I’m fairly confident there’s no consensus on the matter.
That said, the simple act of inputting such information changes many players’ perceptions of the game even if said information is not used again. This can even improve players’ engagement with the game and emotional attachment with their characters. Sometimes, this may be related to their ability to represent themselves within the game. Other times, it may be the questions or options directly caused the players to consider an aspect or attribute of their characters they wouldn’t have normally brought their imagination to bear on.
For example, while scars are to be expected among characters routinely engaged in violence, they’re so far outside my daily experience I don’t even think about giving them to my characters… unless a game explicitly asks me about them. And then I add them to the considerations for the character. And if I end up decided a scar or three actually is appropriate for the character, I stop and take more time to consider how she got the scar(s) in the first place. I create more “backstory” for my character, and understand her more completely, all because the game asked me an otherwise superfluous question about her appearance.
I’ve noticed a fairly common complaint among players who dislike physical descriptions of their MCs seems to be something along the lines of “Well, you can just imagine her appearing however you want, so why do you want to ‘officially’ describe her in-game?” I honestly can’t understand this line of thinking. Creating a character’s appearance is a minigame in and of itself. Sometimes, it goes beyond, and is a complete game. It’s fun. By itself, without any real connection to anything else, it’s still fun.
Would you consider saying “Well, you can imagine your character romancing whoever you want, so why do you want to ‘officially’ describe the date in-game?” After all, who your MC does (or doesn’t) romance has no real bearing on whether she solves the mystery and arrests the murderer, or wins the battle and defeats the necromancer, or flies the helicopter through a storm to pluck survivors from the deck of a sinking ship. So why bother including romance at all?
Because it matters.
Because it’s worth it.
Independent of anything else, it’s worthwhile. It matters entirely on its own merits, even if it doesn’t sculpt the major events of the plot.
I strongly believe providing options for customizing characters is much the same as providing options for those characters to romance. I strongly believe it’s worth it on its own merits, independent of its influence elsewhere in the game. Sure, some players will enjoy it, while other players won’t. Some players gladly throw themselves in, others would rather avoid it. How do we handle that with romance? How should we handle that with character customization?
We let players who dislike it skip it.
Mandatory character customization should probably go the way of the dodo. Or rather, the way of mandatory romance. Unless the entire point of the game is romance, we don’t want it to be mandatory. Unless the entire point of the game is customizing a character’s appearance, we probably shouldn’t be making that mandatory either. And some games are just as well off skipping it entirely… though most games should include some level of it as an option.
Now, there has been one fairly major thing I’ve been dancing around and ignoring throughout this whole reply. I mentioned it in passing at the beginning, and haven’t returned to discuss it.
Frankly, I don’t feel qualified to.
But minority representation matters.
If you don’t bother including options to be a woman, or to be Asian, or to have one leg end at the knee… do such people actually exist in the game, or is it just another “sausage fest” of straight, white, able-bodied men like so much mainstream media? When you add options, you’re explicitly saying “All these different kinds of people exist in this game, even though it’s okay if you chose the familiar option.” You’re indicating those characters exist in all versions and instances of the game. Leave those options out, and while I can imagine they continue to exist when I’m playing, do they still exist when someone else plays?
I’m really not the right person to discuss this particular aspect of the topic, so I won’t be going any further into it. I apologize for bringing up something so important and sensitive then promptly bailing out of the discussion. I understand it’s not exactly fair of me, and I am sorry.
Going back to what I was saying earlier, I genuinely believe this is typically worth including even if, like romance, it’s almost always best when optional.
Perhaps we should have a separate discussion on how to set up character customization so that it can be engaging for as many players as possible, and boring for as few as possible. What kind of traits and attributes are more likely to tempt players into pausing to think about what it means for their MCs’ pasts and futures… and what kind of traits and attributes have become so generic players are more likely to click through with a “Yeah, whatever. Next.”