games I played that year was the Tomb Raider reboot/origin story. I loved the fact that one of the people who reviewed it remarked "WB should rip this off to make a good Green Arrow game", since it had a GREAT island setting, a protagonist who's primary weapon was often a bow and arrow, a tool that isn't seen all that much in gaming (and when it is, it isn't utilized all that well (see Assassin's Creed 3 for a poor example of this)). The story was good too, being a mix of just surviving (and later full on exploring) said island and trying to save your friends and crew, instead of just being about you having a personal grudge against an armed force. The game itself looked and played great, with a very well done gritty aesthetic that never took away from some of the sheer intensity and/or majesty the story went into at times, and controls and level design that were varied but fun to play through a majority of the the time (well, except for that one river sequence...).
But the one thing that stood to me and a lot of people, was the protagonist: a girl who's out of her depth, but becomes a fighter who you care for, and eventually root for. But it also points out something sad: this is something so rarely done in major, triple-A titles, that we applaud it when it happens. As a whole, big games are getting better when it comes to having main characters with personality. But having a woman on the cover? Bioshock Infinite failed (some would say spectacularly) at that, even though Elizabeth was ESSENTIAL to the game. The Last of Us had to fight to keep Ellie on the cover. And even Mass Effect 3, a game that made it a point to feature Femshep as a notable character, elected to have an "alternate cover", instead of her pose alongside Maleshep.
Before I go further, I should say two things: first, I know many indie and smaller titles regularly feature protagonists who aren't white guys enacting a male power fantasy (TT's The Walking Dead, Transistor... um... Minecraft? Okay, I'm not a big indie gamer... that's not the point I'm trying to make). Second, I'm not saying this just to be feminist. I'm saying this for women, LGBT people, and other groups that aren't regularly featured in the gaming spotlight. Gaming is a wonderfully exciting medium, one where instead of just watching a story unfold, you get to interactively experience and even shape the outcome of it. Shouldn't more players then get more chances to see whomever they want to in a game? Don't some of us want a change of pace in terms of who's kicking ass for once? That's the main reason why I LOVED the Tomb Raider reboot: it did so many things just slightly differently, all at once... it's the kind of game that just ends up sticking with you.
This brings me to a design choice that I regularly enjoy having, and actively seek out when I'm buying and playing: create my/your own character. However, I DON'T just mean choose a gender, a race, create a face, and then just communicate through text instead of your own voice (I'm looking at you, Skyrim). I mean something like Mass Effect, where you see actual cutscenes where your own character pulls off movie-esque moves, and says quotes that are meme worthy, for better or for worse. Actual voice acting, choices that affect how you perceive your character, and gameplay that you remember just because you weren't playing someone you'd come to expect to play as. Now, I mention voice acting because I see it (and overall sound design) as an ESSENTIAL part of making a game great. Jennifer Hale was one of the most cited reasons as to why Mass Effect resonated with so many people; while Mark Meer brought some real humor to Commander Shepard, Hale brought humor and actual heft to her character. When she made a speech, it felt like you and your party were in an actual war, and that you were going to WIN the fight.
I will proudly admit the main reason I view the Mass Effect series as one of the greatest videogame series of all time is because of the choices you make, in both how you shape the galaxy around you, and the choices you make between your character and the people around Commander Shepard. You actively decide who your character wants to be friends and enemies with (and in a few cases, more than "just friends"), and the first choice you really make in the game is how your character will look while doing all this. Any race, any body shape, either gender, a slew of possible backstories... and yet you'll always get a great experience, thanks to stellar gameplay (excluding the first in the series. I'm still somewhat amazed the combat system in ME1 didn't put off enough people to kill the series), great Star Wars-esque aesthetics, a progressive story that always kept your interest, and outstanding voice acting from pretty much every character. These games are proof that you don't need a white guy in the lead role to have a great series.
Now as with all ideas, there are good ways to do them, and ways that... aren't executed all that well. Which brings me onto a case where create your own character felt like a wasted opportunity, and actually somewhat tacked-on: Halo Reach. [overhears worn-out pitchforks and torches being readied] NOW HOLD ON. I'm only here to talk about one aspect of this... divisive game (everything else I think about it is a think piece for another day). Normally, I'd commend Bungie with doing something so radical with an established FPS franchise: allow the player to choose the gender of their super-soldier instead of just being a guy like the four Halos that came before it, and even mix and match the colors and armor configurations so that that every cutscene in the game felt like it was tailor made to each player. And you even got gender specific voice actors who... oh who am I kidding, both of Noble-6's voice actors were just bland placeholders for lines that needed to be spoken.
While most if not all the characters in the game are rather boring, it was the difference in Noble-6's voice actors that struck me in how the game's writing... wasn't all that great. While male Noble-6 delivers his lines with some slight humor and does give a sense that he's not as experienced/hardened a soldier as the rest of his team, female Noble-6 just sounds like she wants to get her job over as quickly as possible; neither sounds like a believable soldier in a planet destroying war. Also, the interactions between N6 and his/her teammates are what to me showed that Bungie didn't think this idea through too much. Two scenes in particular, both of them involving N6 talking to his/her teammate Jorge... look, I get that this game takes place in the 26th century so that there's a culture gap, but they still ever so slightly unnerve me. Looking back on those scenes, they aren't so bad when you keep in mind they are soldiers... but still.
Here's the male playthrough, the scenes in question at 10:20, and 27:15
and here's the female playthrough, same scenes (still 10:20, and 27:15)
I'm not trying to make a big fuss out of nothing (aside from some bland voice acting), but I doubt most soldiers would use the "I'll be on my lonesome here... make it quick, would you?" line with both genders. And I can't help but feel some awkwardness between the two soldiers when female N6 curtly tells Jorge "I am to please" when he compliments her. It's not just the delivery of the dialogue, it's the fact that for both genders, it's exactly the same. Now that can work in most situations, but in some cases it feels noticeably out of place. This was the first Halo with the opportunity to have a woman in the spotlight kicking ass, but it ended up with a protagonist that felt inexperienced (even though N6 is described as being as lethal as Master Chief), and who were also treated with little respect by his/her comrades. I get that Bungie couldn't do much with a single character in a straightforward-as-can-be storyline... but I still feel they could've done a helluva lot better than what we got in the end.
So we've seen two cases, one where CYOC worked so well it became a selling point for the game, and the another where it was so bland it felt like something of an insult to the concept and the series it was featured in (that's my last shot at Reach, I swear). Now, what about a game where CYOC "shouldn't" have worked, but somehow did? A series of games where instead of the focus being on a character of whatever race, gender, etc saving the world, but instead it had said character just do whatever he/she pleased, just for the hell of it? I'm talking (of course) about one of the best guilty pleasures in gaming: The Saints Row series, namely Saints Row 3 & 4.
Wait, don't go, I'm being serious! Yes, both games have missions and countless jokes that are in South Park territory in how offensive they are. BUT, both games have character creation options that are as diverse and creative as you want them to be, and both genders for your main character even have three voice actors apiece to choose from (including the fantastic Troy Baker, and Laura Baily who just GOES with her role). The game's dialogue doesn't trip up either; even though the story is as silly and hilariously stupid as it can be, the dialogue in it is some of the most fun I've ever experienced in a game. The six voice actors all have the same lines across both genders, but they've rarely feel out of place, and thanks to the game's "don't take this so seriously" atmosphere, you don't really notice or care when the dialogue does trip up. What your character says in every scene makes them feel like a confident and fleshed out person. Yes they're offensive and sociopathic a good portion of the time, but they're never bland, and your character doesn't feel like something you've seen before.
To be honest, SR3 is the reason I'm writing something like this. When I played the game back when I was in high school trying to get the "Equal opportunity offender" achievement for playing both genders for two hours each, my parents watched me play as a female character. After watching me destroy the city for a few minutes, they asked "honey, why are you playing as a girl?" My answer was that I was going for an achievement, but it did slightly depress me. I know they aren't gamers in any way, shape, or form... but it was still depressing that seeing a chick shooting people was so unexpected in gaming to a person who doesn't know what the medium can be like. Yes, I mainly play big games that get major releases and lots of press instead of indies. But those are the games that get the most public attention, those are the games people who don't heavily (or at all) play perceive to be the norm. And to be honest, I can't blame them all too much.
We have yet to see a superhero movie that stars someone besides a white guy (hell, Marvel is making a movie starring an anthropomorphic tree and talking raccoon BEFORE giving Black Widow her own deal), and I've seen some of the best superhero shows in years be cancelled because they had such feminine qualities such as characters talking and caring about each other (RIP, GLTAS and Young Justice). It's also bittersweet when I see a game or show come along and be praised for having a woman be the protagonist; yeah it's GREAT seeing something different, but it's sad that having a woman or a person of color be the hero IS something different. But in gaming, being different is good, and sets games apart from one another. Shouldn't that be cause enough to see more diverse characters and stories in games, along with other mediums? Differentiating your game design by being bold, having scenes that pass the Bechdel test, starring characters that aren't white... that's not impossible, isn't it? Being feminist, making a statement about current norms, making the character YOU want to see blow shit up... those are some of the reasons I want to see CYOC in more games. Gaming is one of the most expressive and diverse mediums out there... so shouldn't we be seeing more diversity in it?