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Elden Ring’s character creator fails Black players

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Most of you playing Elden Ring are probably knee-deep in the Lands Between, getting your shit rocked by that asshole on the horse, but my mind hasn’t left the game’s first menus. Though the many classes present a paralyzing wealth of options, it’s not the question of what class to play that has me stuck. It’s the character creator. I’m stymied by the bizarrely incongruous system that allows for an unprecedented level of control of every minute detail of facial feature but only has one kinky hair option.

I didn’t expect much from Elden Ring’s character creator. FromSoftware games have a bit of a reputation for being kinda bad at character creation, especially regarding skin. In Bloodborne, skin colors and textures were distinctly unnatural-looking. My character was this orangey-looking mess of a human, and there were precisely zero kinky hair options.

Elden Ring is a decided step up. Skin colors and face shading look natural. I tinkered with it for a good hour, setting my sliders just right to make an avatar that I think looks as much like me as I can get.

For the first time in a FromSoftware game, I can make a character who looks like a real human instead of the near approximation of one. Elden Ring’s character creator is also, technically, a step up because instead of having no kinky hair options like in Bloodborne, they have one — an afro — and an ugly one at that.

There will likely be the temptation to think this omission doesn’t matter for any number of reasons. But the Elden Ring subreddit already has multiple threads of players showing off their creations, excited by how good or funny they look, fully aware that all that hard work is going to get covered by a helmet. There are also Soulsborne communities dedicated to using character creators to make avatars of famous people or characters from other games. Black Japanese people exist. It all matters.

I’m a character creator aficionado. It’s an enduring obsession born from the days of the dress-up flash games in the early aughts. Playing with a character creator is one of my favorite forms of expression. I delight in fiddling with them, using them as a kind of blank canvas with which I can test new hairstyles and makeup colors that I could then use on my real flesh. Before I cut off all my hair last January, I remember tooling with a Picrew game, testing what a nearly bald head might look like on me. I enjoyed it so much that when I cut off my hair for real, I felt no anxiety about what I would look like or if I’d like it.

Character creators are also a place in which I am uniquely made aware of my race. Make no mistake, America delights in reminding me daily that I am a Black woman and that it, through the systems that spawned and continue to define it, utterly hates me and other marginalized people. Character creators contribute to that weird feeling of awareness of one’s “difference” through the options its developers deem worthy of inclusion. Hair is one of those options. Nothing makes me feel more different than when a game fails to include at least some kinky hairstyles. A game will, as Elden Ring does, have over 20 different styles of straight hair, accounting for different lengths, styles of curl, parts, braids, even the complete absence of hair. But will it not include a type that an entire continent of people have? That math is not mathing.

Elden Ring’s hair omission is glaring within its own system. How is it that I, through the prolific number of sliders and color wheels, can create the proudest-looking, Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostril-having character who ever walked the Lands Between, but I can’t give her baby hairs to match?

This isn’t just an Elden Ring problem; it’s a video game problem. For many years, players of color have had to mod in things like kinky hairstyles and better, more authentic-looking skin tones in order to have the kind of representation that white players get by default. Games with a customizable protagonist are nearly always represented with a white-passing avatar. And when games do include Black hairstyles, it’s almost always only a fade and an afro, which are the go-to styles whenever a character creator wants to give the appearance of inclusivity while not actually being all that inclusive. (Looking at you, Mass Effect.)

The situation is improving. I’m heartened by games like Baldur’s Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, which have a decent amount of diverse and accurate-looking hairstyles. Even games that don’t have a character creator like Horizon Forbidden West, make me excited for what is possible. The Black characters in that game are some of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m hopeful for a day when we get a character as good-looking as Varl leading a franchise instead of playing second fiddle.

Not having a diverse number of hairstyles ultimately doesn’t diminish my experience with Elden Ring. The game is pretty damn great, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t that much of a FromSoftware fan. I just don’t understand how a game, after numerous, numerous calls for greater diversity and developers acknowledging its Black community members through Black Lives Matter posts and well wishes during Black History Month, can still fail to account for Black players. It’s certainly a choice in the year 2022, one that unfortunately reinforces a culture of exclusion already endemic to video games.

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