The Elements of a Good Game: Characters – Part 2 – Further Characterization
Ugh, I can already tell that this title system is going to get horrible. I’m really sorry for the ridiculously long name, I just felt like I had more to say on the subject of characterization and wanted to get past the basics that I talked about last week. I’ll preface this by saying that most of this advice is pretty subjective, and there really aren’t any hard and fast rules for fictional characters. All I want to convey are general ideas that I’ve gathered from my experience and education.
When I look at characters that I consider to be fully-formed and well-made, I see that they feel like a real person. If you can ever look at someone in a video game (or any work of fiction) and say “yes, they seem like an actual living being that I could meet”, then something about them is clearly working right. At the very least, they need to make sense as a conceit of the setting, even if the setting is too alien to seem like a real place.
There are many parts of the human experience that are universal. Most of these things are mundane (the need to eat, sleep, breathe, etc), but the important thing is that we all understand these concepts. A character design can incorporate things like this to seem real. When a character is caught underwater and starts to drown, if the setup is working, players experiencing this part of the game might start to hold their breath in sympathy, or feel their own chest tighten involuntarily. Similarly, we all get that heady rush when a character falls long distances, because we understand what will happen at the bottom of that fall. Obviously, these things are normal, and we only notice them if they are omitted. Unless they are explicitly superhuman, characters that ignore these kinds of things will break our suspension of disbelief and take us out of the experience. These are simple things that make sense.
However, when we talk about traits that every character shares, it’s not always that easy. Something that I notice about fiction, particularly video games, is that no one, or at least not the player character, has a hobby, or any kind of focus other than the main overarching plot. This is silly, but often overlooked. I don’t care how boring your character is, or how devoted to the mission they are, everybody in the entire world has a hobby, or at least some kind of mental distraction. A character that never ever stops and takes time to talk or think about ANYTHING else is a character that is on the short road to insanity.
Think about it: Harry Potter plays Quidditch, Captain Kirk climbs mountains and romances ladies, and Jack Sparrow gets drunk. They blow off steam. We all understand the need to distract ourselves, and when I see characters that never do anything else, I dismiss them as impossible and unrelatable. Sidequests and mini-games can fill this role in videogames, if nothing else. Squall can stop and play cards with people, the Courier can gamble and play Caravan, and in GTA you can hijack cars and free-roam. The point is, we know how people work, and we know that focusing only on one thing for long periods at a time can be maddening. Of course, it’s also important that characters do not stop to partake in unrelated activities during times of great duress. It never seemed right that Cloud could breed chocobos with Meteor looming overhead, looking like a giant basketball about to score a dunk in the Earth.
Attitudes and Moods
Video games usually get cut a lot of slack on character attitudes. What I mean is that when making characters that are different, usually each one will be assigned a stereotypical attitude, i.e. jerk, upbeat guy, paranoid guy, etc. Obviously it’s never so simple in real life. Yes, most people do have a specific personality and attitude, but not as often to the extremes we see in video games. Everyone has their own good and bad days, and moods can change over time. It’s never as direct as saying “this person is always happy” because we don’t know anyone in real life who is always that bright and sunny all the time no matter what. This is probably one of the harder parts of character design in my opinion, because to know what your character would be feeling at any point is to know your character inside and out.
One great way to get your player involved in your character is to have their mood reflect on their actions. If a character is having a really bad day, and is just sick of it, they may make decisions rashly and attack people wildly. When Sector 7 is destroyed in FF7, Barrett freaks out and starts firing his gun wildly and yelling the names of his fallen comrades and daughter. It’s a good character moment, because we can see him lashing out in anger and despair. Characters that are overcome with sadness may not be able to do anything or become motivated, having given up. This is Frodo after Gandalf dies, he’s sad and stuck in a daze and needs the other characters to help him. These feelings are real to the character, and when portrayed correctly, real to the player as well. Characters cannot be soulless automatons (unless they actually ARE, I guess) and still feel real.
I think one more section on characters should wrap this up for me, at least for now. I’ve barely scratched the surface.