A lengthy piece on characterization

On characterization

One of the first things my early testers commented on was how you didn’t really feel like you knew the protagonist (or other major characters). They expected to understand the characters’ personalities and motivations very early on, preferably during the first few sequences of playing. This surprised me a bit.

I asked “how are you supposed to know a character after mere minutes of playing?” I asked this to myself, not anyone else. I would never question anyone’s critique – there’s always some merit to it. I simply had to accept that players expect to understand computer game characters and their personalities almost immediately.

I attribute this phenomenon to the fact that a player has a more direct, intimate, relationship with the protagonist than the reader of a book. While a book reader is merely an observer, a player becomes the protagonist to an extent, and if their motives don’t match, the player will experience disbelief and disengagement. It’s not a question of sharing moral views or values – there are plenty of games that feature “evil” protagonists that most players will likely accept to control – but the player must at least feel like they’re striving towards the same goal.

Avoiding over-explicitness

When writing fiction, good writers typically build characters by letting them act or speak (or think thoughts) consistently with their personalities, rather than by describing these traits explicitly. Only in cheaper literature will the reader be instructed how to interpret a character, instead of encouraged to draw their own conclusions.

In games with no literary ambitions, personalities are stereotypical and exaggerated. How do you know a character is depressed? Because every remark s/he offers is entirely drenched with sarcasm and despondency. How do you know someone is good with computers? Easy, he is precocious and wears nerdy glasses. How do you speak if you’re a funny guy? You crack a joke, for each and every dialogue line. In reality, depressed people may act overly happy, or at least neutral enough to hide their inner state, cool people also like computers, and even the greatest comedians go through phases of introversion or just boredom.

There is a time aspect here. A book may convey much more information per given time unit than a game, since a game is only partly about giving information. Read a book for an hour, and you may have received lots of subtle hints on how to interpret a certain character – literary devices such as adverbs, disjuncts, etc. Play a game for an hour, and you may have seen the protagonist trying to find a nickle to unscrew a panel. It’s hard to unscrew panels in an idiosyncratic way; you either succeed or you fail.

Consider that dialogues tend to make a book lighter, but a game heavier. Start off the game with a lengthy conversation (with the intention to establish the characters), and half the players will have switched to Minecraft before it’s over. Being that pressed for time, no wonder game designers resort to stereotypes and clichées.

Player freedom vs. characterization

So, if the key method for understanding a character is by observing what he says or does (instead of over-explicit descriptions), then how should this be carried out in a game, where the player is supposed to control exactly that ?

Every time you reveal a piece of information that helps creating a personality, you take away player freedom.

In most RPGs, the main character tends to not express feelings or thoughts about events in the game world – the player should be the one having opinions. In such games, the protagonist is more of an avatar, a vessel meant to blindly reflect the player’s mind, its characteristics being more or less what the player wants them to be.

In adventure games, conversely, this poses more of a dilemma. The majority of adventure games (typically being literary, or story-driven, in their design) feature protagonists that are meant to have strong opinions, motivations and feelings about whatever is going on during the course of the game, all while being controlled by the player.

So while RPGs (and certain other genres) offer the task of building the character to the player, adventure games are a bit split here. Some choices are yours to make, others not. You may sometimes make moral decisions, other times not. Most games will offer purely mechanical tasks to the player (pick up this, travel to there), and leave interpersonal interactions to the character. This way, the player cannot alter the personality of the protagonist.

The question arises: How can you combine good characterization with player freedom?

In fact, a better question is: How can you offer any freedom to player, without risking that the protagonist suddenly is forced out of character?

Superfluous freedom

If we analyze how games in general let the player choose dialogue options, we will find two categories:

  1. The player may choose an option that they think matches the personality of the protagonist, alternatively an option that helps building the character.
  2. The player may choose an option in order to solve a problem, and will “read” the game as if the protagonist acted in a certain way, because the situation called for it.

Many games offer choices that fall under 1) without really finding a use for it. Why would a game let the player make the protagonist act inconsistently? Why is there an option to be rude towards the bartender, if this rudeness is not a deliberate method of solving a puzzle (extracting valuable information), and if this rudeness isn’t somehow recorded and stored, accumulated by other impolite actions? Especially if the game can let the player choose a polite option next time, again with no direct consequences. Well, the game could reward the player for letting the protagonist act consistently with their personality traits, but more often the game only rewards the player for choosing the correct option.

Conclusion

We designers must choose how a character is built. Ultimately, characters can be either:

a)      predefined, and unaffected by player decisions (player control is restricted to mechanical tasks)

b)      defined by player decisions. The game records all choices that can define the character, and may or may not add or alter the game as a result.

If you choose a), all you need to worry about is how you give information about the character in a way that doesn’t feel too over-explicit. Add subtle hints, work a lot with dialogues, add background information in short cut-scenes, flashbacks, thoughts, dreams. Just make sure not to offer the player choices that might contradict the protagonist’s personality, intentions and motives.

If you go with b), be prepared for a lot of work. You must be careful not to give too much information, as this will restrict player freedom. You must also make sure the game offers pertinent choices (choices that actually express a personality), and that the decisions are recorded, and somehow reflected in an end result.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A lengthy piece on characterization

  1. Thomas

    Dear Petter,

    I just remembered your site for TSP and read through your posts. Very informative, and it makes me fell happy to somehow be a part of this project by having supported your indiegogo-campaign 🙂
    This post about characterization was very informative, since as a gamer one always is confronted with this stuff, but one never sees the massive amount of work that was necessary to give the experience of a “real” character with motivations and opinions. I hope you’ll find a good way to make us gamers understand the characters – at least it sounds like you know what you’re up to 🙂
    And the former post about the game art was very nice, too. I really enjoy seeing creative people at work, and you are obviously quite talented, judging from the fairy-tell (tale?) world scene. I’m more and more looking forward to playing TSP! 🙂

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