Under the Covers

I’ve been playing the remaster of Saints Row 4 on XBox One and thoroughly enjoying it. Besides engaging gameplay, zany antics, and ridiculously juvenile yet hilarious jokes, Saints Row boasts one of the best character creators I’ve seen in a game. When you create The Boss you have a ton of options. Aside from choosing your sex, you can choose your race and your skin colour. You can choose from multiple different voice actors with different accents to voice your character, and further customize the pitch of your voice. You can make your character appear young or old, and choose a body build that you like. Then there are a thousand different clothing options. And if you ever want to change things up, you can do so at any point in the game.

My character is what I’d like to look like in a video game. She has purple hair, some meat on her bones, and some major eyeliner and brow game. She’s voiced by the wonderful Laura Bailey who I wish I sounded like. But every time I load up the game, I’m greeted with this guy.

Saints Row 4 cover and loading screen art

Who the fuck is this guy?

He’s certainly not me. He’s not in my crew. I’ve never seen him in my game.

I love playing the game but every time I’m met with this image, which is also the art on the game box, there’s a moment of cognitive dissonance. The canon protagonist (at least in marketing materials) has nothing to do with my experience of playing the game. It seems so incongruous to offer up this great character creator that lets people create the kind of protagonist they want to play, but then show us a design that’s likely completely different anytime there’s a chance.

Saints Row is obviously not the only game that has done this.

Covers for Dragon Age 2, Fable 3, Sunset Overdrive all showing a white male main character

Dragon Age 2, Fable 3, and Sunset Overdrive also all portray the protagonist as a white male despite offering other options to the player.

The Mass Effect series boasts a decent character creator (though it’s not as robust as Saints Row’s), but all of the artwork around the first 2 games still features a default white male Shepard. Incidentally, he kind of looks like the guy from the Saints Row cover with a buzz cut.

Mass Effect 1 and 2 cover art

For Mass Effect 3 Bioware’s marketing department realized some people had recognized the superiority of Jennifer Hale’s Shepard (I refuse to use the term femShep, because she. is. Shepard.) In a puzzling move (or not so puzzling if you want to absolve yourself of all responsibility), Bioware put the decision on how she would look to a fan vote. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired, Caucasian Shepard won the popular vote in what could be boiled down to a beauty contest. Then there was a second vote to decide her hair colour. Yep, hard-ass, space Commander, first human Spectre Shepard had her skin colour, features, and hair style voted on by the public. Now that there was a canon design for both the male and female Shepard, Mass Effect 3 had a reversible box cover (of which maleShep was still the default).

Mass Effect 3 covers

I’m afraid that marketing departments just can’t win with me. Though I can (and have) flipped the cover of my Mass Effect 3 box for 360 to show the version of Shepard that’s closer to my own, it’s still not my Shepard. My Shepard is an N7 Marine and she sure as hell would never have a haircut that allowed bangs to obstruct her eyes. That’s really not safe for combat. While having an option for female box art is something, it still doesn’t take into account how people have created their own version of Shepard. Why does she have to be white? Why does she need to have delicate, conventionally attractive features? Why does she have a design that you can’t really even replicate in-game while box art maleShep and in-game maleShep can look pretty much identical? These are the great mysteries of the Mass Effect world.

I think the best way to market games that allow you to customize your character is to not show the protagonist in the artwork. It’s the only way to avoid that sense of dissonance and the feeling that if you’re not playing as scruffy white male #42, you’re not playing the character as it was designed. A number of games have done this, and I don’t think any have suffered from not putting a face on the box art.

Dragon Age Inquisition box art

The box art for Dragon Age: Inquisition has an enticing design that shows something of the story, without committing to a specific character design. This should work for most characters. Unless you play a dwarf, then you’re out of luck.

Dragon Age Origins box cover

Dragon Age: Origins has artwork that doesn’t give any indication of a canon Warden, while still being quite effective.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas box art

The newer Fallout games both feature heavily armored figures which don’t give away sex, race, or appearance, but tell you a lot about the game world. Though I’m sad to admit I always assumed the figure on the cover of New Vegas was male just because of lack of sculpted boob plate. But when I force that stereotype out of my head, it could really be a man or a woman.

Why spend so much time and effort giving players robust character customization only to default to the standard scruffy white male protagonist in all the marketing materials?


6 responses to “Under the Covers

  1. Great look at something I had never really thought about.
    Truth is, who buys boxes now anyway? BUT on that note, how EASY would it be to program a splash loading page with your customized character being the focus? (I bet pretty easy). That would completely immerse me in the game before it even loads – what a great suggestion.

    I wonder if the positive examples you used above were cognizant of that decision or if they just did it because they felt it looked equally “as cool” as the other ones. Would be interesting to know if they were addressing the character issue or just making art they felt reflected their game.
    Isey recently posted..Modern Cars and TSW

    • I still buy boxes for console games.

      That’s a great idea about programming a customizable loading screen. With Saints Row I honestly haven’t paid much attention to the box, but having the artwork of a character who looks nothing like mine show up every single time I boot up the game is very jarring. And it does seem like an easy thing to fix.

      I feel like the DAI cover was intentional in being ambiguous, though I think for the Fallout games they probably just went with a design that looked cool.

  2. In Final Fantasy 14, the least-played race, the Roegadyn, are large-framed, green-skinned humanoids. Male players have a habit of referring to non-male Roegadyn as “femroes.” I find this to be somewhat disconcerting, but I’m confident that things are currently in the process of changing and becoming more inclusive. We’ll eventually arrive at the point where putting “fem” in front of things (and thereby implicitly or explicitly acknowledging male as the “default” gender) is about as useful as talking about bandwidth in MMOs nowadays.

    To some extent, the developers of a game should be given license to put their “stamp” on the game, so to speak – which would include the box art. They can, at the same time, choose to be cognizant of the messages they are sending and the expectations they are perpetuating with something as seemingly simple as the act of creating art which reflects their vision of their game. I would personally like to see developers trend toward artwork which is more inclusive and reflects, as you said, the characters that *we* want to play rather than the character the game’s artists, designers, or managers would play. As demographics shift to become more inclusive – whether the metric being used is mobile or PC or console – they may find that the pragmatism of appealing to potential consumers gives them no choice but to market more inclusively.

    Props if you do it before it’s hip, though.

    • I think devs should definitely be able to put their artistic stamp on the game, but for something that allows the player to design their own character it seems unnecessary exclusionary to choose a specific design to use in the marketing artwork. Trailers and things are a bit different, because you’d need some character design to show gameplay though I’d say Rades idea of using multiple looks would be the best approach there. As you say, this is the most pragmatic approach and opens them up to the widest possible audience.

  3. Something else they could do that doesn’t involve dynamic splash screens is just have MULTIPLE ones that randomly show each time, showing a variety of different scenes/characters, maybe. Using the Saint’s Row load screen as an example, they could have the existing one, then a woman flying an alien ship shooting uzis out the window, then a fat man wearing a rubber head doing a wheelie over an exploding tank, etc.

    And speaking of Saint’s Row, given how absurd that game is I’m actually really shocked they went with such a boring character design! An average-sized dude in a suit? Really? For SAINT’S ROW?
    Rades recently posted..Transmog Spotlight: White & Gold or Blue & Black?

    • Multiple splash screens is a great idea, I didn’t even think of that. And you’re right, it is absurd that Saints Row went with the most generic character design ever to represent their ridiculous game.