Creating rich, compelling characters for games works a bit differently than with other mediums, especially in titles that are designed to appeal to players' affections.
We struggled with this for our most recent title, Alone With You. The game is a "sci-fi romance adventure," and it's designed to get you to feel something towards four main interests — Winnie, Pierre, Leslie and Jean — as you complete adventure-game missions and engage in visual novel-style conversation scenes. In this post, I'm going to use these four main interests to show you how you can develop characters to feel like real people that serve the needs of your game — using writing, gameplay and even sound design to do so.
1) Make your characters memorable
Characters in games usually serve two purposes simultaneously: they need to be someone while they also do something — usually something specific, too, such as "sell you items" or "provide strategic suggestions." If, as in the case of our game, your goal is to create characters your players can grow attached to, or feel real affection toward, you need to make sure players can remember them. A great way to start is to define what your characters do first.
In Alone With You, your goal is to "repair your escape ship so you can escape the planet." The four main interests each help you with this goal in different ways: Winnie helps you with communication systems, Pierre fixes the thrusters, Leslie advises on the life-support systems, and Jean figures out how to refuel the thing. The fact that, in gameplay terms, none of these four characters actually does anything doesn't matter — in games, defining what something appears to do can mean the same thing as what something does from the player's perspective.
Using a recent example, Final Fantasy XV, you can clearly see this in action: Cindy's a mechanic, that Dino jerk is a reporter, and Vyv (the "Meteor Publishing" guy) all have specific things that they appear to do — but in gameplay terms, all they actually do is give quests for you to accomplish. But you remember who they are regardless.
So in Alone With You, what our characters do defines who they are: Winnie's a communication expert, Pierre is a genius engineer and leader, Leslie is a botanical scientist, and Jean is the resource manager. Even if players only remember them as "the radio girl," "the smart guy," "the plant lady," and "the energy dude," they can keep track of who they are, which is the first step to making sure they remember them at all.
2) Make your characters appealing (to different players)
What players find appealing in characters differs so much with age and culture, which is likely why so many games use easy tropes to separate their characters into targets players can understand ("the girl next door," "the sporty guy," "the shy one," etc.). We didn't want to stick to those same templates for Alone With You, but we did need to make sure all four characters could appeal to different players. Here's a general breakdown:
Remember that not all characters have to appeal to everyone. Especially in a game that uses "dating" or emotional attachment as a gameplay hook, you want players to find favourites. Almost every reviewer and player confessed an immediate preference while playing the game, and especially at its end, which was the intention — in fact, each of the four main interests targets a specific personality type. (Cue the Persona 4 "Chie vs. Yukiko" debate.)
How did we do this? Well, it can be difficult to just pull a bunch of interesting people out of a hat, so we used all sorts of tricks to kickstart the process; one of which was to take a Briggs-Meyer personality test while pretending to be each character. Since we already knew what the characters did, we could role-play while answering questions. If the resulting personality types were too similar, we adjusted our answers until we got four broader results, and then changed our approach to writing each character to match.
Now, about that: when writing a character, you use two factors to define their story arc: their wants and their needs. As a generic example: Jimmy might want to find love, but through the course of the story what he realizes is that he needs to love himself first. That tension between want and need drives all good character journeys.
When you look at our four characters, you might notice one commonality — none of them are very good with people. This is an intentional flaw that we used to give each of them a need in their stories. But since this is a game, the trick here is that the only way the characters can realize their need is through the player. In order for your players to feel connected to your characters, they must be important to them.
3) Make your characters need the player (and vice versa)
By talking to Winnie, Pierre, Leslie and Jean, and by answering their questions, the player gets to learn more about their personalities and pasts. Answering in certain ways (i.e. enthusiastically) or finding items during missions can get them to open up even more. Doing this also results in the characters expressing emotions towards the player: gratitude, appreciation, teasing affection, etc. — in other words, rewarding player interest with positive emotional feedback. Chances are, your non-player-characters are the ones doing most of the talking, and so they need to confirm and reciprocate whenever the player makes a choice. The prevailing sentiment in all of these conversations is that without the player, the characters wouldn't come to the realizations, make the connections, or discover the ideas that they ultimately do.
On a practical level, your characters will have double-duty once again; they need to both provide information and confirm information. This means that as you write what they say, you usually need to be a little less subtle than you might assume. Unless you have a AAA budget and a team of hundreds animating fully-rendered models, your writing is what will allow your players to understand both the characters and the impact your choices are having on them. When in doubt, go for clarity of meaning, even at the expense of subtlety. If your player is unsure whether something they said had a positive or negative (or neutral) effect, they'll be confused.
4) Make your characters key to your game design
One of the wonders of videogames is that, as active participants, players want to be engaged at all times. But your story or gameplay may not require players to interact with your characters every step of the way. How do you keep those connections alive? By reinforcing your character's personalities and stories wherever your player goes.
In Alone With You, we did three specific things:
- designed each of the four environments to reflect their respective character
- implemented a gameplay loop that made the characters the constant focus
- created music and soundscape themes for each character that tie everything together
Our game works like this: there are three weeks in the game. Each week, the player embarks on a mission to four environments (once each for Winnie, Pierre, Leslie and Jean). The player thus visits three new levels in each environment. (We treat this, story-wise, as four three-act plays.) After each mission, the player visits that character at night in a visual novel-style conversation scene (for example, if the player goes to the Comms Relay, that night they visit Winnie, who's the communication expert). Items the player finds during their day missions unlock extra dialogue options at night; dialogue choices made during these conversations then affect future dialogue, as well as other story text while out on later missions.
This cycle is meant to constantly reinforce each character to the player; though the player only has a finite number of one-on-one scenes with each of our four interests throughout the game, they are constantly being made to think about them. It's a bit like a high school romance — you might only get to see the person you like after school, but you'll notice signs of them all day, and that only makes you want to see them more.
It's important to remember that players don't actually need to be front-and-centre with your characters for them to be "interacting" with them. A great example is Mass Effect; in the first game, your actual path to a romantic relationship as Commander Shepard consists of only a handful of consecutive conversation scenes aboard the Normandy. But chances are, if you like a character, you're going to want to bring them out on missions with you just so you get more time with them. Though you don't really have heart-to-heart talks on these missions, those characters' very presence means you are thinking about them even more — further reinforcing your desire to engage in more intimate conversations.
Sometimes, players only need be reminded of a character to keep that combo-chain of interest going — it's a funny trick of human personality that you can exploit!
It's also crucial that your characters don't come alive with just writing — all aspects of your game can keep your players laser-focused on them. For Alone With You, we relied heavily on composer Ivor Stines' ability to provide strong themes for each of our four main interests and their respective areas. Each character gets a theme that is used five ways:
- in the three missions for the character's respective environment (where each subsequent mission sees the musical theme grow and change according to the character's story arc)
- in the night-scene music for each character, which reflects and complements their environment music
- in the hub-level theme, which uses elements from all four characters' themes together
This way, players don't just get to know the characters through text and dialogue — they get to see and hear and feel them as they play.
The characters in your game can be more than just static NPCs or couriers of exposition. Whether you're creating party members, villains or love interests, these four techniques can serve as quick touchpoints to make sure the people and creatures you're designing tie naturally into your game world — and, hopefully, into the hearts and minds of your players.