Human bodies come in all sorts. My body presents to the world with hearing aids, a moderately prominent limp, my face has sun damage, my belly has a bit of fat, and I bind my chest. My late partner Susan was short, bald, pale, curvy, very large chested, used a wheelchair, and had a leg amputation which she sometimes wore a prosthetic for. My partner Tubi is tall, very thin, olive-skinned, she’s a hijabi, and her neck and chest are covered in burn scars. These are our “default” presentations to the world. People come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and disabilities. But you’d never guess that if pre-designed characters in video games were where you looked.
Games are making progress with racial and ethnic inclusion (though hair options for Black characters still have a very long way to go) but body diversity is still a thing games don’t seem to know exists.
Accessorize with Prosthetics and Pronouns
Forza Horizon 5 aims to change that with the series’ first customizable characters. Unlike Horizon 3 and 4 in which players select their avatar from a collection of non-customizable people, 5 allows for a moderate amount of customization.
Players can change their hair, their clothes, and for the first time, change their pronouns from he/him, she/her, and they/them. And there are prosthetic limb choices as well! I was thrilled to see this upon launching the game but the more I played around with my character’s identity, the more that identity began to feel like an accessory and not true inclusion.
Shown in the video above are all the character defaults. And though there are pronoun options and prosthetic options for everyone, Forza Horizon 5 suffers from what I’ll call the “default problem.” All of the masculine appearing characters default to he/him pronouns and all of the feminine appearing characters default to she/her. Not one of the two dozen or so choices default to they/them.
And the same is true for prosthetics. The option to add them is there but nobody defaults to having a prosthetic limb. While I do want to applaud the Playground team for having this inclusion that is present in so few games, I can’t help but feel that it’s a little bit…”Here are the normal characters and you can change them if you want.”
Sure, including disabled and nonbinary default characters would anger the loud minority but they are the minority among people who play games, no matter how loud and awful they may be. Eventually, this is a risk the highly anticipated franchises will have to take. Piss off and lose your trolls to embrace a wider community and player base.
There was such a missed opportunity to have real inclusion both gender identity and with prosthetic limbs in Forza Horizon 5. Instead, both are treated like an accessory when that is simply not indicative of reality. As a nonbinary person using they/them pronouns, I don’t really feel represented in the options available because no one like me is there by default. And I know Susan would feel similarly with the prosthetic limbs.
Not Your Funny Fat Friend
But this is not to say Playground didn’t get any sort of inclusion right. So often in games with pre-designed player character choices, the default is slim for women, somewhat muscular for men, and nonexistent for nonbinary people.
Default might come with glasses but default never comes with hearing aids or wheelchairs. Default has breasts or pecs. Default has shapely ankles. Default doesn’t use a prosthetic eye. Default women are not bald, default men are bald, never balding. Default is never fat. This is particularly true in photo-real games where stylized games tend to do a bit better.
The same is often true for prominent NPCs and companions. Though there’s a frequent stereotypical caveat in this category. There are numerous prominent fat characters but so much of the time, they play on a stereotype. They’re the lazy slob, or the funny fat friend, or the bitter villain. We’re slowly seeing progress with the inclusion of prominent and playable characters that are fat and it’s not a story beat or stereotype in characters such as Harmony from Destruction All Stars, Wedge in Final Fantasy 7, and the Onion Knight in Dark Souls. But it’s still such a rarity.
This is why Ramiro in Forza Horizon 5 caught me by surprise.
In a game world full of “ideal” bodies and prosthetic accessories, Ramiro leads the Horizon Festival with a fat/chubby/husky/your-preferred-term-here body.
It was so refreshing to see a realistic (ish) game genre filled usually with one and only one body type, have Ramiro in such an important role. Granted, in the Horizon world, hearing aid and wheelchair users don’t drive cars (idea for new accessories in the Wheelspins?) nonbinary people don’t exist by default, and players can’t be anything but thin or muscular, but it’s nice to see the slightest bit of body diversity being included in the fantastical racing world that is commonly filled with “fabulous” bodies driving their fabulous cars.
It’s a Long Road
Forza Horizon and games still have a very long way to go before they can actually be considered inclusive. We need to shed the white default, we need just as many Black hair choices as other types in character creation, and we need more and better disability representation. But Playground’s choice to include prosthetic limb options and more and more games allowing players to have they/them pronouns for their characters is progress.
Now? Just let disabled be default sometimes.