Today I picked up Chrono Trigger DS whilst I was out shopping. I don't usually buy games right after they where released, but my joy that Squenix had made it available in the UK and the sweetness of the limited edition soundtrack CD (It wasn't that good, it turns out, I've been spoiled by Atlus having much better limited edition stuff).
I have a rule, when it comes to playing RPG's. First play through I never change the character names. I guess it's a little sad, but I want to maximize the purity of the experience. Also it avoids nasty surprises where you find out there are certain characters you can't rename and end up with the epic RPG trio of "Yukari, Junpei and Duncan" which just seems strange. Seeing as this would be my second time around with Chrono Trigger, naturally I put in Titch for the main character name, after that everything got complicated. I wanted to name Lucca, the inventor character, after my friend Shanna only she didn't have a fixed nickname that matched mine (she just uses whichever character she happens to be idolising at the time, the lack of personality assertion depresses me).
The really interesting part though, was when I got to name my third character, the rebellious and spunky princess, I had so much trouble picking a name. This was because I would only name her after a friend who met three very specific requirements
1) They had personality in common.
2) There was some visual connection between them.
3) They had to be someone with 6 characters or less in their name.
I spent at least ten minutes sitting there and thinking about what to name a character. This is highly unlike me, for me gameplay is king and everything else comes second and third place. I've moved away from my CRPG playing roots in the past few years.
In this particular instance I think I was having trouble because I find the journey you take in Chrono Trigger to be a particularly intimate experience, as RPG's go. The silent protagonist, the simple but emotive themes and well written dialog make it easy to picture myself and my friends in the roles of the characters. If I put the wrong person in the wrong roll, there would be a break in immersion when I would notice something was out of character for the person I had cast in that roll.
There is a lot of focus in games these days for customizing the protagonist. Creating an avatar that looks like you; but nothing for those people who want to turn their game into something that resonates more with their real life. If you've played Earthbound, then you can tell how much that extra detail resonates with the player. In fact a friend of a friend who introduced me to Earthbound refused to play on my save game as I was in a silly mood and wrote "p0rn" as my favorite thing. He felt embarrassed casting "p0rn alpha" on his foes.
There are of course, loads of practical issues with giving the player free reign over what characters are like. Detailed storytelling and snappy dialog mean the writer has to know the characters they are writing for. Artists would argue that if the playable characters where all alterable, there would be no iconic character to associate with the game. Perhaps the player doesn't want to go to all the effort of setting it all up themselves, they paid for someone else to craft the experience after all. I never even tried Elder Scrolls because I couldn't be bothered with all the character customizing, which is an subject worthy of discussion all by itself.
However, it might be possible to let the player creatively mix and match their characters. Lets say there is a hypothetical plot driven game called I dunno 'X Quest'. For the sake of simplicity we will assume it already contains tools for robust main character design. There are perhaps seven characters essential to the game that appear in the players party and are nameable. Instead of giving them names, each character is represented by their chief personality aspects. The cynical one, the heroic one, the funny one. Each one has is a static instance in the story, so the writers knows that the rebellious but spunky princess character will be appearing in the scene, so they know what to write and you don't have a messy bunch of dialog trees going on. It also simplifies character generation for the player. They don't have to craft personalities, just play match the pairs.
Each character also has a default appearance attached to their personality aspect, but they are all build on the same character customization model that the player used to build their own avatar. Perhaps each character has a fixed item or two that associates with their persona. The bad ass mercenary character always has a giant sword and spiky hair, everything else is up to you though.
This sort of stuff is already happening in some current gen games. In City of Heroes you don't just design your Hero, you design a matching villain too. The player can create a rivalry that personally resonates with them more than a stock opponent designed by an art guy to look cool. There is a game now that generates content based on your MSN conversations to increase the personal connection between the player and the game.
It means a new approach to writing for games. A good writer usually knows everything about the characters they are writing about. Favorite colour, parents names, age, gender, future children. This model means drawing a big circle around the things in a character that have to be true all the time and leaving everything else an metamorphic blank for the player to mold to his fantasy. This has to be done in such a way that characters retain enough individual charm to hold a story together.
Perhaps it's all too much work to put into a game just to cater to picky people like me that don't want to have their female friends fall in love with them whilst saving the world because they didn't know that's what the writer decided. I think it's certainly something worth prototyping though. Playing a game is an intimate experience and if anything making it more so would heighten the emotional response from the player. Apparently that is what the current gen is all about when it isn't busy with high def graphics, right?