Game design: making characters resonate
Character can make a big difference in a game.
As humans, we respond to others when we see them respond to things they encounter. That’s why we like watching movies, and why we love to share our own adventures with others. We have an emotional response when a story resonates and we can relate. This trait can be used as a powerful tool when making games.
I recently played 4 notable indie adventure games: Waking Mars, The Silent Age, Monument Valley, and Tengami. They all stand out in their artistic merit, and in fact, have been promoted in the same game bundles on the app stores. While I enjoyed all of these games, some of them I didn’t finish, and others I bought the sequels to. For me, the difference that kept me playing (or not), was how much the characters pulled me in.
Not all games need characters, but for those that have them, there are many factors for making them work.
Who are you?
Think of the last game you played. How much do you know about the characters? Do you know the protagonist’s name? Why he/she is there? What he wants? What she want to avoid?
We experience the world of the game through the protagonist, whether this is a person, an animal, a geometric shape, etc. The more character you can give the protagonist the better, because he/she/it roots us in the game. Also, we’re likely to (hopefully) be spending a lot of time with this character, so he should be amiable, or at least interesting.
Tengami offers a world built of Japanese folding paper cut-outs. The visuals are gorgeous, and the mechanic of folding and unfolding parts of the landscape is fun and impressive. The story is about a cherry-blossom tree that has lost all of its flowers, and you must navigate this landscape to restore it back to life.
I didn’t get very far in this game, because I quit playing after the first chapter. The protagonist is a (literally) flat character who walks around with no name, no personality, and no back story. He approaches every obstacle and situation with the same response. As beautiful as the game is, I just didn’t get pulled in enough to want to play more.
Monument Valley has a very similar mechanic of manipulating the world to get your character from A to B. It provides a thin character and story, but like in Tengami, you don’t know much about the protagonist. For me, the game mechanics and art design was enough to keep my playing though, and the protagonist’s transformation at the ending was enjoyable.
In contrast, The Silent Age spends a lot of effort creating a character for you get to know, which is what really made the game for me. Joe’s attitude, antics, and funny remarks at just about every move I tried, kept me wanting more. He was enjoyable, endearing, and left me with a bittersweet emotional response to where he ended up at the end.
In Waking Mars, the game designers carefully balanced the pacing of the story, doling out new information, questions, and twists throughout the journey. Not only does this create suspense and curiosity, but it gives a chance to learn more about the main characters, through the conversations they have. We get a sense of their personalities, and see how they respond to new discoveries or dangerous accidents. While the main game mechanics are more involved than Tengami and Monument Valley, the goal is the same — to manipulate the world to get the character from A to B. When I think about Waking Mars however, I think about the characters, rather than the art of the landscapes. This is a much deeper, and more meaningful connection, achieved through the attention given to building character.
NPC’s help fill out the game world, drive the story forward, and most importantly, give the protagonist someone to respond to. They support, push, challenge, and potentially change the protagonist, and perhaps, in turn, you the player. In the movies, a strong antagonist makes for a strong protagonist. And yet, in games, NPC’s are often marginalized, or completely missing. Part of this is due to the technical difficulty of building AI’s, and part of it is because games work differently than movies, but worthwhile NPC’s are possible, and can be used to very good effect.
Monument Valley makes surprisingly good use of NPC’s. The annoying crow-people are introduced as an obstacle in Ida’s way and the end, the impact of the revealed connection between Ida and them (physically and relationally) is directly proportional to how annoying they were to you throughout the game.
At a more interactive level, the connection between Ida and the totem-pole character is surprisingly emotional (especially as the totem-pole’s most expressive feature is just one blinking eye). The totem-pole literally supports Ida, but when he sacrifices himself for her, you feel genuine sadness, and later, surprised delight at his phoenix-like resurrection. Perhaps these interactions resonate so much because we can relate to how lost and alone Ida is on her quest, and how nice it is to have a friend.
Waking Mars makes heavy use of two main NPC’s — the space-suit’s AI and the mission’s controller on base. We only see these characters in dialog boxes, but they become very familiar. They serve as vehicles for delivering game information, but their presence goes beyond pure functionality, adding distinct flavor to the game, and reminding us that the game world extends beyond the cramped cave walls that we are confined to.
The interactions between these characters gives the game designers plenty of opportunities to add more layers to the game, aside from thematic hints in the dialog. The computer is rather annoying, almost too much so, but the fact that the protagonist is annoyed with him as well makes for some comic relief, and creates a bond between player and character.
I am surprised by the character chosen for the controller however. She seems relatively flat to me, her chipper personality forced and on the nose. I think the game designers could have created more tension and been less expository by putting her at odds with the protagonist. For example, she could believe that this exploration is a bad idea, and be worried about the protagonist, feeling responsible for keeping him alive. The protagonist would be focused on the mission and have to assure her that everything is fine, which would make the accident more intense when he realises that her fears came true and now he has lost contact with her. Then establishing contact again would be less of an “Oh, hi, there you are” moment, and much more impacting.
Near the middle of the game, you have the option to take a little “break,” and talk about everything you have uncovered so far. This is interesting, but is mostly expository, and literally pauses the game play. And after that, you can keep talking about “other stuff,” which reveals some nice character and fills out the story’s world, but seems like it is extra content for anyone who happens to stand around talking that long.
The same character revelations could have been peppered throughout to good effect. Imagine how our perception of the firm, mission-minded protagonist changes when we learn he has a sibling back on Earth whom he misses. And our perspective quickly broadens when we learn that the protagonist isn’t just hopping around the caves on his own, but has all of Earth glued to the TV screens to hear news of the latest discoveries. This extra flavor isn’t necessary to the story or game play, but rounds out the characters and the game world.
In The Silent Age (part 2), connecting the dots between the different characters in the present and future has real impact, because you know these characters, and you understand how their lives have changed. Joe responds the same way, and you see how it shapes him. You’re not just watching an interaction, you feel it along with him.
Tools for adding character
Part of the reason we see so many flat characters in games is because animating emotions is technically very difficult. Character shows through in two ways: what you say, and what you do. Larger game companies can make high-resolution, motion-captured characters to show body language and facial expressions, but indie games rarely have that budget or intent, which leaves dialog.
We have two basic ways of doing dialog in a game. One is to use voice over, which can work, but is more difficult to produce (well), and often can have a negative effect (aspiring screenwriters are always advised to avoid voice-overs, as well as flashbacks, for the same reason: they lend themselves too easily to creating exposition instead of driving the story forward).
The alternative is to use some kind of text overlay. Although this technique can have an undesired visual impact on the game, it is very achievable, and can work well. It can give a deeper level of expression than body and facial animations, and best of all, it can give a “voice” to the character. When the characters are developed well enough, text on the screen rarely bothers anyone.
Pitfalls when adding character
The problem with building character is that it is hard. Screenwriters struggle with this constantly. Doing it the wrong can also drive players away from your game.
The one guiding principle is to treat your characters like real people, and give them real responses to everything they encounter.
The main danger, especially when using voice-overs, cut scenes, and NPC’s, is exposition. Exposition is stopping the game long enough to tell the player something they need to know to appreciate what happens next. The way to avoid it is to reveal it through the game play. Or carefully hide it in tension or humor. What ever you do, don’t take the controls away from the player to dish out story (and if you do, keep it as short as possible).
Cliche and bad dialog are two other pitfalls. The only remedy is practice, and improving your writing. Read dialog out loud. Hire a screenwriter. Read screenwriting books.
Be careful of adding character just for color. The story should drive the game play, and the game play should drive the story. And don’t add a puzzle to your game just to add challenge, make them custom-designed for your protagonists. For example, finding the key to escape a room could be made more intense by revealing that your character has claustrophobia, and freaks out more and more until you find the key.
Not only does this make your character more interesting, it opens up the tension-building tricks that screenwriters employ, such as building set-up and pay-off. For example, force your character, that you learned was claustrophobic, to face a very dangerous situation that requires stealth — in a cramped space. Without the set-up from before, the setting and game play would be completely incidental, but when you know more about your character, the situation becomes much more tense.
Games developers today are still trying to understand how narrative and game play can mix, and where the differences lie between movies and games. Some games have found this balance with great success, others, not so much.
When it comes to characters, you can get much more milage and give real-world emotions to your players by making your characters react like real people to everything they encounter in the game world you have created.