At Infinite Lives there’s an intriguing post from Jenn that discusses the notion that self-created player-characters/avatars such as your character in Fallout 3 may be more difficult to identify with than pre-determined, blank slate, player-characters such as Faith from Mirror’s Edge, Samus from Metroid, and Chell from Portal. The main thing that the latter three protagonists and games have in common is not only that the heroines have very little personality as expressed in their respective games’ plots. Also these three games have very little dialogue compared to Fallout 3 and games of that ilk, as well as having comparatively little interaction between the avatar and NPCs inhabiting the game world.
So what does this mean for the player experience and identification with one’s character? According to Jenn, one of the differences is due to the fact that, while one may create a character that is female or male sexed, the experience you have in Fallout 3 is the same in terms of your character’s gender.
And then, I complained on the patio about how, maybe twenty minutes further into Fallout 3, some teenaged bully is following me around, shouting, threatening—and trying, I think, to punch me in the teeth—and I just cannot shake the feeling that he thinks he is shouting at a guy. It’s as if his every pronoun has been shifted from “he” to “she,” carefully rerecorded for my personal edification, and yet it is glaringly obvious that the game’s “You!” was never intended for me.
With this said, maybe Fallout 3 is perfectly antisexist because the game is written so that it is absolutely the same for all gamers. You may choose the sex of your avatar, certainly, but you do not choose your gender, which itself is essentially written into the game dialogue and scenarios.
But, and so, because my chosen sex did not align with my apparent in-game gender, I felt extremely uncomfortable. No, it’s worse than that: I felt alienated. And so my experience of being “You!” in Fallout 3, at least in its earliest chapter, was utterly antonymous to this editor’s experience of being “You!” My experience was paradoxically different from this guy’s experience, exactly because our experiences were crafted to be identical, except that I bring my own jumble of contexts and expectations as a kind of baggage into every situation, and into every game
In other words, Fallout 3 is written as if the gender of your character is male, regardless of your character’s sex. For many gamers, who may be male-gendered, this is fine. However, for gamers who are not male-gendered, this experience can be jarring. Jenn created a female character, but her character was not treated as if she were a woman, and so she found herself distracted and removed from the experience:
So the editor was able to seamlessly fall into the game and accept its scenarios as his own as if they really were written for him; I, in the meantime, was much too hung up on artifice. I just could not shut that part of my brain off, and I kind of rejected “You!” as my own “You!” because the dialogue just seemed too inauthentic. My disbelief ran unchecked.
In contrast, characters like Faith and Chell could be easier to identify with because, neither gender nor sex appear may not have an impact on the player. This provides the player far more freedom to insert their own context and experiences into the game. “Faith is meaningful because she’s so totally meaningless.” She goes on to discuss this concept with reference to Chell from Portal.
See Infinite Lives for the full discussion.