Sometimes I think I like sliding into a character creator sandbox more than the game it’s attached to. Character creators let me play a benevolent god that only creates hot people—like Abercrombie in the 2010s, except I’m a socialist. I feel powerful and clever until I run smack into a wall: a character creator that thinks everyone on the planet is white.
These kinds of character creators are out to get me. If I want to give my hot character dark skin, the creator either limits me to slightly different shades of beige, or punishes me with blotchy, strange undertones. If I want to try out any hairstyle that doesn’t involve shoulder-length, thin, straight tresses, there aren’t any, and there’s rarely a point in searching for body diversity, either. If your stomach isn’t flat, you’re not allowed to be hot in a video game. Those are the rules!
But they’re tired rules. A character creator is a small, entirely superficial thing in the swarm of salient gameplay mechanics video game developers worry about. Especially when player-created character designs have barely anything to do with how a game works or tells its story, I don’t expect every creator to offer the most mind-blowing options. But if there are going to be options at all, they shouldn’t be completely restrained to a handful of European features with perhaps a curl or tan chucked in as an afterthought. Everyone should be able to see themselves in a game if they’d like.
So If you have similar frustrations, or if you’re just hungry for a hearty character creator that will suck you in for hours, I’ve had a think and written about some of the best character creators I’ve encountered (some of the actual games on this list are worth trying, too). Take a look and let me know what speaks to you, or if you have some of your own favorite custom character creators.
I mean the 2020 Demon’s Souls renovation by Bluepoint Games and Japan Studio, to be exact. The character creator in FromSoftware’s original 2009 role-playing revelation birthed sharp-angled creatures who looked like they really wanted to get you to sign up for a multilevel marketing scheme. In their defense, everyone was at least adjacent to a multilevel marketing scheme in 2009.
But the 2020 Demon’s Souls creator is scam-free. When it was first showcased in November 2020, Sony Interactive Entertainment creative director Gavin Moore wrote in a blog that its options allowed for up to 16 million combinations. I have not personally explored all those combinations, but I’ve made some diverse Demon’s Souls hotties in my day and will take Moore’s word for it. The facial features, hair styles, and range and depth of skin tones the smooth creator offers leave a lot of room for gratifying experiments. But of course it’s not perfect, either. For bodies, players can only choose between Type A and B with no slider options or customization. The developers likely spent their body slider time on making sure the route to the Tower Knight boss was as insufferable as possible.
“Though I enjoy tooling around with character creators for hours, they can be actively hostile toward me,” Ash Parrish wrote in her Kotaku post about role-playing game Baldur’s Gate 3’s early access character creator. “Sometimes there are insufficient skin color options that only go as dark as a pale, paper bag.” But Parrish is complimentary of Baldur’s Gate 3, which provides players with unique faces made more accurate by 3D scans of actors and models (“blemishes and all,” Baldur’s Gate writes in a 2020 progress post). Like Demon’s Souls, Baldur’s Gate 3 provides a solid creator with fine graphics that make an array of faces possible. But, again and disappointingly, players are stuck in their body type options—there are only two you can choose from, and the creator doesn’t allow for weight, height, or body part alterations.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing game Final Fantasy XIV’s creator deftly builds its world through the range of customization options it gives its players. Like other role-playing games, Final Fantasy XIV requires you to choose an imagined race with pre-determined features, but it doesn’t limit the bounds of your inventiveness. You’re not deciding between a white humanoid with elf ears or a white humanoid with human ears like less original games might ask you to. Instead, there are nubby, childlike Plainsfolk, hulking Hellsguards, and curvy bunny-eared Veenas. There are feline Seekers of the Sun and ripped Highlanders with taut faces. Facial features in Final Fantasy XIV are generally constrained to elvish ingenue, but it’s thrilling to flex the character creator’s bounds.
To create a character in social simulation game The Sims 4 is to allow madness to take over. The fecund Sims mods universe will let you pump your Sim’s face full of hyaluronic acid and turn every member of your virtual family into a Teen Wolf extra. Don’t feel bad about deforming their bodies beyond recognition, though, it’s what they would want if they had free will.
And even the baseline Sims 4 creator has an insane range of options. You can change mostly everything about your Sim, including body size, shape, and detail. Gender has some arbitrary constraints, like a feature that made characters give birth to girls if they ate strawberries and listened to pop music, and boys if they ate carrots and listened to alternative music. Actually, now that I think about it, this is not arbitrary. Everyone knows that only boys are allowed to cry to Elliot Smith.
But Sims 4 is also currently working on introducing custom pronouns to the game, and treats pregnancy like a “trait” so that any character can get pregnant regardless of gender, which are both much appreciated, flexible touches. The exception to The Sims’ recent pursuit of gender neutrality, though, is alien insemination, which canonically only impregnates male characters. Playing The Sims is the same as getting a lobotomy.
Forza Horizon 5 is a racing game, but it also has a commendable character creator. It uses real models and actors’ faces to give players diverse, true-to-life character bases to start with. From there, you can choose from a multitude of hairstyles, hair colors, even arm and leg prosthetics, and pick your character’s pronouns. Unlike most games that ask you to decide on a gender, pronouns in Forza Horizon 5 only impact dialogue, not your character’s looks.
I’ll also remind you that Forza Horizon 5 is a literal racing game, and you spend gameplay hurtling a fast shiny car and not gazing into your character baby’s gorgeous, gorgeous eyes. But the care the developers put into building their thoughtful creator earns the game a spot on my list anyway.
Like with Forza, you likely won’t be spending much time staring at your Xbox avatar while Radiohead’s “All I Need” hums in the background (oops, that song is only for boys!). But it’s a good creator, goddamnit. Avatars are stylistically unified—all available features are soft and cartoonish, but there are so many of them. You can finetune your avatar’s body shape, height, face, hair, piercings, you name it. There are prosthetic, cast, and wheelchair options, and a fantastic selection of gloves. You don’t often see a wide glove selection.
Every character creator on this list prioritizes inclusivity, uniqueness, and serving players up a whole jam of options, though I also wish they weren’t worth singling out. As players and developers push for more representation in video games, I hope that variation in character creators becomes the default and that games will reflect their idiosyncratic players in this personal, visual way. But while I wait for games to show us that everyone is welcome in their virtual worlds, I’ll be using the creators in this list for inspiration and reflection. And when given no other option, I’ll probably just make Shrek.
But like I asked earlier, what are some of your favorite character creators? I’ll take my answer off the air.