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‘Reason, depth and personality, or: the people in my head!’ - writing characters for games

An analysis and reflection of the elements of character development in game storytelling using Salvaged as a reference point.

*This blog originally appeared on the official Salvaged website*

I’ve been reading Reaper Man by the incredible Terry Pratchett recently. For my shame I haven’t read much of his work and was quite late coming to the Discworld party (rather aptly for a game dev my first encounter with Terry Pratchett’s fantasy world was through the PlayStation 1 game, Discworld Noir), but this is something I’m eager to remedy. Though my foray into his stories has been fleeting so far, I’ve come to recognise some very defined points in Pratchett’s writing style; namely, his use of voice to create a world so alive it’s kind of scary. In recognising this I have begun reflecting on the characters of Salvaged (Alex, Thaddeus and Figaro) and the decisions made in their development from page to game.

What makes a good character? Well that’s a HUGE question; too big for little ol’ me to dissect and analyse in this here blog maybe. Oh what the heck, my schedule is pretty clear today.

 

Characterisation

One facet of creating a character is characterisation. Characterisation is what turns a flat character in a three dimensional one. It’s justifies their behaviour. It’s their good side and bad side being fully developed to create a living, breathing soul on the page, on film or in your game. Chances are you might have heard of a ‘character arc’. Character arcs and characterisation go hand-in-hand, in my opinion, in storytelling. If a character is developed they’ll naturally grow through their story and, likewise, if their story changes them their character becomes deeper because of it. Characterisation is the embodiment of where a character has come from, how they survived the coming there of, where they’re going and what drives them to go there. If a fictional character were literally being made perhaps its worth thinking of characterisation as the clay body they’re made of.

When creating Alex I wanted to break her out of the tired and boring ‘Strong Female Character’ (SFC) trope that has become the go-to for game storytellers when creating female characters. Strong characters don’t just come from being physically impeccable and emotionally withdrawn. Strong characters can achieve anything despite any physical limitations they might have, and aren’t afraid of the spectrum of emotions inherent within them. The problem I have with the SFC trope is that it’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the poor realisation of female characters in games previously. Rather than taking the measured time to create believeable characters that do justice to female characters (and diverse male/female casts in general), they have been thrown head long into the barrel with the flat male characters that linger in the pantheon of gaming heroes. Tis a place of square-jawed meatheads are developed by their ability to throw a punch and be as emotionally detached as possible.

We learn about Alex through audio logs revealed throughout the game. She comes from a recognisable background of poverty and struggle. Her being a starship commander is a result of an overwhelming desire to break away from this life and to become something more, and whilst we learn Alex has achieved this goal it comes with a sad price – she can’t bare to return to the slums she grew up in where her parents still live. Alex’s exceptional skill and ambition effectively act as a mask for a personal shame or embarrassment she can’t quite face. I believe Alex doesn’t want to be defined by where she came from but where she’s going, but the emotional price of that is something that even someone as emotionally assured as Alex might not be able to handle. Perhaps if Salvaged 2 happens I’ll be able to explore this idea further.

Thaddeus develops through dialogue with the player herself. As the AI for a starship he has grown into the role of protector and watcher. Whilst he can be everywhere and anywhere within the starship as a disembodied voice, Thad (I can call him that) is still physically detached from the crew. His sense of parental duty has grown during his time working with Alex – in the world of Salvaged, AIs learn through observation – and admiring the way in which she treats her crew as family. Desiring complexity to his own binary emotions, Thad embraces the idea that he is keeping the crew alive as they drift through space to the point he considers himself parent, protector and gatekeeper all at once. I think as a character – and an AI one in the Salvaged universe – he desires purpose and definition from that purpose. AIs strive for recognition as a species; Thaddeus believes having a purpose will give him the fulfilment he seeks.

Finally, Figaro appears as a character through the mission orders he gives the player. Through these small interactions it was possible to develop a character driven by scientific curiosity of the human body and Humanity’s place in a growing universe. Whilst in a position of power within the mega oligarchy called Panopticon, it’s hard to tell whether Figaro is using them for his own ambitions or they are using his ambitions for themselves. Figaro is a corrupted character born from the limitless freedom of being an enemy to Humanity, given licence to unleash every curious idea he might have. Once, I believe, this came from a genuine scientific curiosity but the line between explorer of knowledge and tyrant has become blurred. In some ways, Alex rekindles a respect for Humanity within Figaro but it’s too little too late.

Motivation

Returning to our clay model analogy, the body needs to move, it needs a reason to be. This is a character’s motivation. It’s what drives them through the story (or what drives the story itself?) and gives them a purpose. If we, the audience, believe or empathise with the character’s motivation for what they’re doing it bonds us. Every writer should be able to answer the following question about their characters: what do they want?

For Alex this is two-fold. On the one hand she wants to do the job she’s been hired to do – reach the space station called Roulette, but on the other she wants to find out what happened whilst on Roulette. She is a character seeking clarity for events only partially remembered and how they affect her in the present; being a person used to being in control, this absence of knowledge is an affront to her sensibilities.

Similarly, Thaddeus is also seeking understanding of the events concerning Roulette. The difference between himself and Alex, however, is that where Alex is searching for what she can’t remember, Thad is searching for why he can’t remember. Thaddeus has spent his life seeking definition for his purpose, his reason to exist. If there’s a risk the information he has lost could jeopardise his purpose then he needs to understand it.

Figaro’s motivation isn’t as prominent in the story as either Alex or Thaddeus but it is present. Being the main driver of the story overall, Figaro’s goal is to push the human body (and therefore Humanity) to it’s full potential. This desire comes from a combination of scientific curiosity and conditioning by the Panopticon oligarchy and it’s this desire that cause ripples through the lives of the other characters.

Voice

Our character has flesh and it’s moving onwards towards its destiny but when it speaks only the dry rasping of a dehydrated badger can be heard. Our character needs to find its voice (see, we’ve come full circle back to Terry Pratchett).

Voice, for me, is one of the strongest indicators of personality for a character until they get a chance to develop through characterisation. The first time we meet a character we hear how they speak and the indicators we pick up on in their speech can help to set the initial groundwork for our relationship to a character: are they stoic? Are they eccentric? Are they dour? Optimistic? Pessimistic? Cunning? Cold? Open? It also goes beyond being what a voice actor might bring to the character. A good voice writer should assume their dialogue will never be read aloud, meaning the writing should be strong and clear enough to be heard internally by a reader. If you can’t hear the voice in your head then the writing isn’t doing its job properly.

With this in mind it was very important to get the voices for Alex, Thaddeus and Figaro right from the start and I believe this comes from understanding the characters i.e. their characterisation. In saying that, I knew that Alex is a person who speaks with confidence and clarity as becomes her driven and efficient personality. There is an element of weakness to her voice, however, which shows itself in private. Alex has been hurt before and the effects of that incident are long lasting. Amongst the crew and other salvagers she speaks with strength, but whilst she’s capable of command under pressure she’s given to internalising her emotions until given the chance to dispel them. I believe through Alex’s audio logs the audience will meet a fearless leader who, under the armour she wears, is as fragile as any other human.

Thaddeus was great fun to write. If he were a human he’d be a retired geography teacher. I’ve mentioned how Thad has assumed a form of paternal position within the starship; as such his mannerisms and voice can seem fussy and overbearing at times. I want the player to get a bit tired of his fussing over their wellbeing but should Thaddeus stop doing it have them miss the attention he gives; a bit like the first time you move out and miss having your mum or dad to talk to or tell you to tidy up. There is, however, a bit more to Thaddeus’ voice than being a stuffed shirt. Similarly to how the relationship between a parent and child evolves at the point a child recognises that their parents are actually adults with deep, complicated and powerful emotions, I hope the same happens with Thaddeus. His overbearing and cautious nature belies the depths of his emotional bond with Alex that elevates him from parent to protector.

Figaro is about authority. As a part of the Panopticon oligarchy he is used to exerting his control and power on others. When he first meets Alex he talks down to her – he even refuses to use her name. She is just ‘salvager’ to him, an ends to a means. What I like about Figaro is that, despite his darkness, he’s capable of respect for others without becoming emotionally involved with them. Figaro comes to respect Alex and whilst his tone softens towards her there’s still something empty or hollow about the way he talks. To me, his voice suggests that you want to connect with him but you won’t like what you find.

Phew. Still with us? Have a cookie.

I’ll wrap this up now. There’s probably much more to discuss about how a character is formed in fiction but the trifecta of characterisation, motivation and voice is a good place to start. When creating characters for any fiction it is important to give them reason, depth and personality and I feel this is doubly important in games. As an industry and art form we’re still finding our language and learning to use the language we already have. Cardboard cut out characters served their purpose once upon a time when they existed purely to justify the gameplay experience, but as games evolve and the world becomes more and more aware of them it is important to push our art to be the best it can be at telling good stories with good characters. 

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