The Elements of a Good Game: Characters – Part 1
I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what makes various games popular, what makes various games good, and how these two things interact and are related. I have come to the conclusion that I don’t care about what makes a game popular, but I am interested in quality works of creativity. I hate to try to fence quality into neat little categories, but I do tend to think about it in four very broad terms. When it comes right down to it, I think games can be held up and viewed as a competent work only when they satisfy all four of these basic elements. Characters, Story, Gameplay, and Art Design can each prop a game up, but only with them together can a good game be made. You won’t ever see me giving a game scores based on any of these elements, but I like to look at each one and say how the game did, pointing out what was good and what could be improved.
Today, I just want to talk about one of these: Characters. Characters are one of the first things we will care about when put into a game, and often the success of the whole experience will live or die based on the likability of the main cast, and ESPECIALLY the player character or characters. When we’re given control of a character in order to experience a story, it is important that we can relate to them. That doesn’t mean that they have to look or sound like us, or even have much in common with us. What it means is that we need to understand their motivations, their beliefs and goals, and how they respond to situations. Their actions need to make sense to us most of the time, and we should be able to see why they do what they do.
Establishing a character like this is often done as early as possible, so that the player can grow attached to them. From there, you can experience their story and see how it unfolds, and continue to learn new things about them, often gaining new insight and revelations as you go. The important thing is that the basics are clear to the player from the start. Of course, like all art, doing it differently can also be effective, but risky. The worst thing a writer can do is make a character who frequently acts contrary to their established personality, or does stupid things for no reason. This will alienate a player faster than it takes to hit the power switch on a Wiimote (or whatever console you choose). To illustrate: we understand Mario as a character, we know that if Bowser kidnaps the Princess, he will give chase. That’s what he does, it’s his motivation to retrieve her, and he can’t ignore that. The world may be nonsensical, but at its heart we relate to a guy who just wants his lady back. To have him do nothing would be as out of character as having Batman shoot someone; it runs contrary to their characterization, and the audience can tell immediately.
Just like real people in real life, the possibilities for a character are endless. This is an easy place to attempt to be interesting or unique, but sadly, most games avoid it and go with something clichéd, like a space marine tough guy. This bothers me, because when making a character, you have control of everything about them. You can choose their race, age, place, back story, neuroses, experiences, relationships, job, physical appearance, language, etc. There’s no end to the options if the character is believable in the setting.
Video games usually have about three different types of main character, and there are pros and cons to each. Very generally speaking, you can have a silent protagonist that we don’t know much about who simply follows the plot, a known protagonist with an established character that doesn’t change, or a middle-of-the-road protagonist who the player can make choices with, allowing control of their development.
Some examples of silent protagonists with little background include Gordon Freeman, Link, or Agent 47. We don’t know what they think, or much beyond why they do what they do other than “it’s the right thing”, or “it’s my job”, or “it’s what it takes to survive”. We don’t have a clear grasp on their background, just some bare facts and vague information, and they spend all their time keeping quiet about it. It’s easy for a player to get into playing as these guys, but difficult to relate, due to the lack of information. Still, they work, and they allow you to experience the story firsthand, and usually end up being more of a conduit than actual person.
Known protagonists usually talk, and depending on the kind of game, they might talk a great deal indeed. We get to know them, and generally the game will hide one or two secrets about them to make for a shocking reveal later on. Known characters are people like Batman, Phoenix Wright, or Tidus. We experience the story through them, but we don’t really make character decisions for them, we just see what they do. This can be good or bad, because it is really important that the known character is someone the player likes. You don’t want to play as someone you hate, except for maybe the perverse and fleeting pleasure of getting them killed. Also, as long as the player likes them, they don’t have to be particularly interesting in concept, as long as they do things that are entertaining to the player. Phoenix Wright is a good example here, he’s just a defense attorney. He’s a straight man to all the wackiness in his world, and he’s an enjoyable character because of his reactions to the situations he’s in. The opposite of this is making a character that has tons of interesting qualities, but is hated by the player. Tidus is a famous and talented athlete, and all the women love him. However, the player (usually) ends up hating him because he’s dumber than Jersey Shore.
The last kind of protagonist is one who has choices made for them by the player, and these have become much more popular in the past few years, mostly due to “morality” systems that seem to be prevalent in every game these days. These characters are people like Adam Jensen, Commander Shepard, and The Lone Wanderer. Now, I don’t want to get into morality systems, superfluous or otherwise, but I will say that players like choices, as long as they make sense. This usually means having more options than A) eat kitten or B) adopt kitten. Not having options that appeal to the player is a good way to frustrate them, although I will say that it is impossible to take all options into account, even for the best developers.
Once a character is established, it’s common to have things happen to them. This is straying into the topic of Story, so I won’t go too far yet. However, it’s important that characters be tested through hardships and tough decisions, so that players can see what they do, or even decide the best course of action for them. If they are liked by the player, then we are glad to see them succeed, and sad when they fail. If we don’t care, then it’s just more time we could spend playing something else. Getting a player to empathize with a character is at once one of most important and most overlooked parts of a video game.
One of the most powerful tools in developer’s kit is voice acting. The right VA can evoke emphasis and emotions where the player would have felt nothing. I can enjoy games that are text only, and many that I love don’t have voice acting. Still, it’s easy to get a player caught up in the thrill of victory when the characters are audibly excited as well, and easier to empathize with a character who actually sounds sad. This is something that many people feel is extraneous, but some characters can truly be brought to life through voice.
Wrapping up, I just want to remind you that this post is entirely subjective, and is only based on my experiences in over two decades of playing, watching, talking about, and thinking about video games. Parts of it can apply to other creative mediums, and there are exceptions to everything I say here. I won’t be offended if you think I’m full of it, and as always, appreciate feedback. At some point I do intend to share some of my own creative works, so that you can see if I follow my own rules.