Wildstar and the Case of the Too Pretty Alien Females
Carbine Studio's upcoming sci-fi MMO lets you be anything you want -- except if you're female and don't want to be a pretty space princess.
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As of not too long ago, embargoes for everything Wildstar have lifted. Previews, giddy with approval, are bursting out of the Internet like wildflowers. People are cooing on Twitter, forums are writhing with glee. The message is clear: Wildstar is rad. And I am madly, deeply, mostly in agreement. I love the subtle sense of mischief, the glib humor, the off-hand exchanges that punctuate the environments. It's delicious to be able to watch an incensed farmer and a stony-faced guard bicker about whether illegal livestock should be cooked on sight and then go window-shopping for plushies in a crowded departure lounge. But there's a chink in every armor, a weak spot for every Achilles. For Wildstar, it's character customization.
Make no mistake. It's not a question of range. Even in closed beta, options are already a-plenty. You start by first selecting a face style -- a template, if you will. From there, it's possible to further refine your avatar's features, to tweak the curve of a nose and add decorative mandibles and fuss until you arrive at something that is wholly yours. My beef with Wildstar is sandwiched in its visual segregation of the sexes.
The male members of both the Exiles and the Dominion are a space-age rainbow of physical idiosyncrasies, one that spans everything from the stoop-shouldered, rabid Drakken to the cotton-candy sugariness of the Aurin. You can be anything you want in Wildstar, my lads. Terrifying or trendy, dapper or despicable; the world is your mollusc of choice. My male Mordesh is a prime example of this wonderful diversity. Though many of the Internet have disparagingly labelled the Mordesh as "zombie space elves", the pie-bald Engineer bears only a token resemblance to our poncy princes of fantasy. He's gloriously hideous. His brain and jaws, swimming in some briny fluid and caged behind translucent glass, are on permanent display. He looks like a drowned carcass, already halfway dismembered by the fishes, hauled up and coerced into a grinning parody of life. I love him.
As enamoured as I am of my cannon-toting, tuna-nibbled darling, here's the rub: I didn't want a boy. It's a conceit familiar to most MMO players. In general, we're often predisposed towards playing what we've grown accustomed to. Whenever I have the opportunity, I make my avatars female and adjust the cant of their eyes just so they're a little closer to the face in my mirror. Not because I want to project myself onto an idealized musculature but because it's easier to be immersed when you're not otherwise, you know, trying to decipher how male hips distribute weight. Ahem. Moving on, with the Exiles I had planned on making an intergalactic Cenobite, dour and grotesque, who preferred the company of automatons over people because social skills are probably difficult when you're a ghoul barely on top of your voracious appetite for flesh, after all.
And I tried. God help me, I tried.
At first, it seemed promising. The Mordesh female get to rock tube-dreds, which I was thought was clever given how the entire species seems to be quarter surgical appliance. I picked that. The face gave more problems. Most of available styles didn't quite appeal - too smooth, too attractive, too savvy-cosmetic-artist-in-face-paint - but I eventually found one that fit the blueprint in my head. My undead grease-monkey-to-be now had cogwork for pupils and eyelids perpetually, painfully restrained by soldered-on metal clamps.
I backed out of the customization screen, prepared to give her a name and tweak other particulars, when disaster struck. My still incognito Mordesh, a slender hand draped over the flare of a hip, didn't look remotely intimidating from a moderate distance. Frustratingly, she barely qualified as "zombie space elf". With enough alcohol and a dark room, you'd almost think she was "anime space elf chick with exaggerated metal eyelashes."
A testosterone-pumped male, it is. Maybe. The urge to own an extraterrestrial female only tangentially akin to humans persists. This is space, the final frontier. I wanted drama. But most of all, I craved phantasmagorically weird. If I couldn't have an alchemical monster, I'd take granite granted life instead. Onto the Granoks!
Hope might spring eternal but character customization was proving to be a landscape of broken dreams. Even ignoring the suspiciously human voluptuousness, the female Granoks make for, well, unconvincing Granoks. Their racial lore dictates that Granoks are boisterous, beer-swilling battle-addicts. They fight. They fall down. They get up again and charge into the new fray, exulting in the mad panic of their enemies. It's fantastic imagery that is telegraphed perfectly in the gargantuan build of the males and the fact they have customization options that allow you to rather literally look like you have had your face smashed in.
In contrast, this is how the females look:
There is a frustrating absence of weight to their characterization. Like every woman in this universe, they stand wide-hipped and wasp-waisted. Their faces are as rounded as their mammaries, framed with either a halo of leaves or what resembles real, fibrous hair cast in plaster. And where their Y-chromosomal counterparts might bear chunks of inscribed facial granite, the female Granoks are restricted to woefully mundane-looking earrings. Earrings. Why the Holy Carpfish of Good Taste would they want to wear ornamentation of such a manner? Big, bold jewelry clipped to the ears seem a ludicrous decoration on a race built on combat, don't they? What if they get ripped out? What if they catch a glint of dying firelight and divulge the Granok's location to hypothetical quarry? Why can't I make my bold, boulder-y lady not pretty?!
Really. Why can't I? I understand that MMOs are a vehicle for personal fantasy, a chance to divorce yourself from however you look and whatever predicament you're currently in. I get that bunny girls sell. Boobs and animal ears are highly marketable. Which is why I'm not questioning the production-line lissomeness. You can keep that, Wildstar. You can. (You could also, maybe, read this amazingly incisive critique on sexual dismorphism, biology, character design and you. Yes. You. In the dev chair.) All I'm asking for here is for you to let me be someone who isn't just an expertly costumed Miss Nexus.
Beauty isn't a one note prima donna. This is not America's Next Top Model. There's a reason as to why Hollywood is routinely lampooned for promoting unrealistic body images. I'm not sure if you were aware but some people think scars are hot. Allow for wrinkles and other grotesqueries, damn it. Not every one of your players are fresh-faced college girls (or straight, white males, for that matter). One of the faces for the Drakken female fills me with uncontrollable amounts of glee. I like that one. It's frightful and that works because the Drakken are meant to be frightful. Bloodthirsty, brutal and aggressive are all adjectives used in conjunction with these horned members of the Dominion. As such, it stands to reason that they shouldn't look like Keira Knightly on break during a monster movie. Similarly, the female Granok should be able to look like grizzled bad-asses because currently, it feels as though all they do is stay at home, make mushroom sandwiches and be fetchingly sassy.
We're still early enough into the development cycle that I'm willing to hold onto the hope that this is just an astonishingly expansive oversight. More customization options will come. When Wildstar finally launches, I will have the luxury of giving my bootylicious Granok with the child-bearing hips a face only another Granok could love. I will be able to design a female Mordesh who doesn't turn heads as much as she causes people to execute panic-stricken 180s and run screaming the opposite way. I will. I hope.
Every Wildstar DevSpeak video I've seen so far has ended with the narrator informing the public that they are listening. Here's praying he wasn't kidding.