The Bipedal Bias: Why So Many Playable Humanoids?

Humans are a predictable bunch. Two arms, two legs, head atop the shoulders, front-facing eyes, opposable thumbs. Basic stuff. Same goes with most vertebrates. Us with a backbone to speak of will never have more than four limbs, excepting species with tails, but even then, it’s only so much of a “limb.” When you pull back even further, most creatures have what’s called bilateral symmetry. That is, you could draw a line somewhere down/across the middle of the body and both halves would be effectively equal. Again, that’s most creatures, excepting things like sponges, sea stars, amongst a few others. It all comes down to growth, evolution, and a bunch of factors I can’t adequately explain or understand.

Keeping this in mind, let us look to our own traditions of fantasy and fiction that begin to break some of these scientific limits: Centaurs, Pegasus (flying horses in general, “pegasuses” doesn’t work), dragons, fairies, etc. Or looking to horror, Lovecraftian shoggoths and Elder Things. The Hutts from Star Wars. The list is expansive and continues far from here, but I shan’t go on and make a list nobody needs to read.

Moving past fiction, if I may, direct your attention to the skies above. Another quandary of science and fiction alike: aliens. Are there any? If so, what do they look like? Can we expect them to fall within the comfortable Star Trek-ian archetype of direct humanoids? Would they follow bipedalism, quadrupedalism; who knows?

Videogames, if I were to make yet another abrupt transition, often try to depict all of the ideas above in some manner or another in their unique guise of interactive entertainment. All nature of creatures, beings, races, and consciousnesses have been depicted in videogames, and being videogames, there are an infinite amount of possibilities to whom, or what, you may be. To name a couple extremes, you can be a goat, or an octopus pretending to be a man. This is to say: you’re not exactly limited in what you can be, if a developer is so inclined.

Problem is: they’re not.

One of the biggest failures of modern videogames are their simplified approach to playable characters/races. It’s not to say there’s a dearth of creativity, because that’s patently untrue. Where lies the issue is with playable races. Even in the most ambitious of titles, say the Elder Scrolls series, you’ll find nary a non-humanoid race. Even with the Argonians, the resident lizard-folk, or the Kahjiit, the local cat-folk, their tails are useless. Accouterments to the basic human shape and form. Would centaurs not fit perfectly into the Elder Scrolls universe? You’d never need a horse, and there are plenty of unique situations that could be written with the complications inherent in such a race. The only examples of playable centaurs, to point them out, would be in the MOBA games League of Legends and Defence of the Ancients (Dota). That’s about it, and that’s only in a point-and-click way, there is no inherent control over the characters themselves. It’s something though, which I can’t help but applaud.

Mass Effect, a game with a staggering abundance of races and body types. The races you can actually have in your party? Humanoids. Perfectly humanoid. Every single one, two arms, two legs, head atop of shoulders, almost always with forward-facing eyes, thumbs; the whole deal. Somehow, in the infinite complexities of space, that’s how it all worked out. Exactly as humans. It’s such a missed opportunity that, on top of the effort that Bioware boasts to put into constructing the universe and believable characters, can’t bring it upon themselves to work different playable creatures into their game. I’m not specifically calling them out, as no other company has been willing, or able, to change this unwritten rule either. Even the geth, a hyper-intelligent race of AI, have a humanoid structure which seems to be simply baffling. All but their “tank” versions of themselves have this strict humanoid form, which seems antithetical to a race of adaptive AI that could just as easily make forms suitable to specific conditions. But then again, I’m not a member of an adaptive AI construct, so what do I know?

Final Fantasy has had a couple of quadrupedal characters, namely Red XIII from Final Fantasy 7, which is great, but nothing any more outlandish than that, to my knowledge. And I don’t see a dog as exactly pushing any boundaries, if I may politely say. Kudos for breaking the humanoid norm, though.

Where are the odd creatures? The funny, bizarre races to play with and control? With such a broad palette available, why has the same colour of paint been used for so long?

Some of the issue may have to do with animating such races. It would require more work than average, and likely twice as much would have to be accounted for in order to make the movement work in some kind of appropriate, logical way. There would also have to be some degree of balance achieved, where the AI and non-playable characters (NPC) would be able to interact with them in an appropriate way. I’m no game designer, so of course take what I have to say with some large degree of skepticism, but if they can animate said creatures as enemies or NPCs, why can’t they be maneuvered into a playable condition? I can’t think of many reasons aside from time and effort. There are so many fascinating creatures that have been invented in so many forms of fiction, yet there always seems to be something stopping developers from going that extra step and making those creatures go from opposition or set pieces to party members or protagonists. Perhaps it’s a problem of relation. The average player may not be able to empathize and connect as well to a non-humanoid. Perhaps that’s true, but perhaps it’s not. It’s happened so little that we really seem to have little to back that up with, excepting secret play-tests over different titles that I have never been privy to. It’s possible.

Is this a small complaint? Sure, I suppose by some degrees it is, but it’s like finding out someone you know is left-handed but always writes with their right hand. You know they write fine, and you would never have known until it was pointed out to you, but you can’t help but imagine the potential, should they ever switch back. In this age of mediocre sequels, unimaginative yearly shooters, and the seemingly infinite creativity of the indie sector, why can’t any of these games with such diverse series of races work and include some of the weird ones into the playable roster? Shake things up a bit. Take things a little less obvious.

I could think of something more convincing to say about the subject, but hey, I’m only human.

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