Character creation, at its best, is the ability to create a unique new person. There’s a lot you can do with your imagination, but ideally, RPGs are giving you the tools to bring your imagination to life.
Most players who take up RPGs for the imagination aspect of it agree that the best character creators are ones that have the most elasticity, whether you or not you use all the options available. Not everyone spends 2-3 hours at the beginning of a game detailing their protagonist’s bone structure, but if you are that kind of person, hopefully you’ll get a kick out of this list.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Dragon Age: Inquisition’s character creator is extremely powerful, despite a few weaknesses. Most facial features get their own sliders on every axis, and there are a lot of facial features available to manipulate–the nose, for example, has nostril size, nose tip size, nose bridge width, nose bridge size, overall nose size, and a ton of presets to choose from when you’re starting out. Just for the nose. And again, all of these features can be manipulated in all directions, allowing for a lot of uniqueness in protagonist design.
This is particularly notable because you get to engage with tons of interactive cut scenes starring your individual character, complete with facial expressions, action sequences, and fully-voiced interactions.
Another plus is that while you do have to choose a gender in the beginning, all hair styles are applicable to either choice. Both genders also have adam’s apple manipulation, and both have two different voices to choose from, one of which is deeper than the other. I also was pleased to note that this is one of the only character creators that randomizes the default starting gender. Also notable–if you play a dwarf, you can wear a beard whether you’ve chosen male or female.
It’s also easy to make a character look older or younger, with gray hair options and plenty of wrinkled or weathered skin types.
One of the character creator’s weaknesses is that, despite some major improvements over the last two games, the face presets don’t offer quite as much ethnic diversity as I’d like. You have to work hard to make a character resembling an Asian person, for example, and there are no eye shapes with true epicanthic folds. While it does give you quite a few black hairstyles, they’re all a series of closely-shaved naturals. On the other hand, because you have such a great degree of control over facial features in general, if you’re willing to work at it you can usually get the look you want with some trial and error.
There are four fantasy races to choose from (human, dwarf, elf, and qunari) and three classes (warrior, rogue, and mage) and while your character’s backstory is determined only by fantasy race and is not customizable in the way that many RPGs allow, your choices may make for a notably different experience for the protagonist.
The Sims 4
The Sims 4, unsurprisingly, has a great character creator. I was able to, without much trouble, create a pretty dang good approximation of a specific member of a kpop boy band back when the game first came out.
The Sims 4 gives you a lot of control over facial features, though the interface takes a bit to get used to. Instead of simply moving a slider, you pull the mesh in different directions with your mouse. Zooming in on different areas will reveal more details you can manipulate. Unfortunately it’s easy to overlook certain areas, and figuring out how to pull the mesh correctly can be tough, but once you’ve got the hang of it you can do a lot to make your characters incredibly unique.
Out of all the character creators in this list, I’d argue that the Sims 4 is the best for designing characters that look like specific people. It’s also a bit more cartoony than most RPGs, so emphasizing certain features is easier, and you won’t usually end up with some kind of eldritch abomination even if you go all out.
The Sims 4 also, of course, leads the pack in terms of character-building outside of pure aesthetics. You can choose a ton of different personality indicators, goals, and interests, and those choices will affect how your Sim interacts with other characters in the game.
Saints Row 4
Saints Row 4 is a lot more open-ended than a lot of character creators. It’s got age sliders, sex appeal sliders, top-of-forehead sliders, you name it. One of its drawbacks is that almost all of the sliders are x-axis only, but you’ve still got a huge range of options to work with. And like Dragon Age: Inquisition’s character creator, options are present regardless of starting gender.
The creator does include some iffy naming conventions. For example, the sex appeal slider for women is what determines your character’s boob size, and for men it determines bulge size. It’s a value judgment I’m not really interested in commenting on further, but suffice it to say that you might run into some questionable–ahem–asset titles.
This game joins the Sims 4 in having a nice range of vocal, body size, and clothing options.Your character’s voice gets its own pitch slider. Though the Sims gives you more options for mixing and matching your outfit, Saints Row is one of the few RPGs I can recall that allows you to pick your own clothing as opposed to donning the best armor available. And the weight sliders are not nearly as constrained as in most other character creators, though some have argued that Saints Row 2 actually does a better job with this than Saints Row 4.
You can also choose your race (not a mythical race, in this case, but Latina, White, Asian, or Black), from the beginning.
My main complaint about Saints Row 4 is that it’s not very graphically exciting, but otherwise it’s got a great character creator.
Guild Wars 2
Guild Wars 2 has a surprisingly detailed character creator, especially considering how limited the first game’s was. One of its biggest strengths is the huge color spectrum to choose from, allowing for tons of different skin tones and hair and eye colors. While a lot of games have a single skin tone for each value, Guild Wars 2 gives you a lot of variation. Realistically, skin comes in tons of colors. It’s never been the linear tone progression that games would have us believe, and Guild Wars acknowledges this.
Another nice feature in Guild Wars 2 is its diversity in body type and shape. You can choose from a variety of body types, and while the differences (particularly for female characters) aren’t drastic, it’s worth mentioning.
Guild Wars 2 offers five playable races–asura, charr, human, norn, and sylvari.
It’s certainly refreshing to be able to choose something other than the Tolkien human/elf/dwarf standard, but you also get to make several important choices when it comes your character’s backstory. Their faith and connections, for example, will initiate different quest lines during the game.
Unfortunately you’ll spend most of your time in-game staring at your character’s back, but there are a few scenes with voiced dialogue.
Fallout 4’s character creator doesn’t give quite as much control over individual facial features as some others on this list, but it’s got a lot going for it. My first character was modeled after Mindy Kaling, and I was thrilled to find that one of the presets was clearly an Indian character. There are also presets for East Asian, Arab/Middle Eastern, and Latino characters, among others.
(There’s definitely still something to be desired when it comes to hair styles, but when you’re used to having to mess around in a character creator for hours trying to make someone who doesn’t look like a white person with a deep tan, the gorgeous preset characters were extremely welcome.)
Other benefits include the ability to choose whether your character is smiling, smirking, or frowning, or whether they’re narrowing or widening their eyes. Not to be confused with simply having narrow eyes–I’m talking expression here.
You can also add a huge variety of different facial marks, including scars, pimples, vitiligo, burns, warts, etc., and this is another character creator that lets you choose your character’s body shape and muscularity. Though again, it’s not a drastic change.
Finally, you not only get to design your protagonist, you also get to design their spouse, which in turn determines what their baby looks like, and that’s cool.
The Elder Scrolls Online
The Elder Scrolls Online gives players a lot of options for choosing different race and class starting points. There are three factions to choose from, nine races, and four classes.
This game has one of the better sliders for body type; though, again, the variation is greater in male characters than female. You can choose musculature, largeness, thinness, and height for your character. Especially notable is the option to choose sizes for distinct body parts.
There are also eight different voices, a slider for age, and tons of decorations and tattoos to choose from in addition to a wide range of facial details. It’s one of the only character creators I’ve found that allows for decorations like a flower for your character’s hair.
One of the main problems with the Elder Scrolls universe in general, re: diversity, is that while you can choose from a variety of fantasy races, some of those races are thinly veiled stereotypes of real world peoples. Redguards, for example, are dark-skinned, and in previous games were described in less-than-comfortable terms. The Elder Scrolls Online has thankfully toned down that awkwardness somewhat, but notably, some looks are still limited by race–even within the ostensibly human races. The human Nords cannot have black hair, for instance.
Hairstyles (and beard styles) are fairly limited overall, but are not race-gated the way color is, at least for humans.
Final Fantasy XIV
Final Fantasy XIV starts with eight humanoid fantasy races to choose from. Each race also has a couple more options with regards to origin, and on top of that you can choose from nine classes with three starting city-states, a birth date, and a “Guardian,” which sort of acts like a personal god for your character.
This game has a great color selection, and some nice hairstyles, though (as per usual) there aren’t many options for black hairstyles or curly hair. And while there are plenty of manipulable details, they tend to be fairly surface-level–there isn’t a lot of bone restructuring going on here. Like in a lot of East Asian games, it’s easy to make an East Asian character, but pretty tough to make anyone else, aside from changing the colors.
There are 12 different voices to choose from, which is a positive. In terms of body size, however, you can only manipulate height and–for female characters–bust size.
One of the best things about FFXIV’s character creator for me is the graphic consistency. There’s almost no clipping, even with longer movable hairstyles. It’s a nice one for experimenting with different types of fantasy races and origin stories, and while its character creator is aesthetically pretty surface-level, it’s fun to use.
Dragon’s Dogma Online
Dragon’s Dogma Online is, so far, one of the best character creation tools when it comes to body types. You can choose from a variety of character presets to start with, and they range in height, musculature, weight, and age–and there’s actually quite a lot of diversity in the lineup. Once you’ve chosen a preset, you can manipulate the dimensions more specifically.
After that, you’ve got a ton of facial feature details to play with, and like the body presets, these come in a wide range of different looks. In other words, it’s easy to come with a unique character, and not just in terms of their face.
Dragon’s Dogma Online isn’t quite as exciting on the fantasy front, since you can only play as a human, but on the other hand it leaves you with more options to diversify your character in the first place. Instead of having to roll an elf or a gnome to get a short slender character, or an orc or dwarf to get a burly character, you can just make your characters look however you want to begin with.
For me the major downside to Dragon’s Dogma Online is that it just doesn’t look that good. There’s a lot of clipping, and the hairstyles are a bit 2-dimensional. There’s a wonderful variety of skin tones to choose from, but all of them end up a bit…mottled. Still, it’s a nice character creator that does something few others dare to try.
Black Desert has been lauded as one of the best–if not the best–character creator out there. This game makes it feel like you can manipulate an almost infinite amount of features. Different sizes of individual body parts, a voice slider, contact lens style and color, hair curl, hair length, skin shine, wrinkles, makeup, height, etc. are all manipulable. You can also change their facial expression independently of any individual features (unlike in Fallout 4, where the expression is dependent on which mouth or eyes you choose).
While its characters are absolutely gorgeous, Black Desert’s fundamental weaknesses are in its finite amount of starting options. You’ve got your pick of eight different classes, but as is in the case of a lot of Korean MMOs, each class has a set gender and ‘look.’ If you want to play a berserker or a warrior, you’d have to roll a dude. If you want to play someone who looks like Mindy Kaling, you’re pretty much out of luck. It might seem limitless at first, but you’re actually working within some very strict confines.
The game does, to its credit, have more options for female characters than male, and it’s very easy to make an East Asian character (which is unsurprising, of course, since it’s a Korean game). There are lots of skin tones to choose from, but the face presets are not terribly diverse. And while you can give your style more curl, it’s more like a heavily crimped look than naturally curly hair. The only locs or braids I saw were on the “berserker” starting class.
In short, the character creator is in some ways extremely powerful, and in others disappointingly limited. The full game hasn’t yet been released, but here’s hoping we’ll get a more satisfying character creator out of it eventually–or at least that other games will take the positive aspects of it and go further. At any rate, it’s a lot of fun to mess around with as long as you’re not trying to go for a specific look.
Room for Improvement
Character creation is getting better and better as graphics advance, but there are still some areas I’d love to see improve. I’ve never played a game that does a truly good job with different textures and styles of black or curly hair, and I want to see more variety and diversity in options for characters of color in general (a ton of Western games only offer one–if any–eye shape with epicanthic folds, for example, despite that being a prominent feature of people all over the world). Evan Narcisse and Gita Jackson have written about this far more eloquently than I ever could.
I also have yet to find a game that allows you to create a disabled character. You might find an aesthetic eye patch here or there, but even The Sims doesn’t let you play someone who uses a wheelchair. I’ve never seen any sort of opportunity to make a character who is an amputee, with the possible exception of City of Heroes/Villains back in the day. The game is now defunct, but I recall being able to give my characters robotic limbs.
While some games have started to add different body shape options, we have a long way to go before characters have the range of body shapes that real people do. And I’d also like to see female characters getting the same degree of size differences that male characters have–female characters tend to still be pretty svelte even at the far ends of the slider.
Finally, I’d like to see more games give players the option to play trans, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming characters. That means allowing for more than two gender choices to begin with, as well offering all genders the same options in terms of hair style, voice, fashion, facial structure, etc. We’re getting there, but there are still a lot of barriers in place, many of them arbitrary. I recommend this article by Teddie for more on that.
I recognize that some of these changes will take a shift in thinking, as well as somewhat significant design challenges. But it’s worth pursuing if it means better gameplay for more people, and having options is what character creation is all about in the first place, right?