Here’s a thing I’ve noticed while watching other people play Red Dead Redemption 2: there’s an Arthur Morgan on the screen, who looks like Arthur Morgan and sounds like Arthur Morgan, but isn’t my Arthur Morgan.
I know it’s the same character, but it’s also not, and that never sits right with me. I call it the Geralt-Morgan Effect.
That’s because I get the same feeling watching people play The Witcher 3. There can be a Geralt on the screen doing the same things mine did, knockin’boots and rubbin’ oils, but something feels off about it because that’s not what my Geralt looked like.
It’s as though I was watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Only instead of aliens swooping in and replacing everyone in my town with off-putting clones, it was my friends and colleagues giving Geralt stupid haircuts that, to me and my understanding/love of the character, he would never dream of.
Both Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Witcher 3 exist in this strange space where you’re given a pre-written, pre-voiced character whose base appearance can’t be changed. Everyone’s Arthur Morgan sounds like Roger Clark, they’ve got the same steely eyes and the same weathered face.
So there’s a shared experience there. Like Lara Croft, or Master Chief, Arthur Morgan has a name, a voice and a story. We’re not building our own hero here, we’re taking charge of one that had already been made and just pushing him through a storyline. What’s more, his character is written so as to account for almost any action you take in this game: whether you play like a rogue or a gentleman, you’ll still be forced to both save and murder people, and so no matter your actions Arthur Morgan’s story will be the same for everyone.
Yet outside of these core parameters, and unlike Lara Croft or Master Chief, we can still make significant changes. We can give Arthur haircuts, shave his facial hair and dress him up in a wide variety of clothes. This might seem superficial, trivial even, but I’ve found it has a huge impact on how we perceive these characters.
My Arthur Morgan, gruff and practical but also grudgingly accepting of the onset of the modern age, is reliably basic. He wears a white shirt with suspenders, plain spurs and boots and a tattered old hat. He sports a moustache that is rarely kept clean-shaven, and a slicked-back haircut that’s more about practicality than style.
I dress him like that because that’s what I think he’s like. Arthur isn’t my character, so whenever it comes time to select clothes in the game I find myself picking what I think Arthur would pick, not what I’d opt for if given a blank slate. And Arthur doesn’t seem like a guy who would willingly opt for a fancy suit, or extravagant sideburns.
This is dumb, I know, but I’m a singleplayer obsessive who once immersed in an adventure is immersed. There’s an odd kind of compromise at play here, where a character I didn’t create is still somehow becoming mine through the way I customise them.
While loads of games let you customise existing characters, I think there’s a set of circumstances that you only find in these two games that allow for this sensation.
Both are exceptionally long, dense games, meaning we get to spend a lot of time with these guys. Both characters are exceptionally well-written and acted, which helps us relate to them and makes them start to feel a little more “real”. And both give us the means to customise the character’s appearance without changing stuff like body shape and skin colour.
So while Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto V let you edit the character’s appearance, their lack of depth, and the way the game had you jumping between each star, meant we never really got to know them, so those changes didn’t mean much. And while Assassin’s Creed Odyssey might seemingly meet all the criteria I just listed, the fact you can’t customise Kassandra’s (or Alexios’) face and hair keeps them looking the same—albeit with some wardrobe disagreements—across everyone’s experience.
I’m not saying this is a problem. Unless it’s maybe a problem for me, someone who reading back over this realises I might just be a little too into these big singleplayer adventures. And I’m fully aware that just as I’m finding someone else’s Arthur Morgan looking strange, they’d just as likely look at mine and think, no, this isn’t right either.
I just find it interesting that we’re at a point now with some video games where you can grow to know and love a character so much that even the slightest changes to their physical appearance, as much as any decisions you might make during gameplay, can have a big impact on the way that character is perceived.