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As a game developer, you want your characters to be more than just a digital representation on the screen. You need them to be relatable, memorable, and unique.

Oleksandra Antoniuk, Blogger

June 29, 2023

13 Min Read

Introduction to Character Backstories

We will introduce the importance of character development in video games and explain how well-crafted backstories contribute to player engagement and immersion.

The Fundamentals

Character backstories are the history, motivations, and personality traits that shape a character's identity. They are the foundation upon which the character is built. Without a backstory, a character is just a generic archetype that lacks depth or relatability.

The Role of Backstories in Character Development

Character development is the process of creating a fictional character and giving them a personality, backstory, and arc. It's the art of making a character feel like a real person, with flaws, desires, and emotions. Character development is essential in video games because it allows players to relate to the character, empathize with them, and care about their journey. Without character development, a game is just a collection of mechanics and graphics.

Backstories are an integral part of character development because they provide the character's history and context. They explain why the character is the way they are and what motivates them. A backstory can be as simple as a childhood trauma that shaped the character's personality or as complex as a family lineage that spans generations. Backstories can also provide a character's strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, and their relationships with other characters in the game. All of these elements combine to create a fully realized character that feels like a real person.

One example of a well-crafted backstory is Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher series. Geralt is a monster hunter who travels the land, fighting creatures and solving problems for people. His backstory is that he was trained as a witcher from a young age, undergoing a grueling process of mutations that gave him enhanced senses and abilities. The witcher order is shunned by society, and Geralt is often discriminated against because of his appearance and profession. This backstory explains why Geralt is a loner, cynical, and sometimes sarcastic. It also provides a reason why he is so good at his job and why he takes it seriously. Geralt's backstory is an integral part of his character, and it makes him more than just a "monster hunter." It makes him a complex, multifaceted character that players can relate to and care about.

The Impact of Backstories on Player Engagement and Immersion

Player engagement and immersion are crucial elements in video games. They are what makes us want to keep playing, to explore the game world, and to experience the story. Backstories play a significant role in player engagement and immersion because they create a connection between the player and the character. When we know a character's backstory, we can understand their motivations and actions. We can empathize with them and feel invested in their journey. Backstories also provide context and meaning to the game's events and conflicts. When we know why a character is doing something, we can appreciate the significance of their actions.

Backstories can also create a sense of anticipation and excitement. When we know a character's backstory, we can predict their actions and outcomes. We can speculate on how they will react to certain events and how they will grow and change throughout the game. This anticipation can create a sense of investment in the character's journey and make us more engaged in the game's narrative.

One example of a game that uses backstories to create player engagement and immersion is Mass Effect. In Mass Effect, players control Commander Shepard, a human soldier tasked with saving the galaxy from an ancient threat. Shepard's backstory is customizable, allowing players to choose their gender, appearance, and background. The backstory affects how other characters perceive and interact with Shepard throughout the game. It also provides context for Shepard's motivations and actions. For example, if players choose a backstory where Shepard was a survivor of a planetary attack, they will have a more personal connection to the game's main conflict. The player's investment in Shepard's journey is what makes Mass Effect such a beloved game series.

Step-by-Step Guide

Before we dive into the step-by-step process, it’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating character backstories. Every character is unique and requires a different approach. However, this guide will provide a framework that you can use to develop a backstory that works for your game.

Define Your Character’s Personality and Traits

The first step in creating a character backstory is defining the character's personality and traits. This will help you understand how the character will act and react in different situations throughout the game. Think about what motivates your character and what their goals are. Are they driven by a desire for power? Are they trying to right a wrong? Are they seeking redemption?

Once you have a sense of your character's personality and traits, you can start to think about their backstory. For example, if your character is motivated by a desire for power, you might explore their childhood and look for events that could have shaped this desire. Perhaps they grew up in poverty and saw how those with power could control their own destiny. Or maybe they were bullied as a child and want to gain power to protect themselves.

It’s also important to consider your character's flaws and weaknesses. No one is perfect, and your character shouldn't be either. Flaws and weaknesses can make characters more relatable and interesting. Think about what your character struggles with and how these struggles might affect their decisions and actions.

Explore Your Character’s Past

Once you have a sense of your character's personality and traits, you can start to explore their past. This is where you can start to build out the character's backstory and create the events and experiences that have shaped who they are.

When exploring your character's past, think about key events and experiences that have shaped their personality and traits. Consider their family and friends, their education and career, and any significant life events such as marriages, deaths, or tragedies.

It’s also important to consider the setting and world that your character lives in. How does the world around them shape their experiences and beliefs? How does their culture or society impact their decisions and actions?

Create Conflict and Tension

Characters that face conflict and tension are often the most interesting. When crafting your character's backstory, think about the conflicts and challenges they have faced or are currently facing. This can include internal conflicts such as struggles with addiction or mental health, or external conflicts such as battles with enemies or oppressive governments.

Conflict and tension can also be created through relationships with other characters. Consider the character's family, friends, and enemies. What conflicts or tensions exist between them? How do these relationships impact the character's decisions and actions?

Finally, think about how the character's backstory can create conflict and tension within the game itself. What obstacles will the character face as they try to achieve their goals? How will their backstory impact the game's plot and story? 

Think about Relationships

Relationships are an essential part of character backstories. They provide context and depth to your character's personality and motivations. For example, a character who is fiercely protective of their family or a character who is haunted by a past romantic relationship.

When creating relationships, think about diversity. Include relationships with characters of different ages, genders, and backgrounds. This will add depth to your character and create opportunities for conflict and growth.

Additionally, make sure that each relationship serves a purpose in the story. Don't add relationships just for the sake of having them. Each relationship should add something unique to the story and the character's development.

Allow the Character to Grow

Character growth and arcs are what make a character's backstory truly compelling. Your character should not remain the same throughout the story. They should face challenges and obstacles that force them to change and grow.

One way to allow for character growth is by giving your players choices that shape the character's development. For example, allowing players to choose whether their character takes a selfless or selfish action can have a significant impact on the character's growth.

Another way to allow for character growth is by giving your character a flaw that they must overcome. This flaw can be a character trait or behavior that is holding them back. For example, a character who is too trusting must learn to be more cautious.

Case Studies

Let's dive in and explore the intricate and fascinating backstories of beloved video game characters.

Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider Series

Lara Croft is one of the most recognizable video game characters of all time. She first appeared in the original Tomb Raider game in 1996 and has since become a cultural icon. Lara's backstory is an essential part of her character and has evolved over the years through various games, movies, and comics.

Lara's backstory is steeped in tragedy and loss. She was born into a wealthy British family and had a privileged upbringing. However, her parents died when she was a young girl, leaving her an orphan. This loss had a profound impact on Lara and shaped her into the fearless adventurer we know today.

Furthermore, Lara's backstory gives context to her actions and motivations. She is driven by a desire to uncover the truth about her family's past and to honor their memory. Her passion for archaeology and adventure is fueled by her need to understand her place in the world and to make a name for herself outside of her family's legacy.

Joel from The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a critically acclaimed video game that tells the story of a man named Joel and a young girl named Ellie as they navigate a post-apocalyptic world. Joel's backstory is a crucial part of the game's narrative and provides insight into his actions and motivations throughout the story.

Joel's backstory is tragic and heartbreaking. He was a single father to a young daughter named Sarah when a fungal infection swept the world, turning many people into violent, zombie-like creatures. Joel and Sarah were separated during the chaos of the outbreak, and Joel was forced to watch as his daughter was killed by a soldier in the chaos that ensued.

Joel's backstory provides context for his actions throughout the game. He is a man who has lost everything and is driven by a desire to protect those he cares about at all costs. His relationship with Ellie, the young girl he is tasked with protecting, is complicated and nuanced, and is informed by his past trauma.

Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher Series

The Witcher series is a collection of video games based on the books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The games follow the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities. Geralt's backstory is an essential part of his character and informs his actions and relationships throughout the series.

Geralt's backstory is complex and multifaceted. He was taken in by a group of monster hunters at a young age and trained in their ways. However, Geralt was also subjected to a series of genetic modifications that gave him his supernatural abilities. These modifications also made Geralt an outcast, as he was no longer fully human.

Geralt's backstory provides insight into his relationships with other characters in the game. He is a man who has been through a lot of trauma and has had to make difficult choices throughout his life. His relationship with his love interest, Yennefer, is complicated by their shared past, and his friendship with his sidekick, Dandelion, is informed by their shared experiences as outcasts.

Implementation in Game Design

Today’s gamers crave rich, immersive experiences that transport them to another world and allow them to fully engage with the characters they encounter. One effective way to achieve this level of immersion is by incorporating character backstories into the game design process.

Dialogue

One of the most effective ways to incorporate character backstories into a game is through dialogue. By having characters reveal details about their pasts through conversations with other characters, players can learn about their motivations, fears, and desires in a natural and organic way.

For example, imagine a game where the player controls a young detective who is investigating a series of murders. As the player interviews witnesses and suspects, they learn more about the victims and the killer, including the killer’s backstory. Through these conversations, the player gains a deeper understanding of the killer’s motivations and the events that led them to commit these heinous crimes. This understanding creates an emotional connection between the player and the character, making the game more engaging and memorable.

When using dialogue to reveal character backstories, it’s important to make sure that the conversations feel natural and not forced. Players will quickly lose interest if the dialogue feels contrived or stilted. The key is to make the conversations feel like real interactions between real people, with natural pauses, interruptions, and changes in tone and inflection.

Cutscenes

Cutscenes are another effective way to incorporate character backstories into a game. By using pre-rendered or real-time cinematics, game developers can show important events from a character’s past in a way that is both visually stunning and emotionally impactful.

For example, imagine a game where the player controls a soldier fighting in a war-torn country. In a cutscene, the player sees a flashback of the soldier’s childhood, where they lived in poverty and witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. This experience shapes the soldier’s motivations and actions throughout the game, creating a powerful connection between the player and the character.

When using cutscenes to reveal character backstories, it’s important to make sure that the visuals are engaging and the pacing is appropriate. Players will quickly lose interest if the cutscenes are too long or if the visuals are not compelling. The key is to use the cutscenes to enhance the player’s understanding of the character and the game world, rather than distract from it.

In-Game Events

Finally, in-game events can be an effective way to reveal character backstories. By having characters interact with their environment in meaningful ways, game developers can show the player important events from a character’s past without resorting to dialogue or cutscenes.

For example, imagine a game where the player controls a young girl who has been abandoned by her parents. As the player explores the game world, they come across places that trigger memories of her past, such as the park where she used to play with her parents or the restaurant where they used to eat. Through these interactions with the environment, the player gains a deeper understanding of the character’s past and the events that led her to be where she is today.

When using in-game events to reveal character backstories, it’s important to make sure that the events are meaningful and not just filler. Players will quickly lose interest if the events feel contrived or pointless. The key is to use the events to create a sense of immersion and to deepen the player’s emotional connection with the character.

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