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Developing Meaningful Player Character Arcs in Branching Narrative

Can you deliver both choice and a character art that has depth and meaning in the same game? Alexander M. Freed, formerly of BioWare, explores the possibility space, drawing from examples from existing games and adding in his own ideas.

March 21, 2013

15 Min Read

Author: by Alexander M. Freed

A little background: During my years at BioWare, I found that despite the enormous amount of talent housed in the writing department, there were certain subjects for which we lacked a common language of craft -- a clear and broadly applicable way to discuss what worked, what didn't, and why. This article is an effort to remedy that problem for one particular subject.

Due credit goes to my former BioWare colleagues Cameron Harris (now of ArenaNet), who provided feedback on my notes for a previous iteration of this article; and Daniel Erickson (now of Bluepoint Games), who reviewed a near-final version and suggested I take it to Gamasutra. Thanks to Greg Rucka as well, whose blog posts on character arcs in Mass Effect helped inspire elements of this discussion.

Part One: Introduction and Definitions

Let's start with the basics.

Stories -- traditional stories, archetypal stories -- are about protagonists who go through difficult circumstances and who change or resist change because of those circumstances.

The change can be positive or negative. The protagonists can be heroic or villainous. The circumstances can be dramatic or humorous. Sometimes the "change" isn't so much a change of nature as it is the gradual unveiling of true character and motivations. But while there are exceptions, the sweeping statement above covers most stories pretty well.

Star Wars is about a farm boy who's caught up in a galactic war that pushes him to find the inner strength he's always lacked. Breaking Bad is about a science teacher who engages in an enterprise that changes him from an underachieving family man into a criminal mastermind. Friends is a sitcom about a group of young adults who are forged by the tumult of their jobs and personal lives into more comfortable, confident, mature members of society.

Most video games (particularly decision-based RPGs such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Mass Effect, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Alpha Protocol, et al, which are this post's focus) are, structurally speaking, very traditional narratives. An RPG typically features a single protagonist throughout who makes difficult choices under trying circumstances.

Yet many RPGs fail to deliver a compelling character arc for the protagonist. The reason is clear enough: When a player is given control over the protagonist and the choices he or she makes, that player isn't (and shouldn't be) focused on the storytelling craft of generating a dramatic arc. Instead, the player is engaged in the moment, fulfilling whatever fantasy or aspiration drove the player to buy the game in the first place ("I want to be cool like James Bond" or "I want to be the scariest criminal around.")

It's very likely that the player will make the same sorts of choices throughout the game -- the player who starts playing Mass Effect as a heroic Commander Shepard who frowns on human xenophobia is probably going to make mostly positive Paragon choices throughout -- unless given a reason otherwise. The player who begins Deus Ex: Human Revolution as a brutal killing machine is doing so because that's the character he or she is keen on playing. Why would the player even want to change?

That's fine, of course, but it limits the nature of the story being told. There can be no tragedy, redemption, growth, or catharsis when a player unthinkingly maintains the same approach throughout a story. Nonetheless, I believe a transformative character arc is very much achievable in a branching narrative RPG, and results in a highly rewarding experience.

So if most players aren't ordinarily inclined toward change -- if players act as change-resistant human beings, not authors of a script looking to generate the most drama -- how do we develop a genuine character arc? And how do we dramatize the protagonist's inner life in such a way that the arc isn't merely in the player's imagination, but grounded by clear in-game results?

How do we change a game from a thought experiment ("I want to be a good guy soldier") to a genuinely immersive exploration of character?

Part Two: Crafting the Story and Inciting Change through Recontextualization

The crux of an RPG is choice. Story choice, character-building choice... even the illusion of choice is vital when actual choice isn't possible. The player character's development and inner conflict can be no different -- thus, any character arc focusing on the player can have no fixed outcome.

In other words, we can't know if the player is going to create the story of a struggling hero, a tragic fall, or a genuine saint. We shouldn't try to know. There are plenty of other storytelling media for that.

(In fact, another scenario that can cause RPGs to fail to deliver a compelling player character arc involves well-intentioned designers -- aware that a changing character provides some of the best drama -- forcing a specific set of changes upon the player character regardless of the player's choices. That is, the player character is shown to experience a specific reaction -- or a set of reactions -- without player input.

This can damage or destroy the empathetic relationship between player and player character as control, once the keystone of the story experience, is wrested away... often accompanied by the player angrily shouting, "My character would never say that!")

So we can't know the details of how the player character will change. But what we can do is help determine the theme of the story by framing it as a question. Let's go with that Breaking Bad example from above.

Breaking Bad is about a science teacher who engages in an enterprise that changes him from an underachieving family man into a criminal mastermind.

Fair enough, but that doesn't leave much room for player decision-making. Shall we change it?

Breaking Bad is about a science teacher who engages in an enterprise that tests his morals as a family man. Will he succumb to the temptations of power, or find a way to reverse the damage he's done before time runs out?

And suddenly, you've got a game. You've got a clear set of themes and ideas to build decisions around. You've got some clear end points for the player character, any of which could be natural consequences of player actions. You've got a bit of middle ground to work with -- your protagonist isn't required to be a saint or demon, but can fall somewhere in-between.

You still don't have a reason for the player to change over the course of the game (I love my family and do no wrong at the start, why wouldn't I love my family and do no wrong at the end?), but you know what possibilities you want to explore.

Note also that by keeping the question open, we limit the sorts of stories appropriate for a decision-based RPG. There's a good reason we're using Breaking Bad instead of Star Wars as an example here. (That's A New Hope specifically -- the other movies don't have this particular problem.) If Star Wars is about a farm boy who's caught up in a galactic war that pushes him to find the inner strength he's always lacked, then the clear alternative (the farm boy doesn't find that inner strength after all and either fails or stays at home) isn't really appropriate for most games. Very few players are going to choose the options in an RPG that result in total failure and the premature end of the game they paid to play.

With themes identified, it becomes the writer's obligation to find a way to create the "difficult circumstances" we talked about earlier -- circumstances that test the player and, if they don't change the player, force the player to actively resist change. These circumstances must put the player into conflict with the values he or she has grown comfortable with.

Maintaining the original status quo must become difficult or impossible. When considering important in-game decision points, ask the questions:

  • Why would the player make this decision differently from earlier decisions?

  • What differentiates the stakes or the circumstances?

  • Do the decisions the player must make build in a manner that allows for consistent character progression in multiple ways?

The original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic handles this problem with a well-timed sledgehammer blow. (For those averse to spoilers: Plot details follow.) The first half of the game involves the player gradually gaining more and more personal power, going from ordinary citizen to mystical Jedi. Perfectly fine, but the circumstances and pressures the player faces don't, for the most part, force a change in the player's perspective or decision-making process.

Then comes the revelation: the player is a former villain who's been brainwashed into forgetting his or her old ways. This encourages a re-evaluation of all past decisions and a recontextualization for all future choices. If the player has been acting heroically, he or she is now pushed to reconsider why and friction is generated with his or her allies. If the player has been acting villainously, the revelation is perhaps less effective -- but it still asks the player to consider his or her motivations in a new way. The revelation may serve as a warning not to continue down the same road a second time, or act as a promise of what could be.

But recontextualization is possible without a singular moment of revelation. Consider two generic examples:

  • Scenario One: The player character begins the game as part of a benevolent quasi-military organization. As the game progresses, the player character is rewarded with respect and recognition and develops strong bonds with supporting characters loyal to the organization. The organization, however, gradually begins making more and more morally dubious decisions. Where once the player could feel confident that "doing the right thing" and "supporting his or her friends" were the same thing, as the game goes on, the two become more and more at odds, and the player must re-evaluate the decision-making process.

  • Scenario Two: The player character begins the game as a knight, facing evil on a personal level and becoming hero to the locals. This heroism gradually earns the player greater and greater positions of authority, until the player is no longer merely responsible for his or her own life and the lives of a few others; now the player's decisions as king or queen suddenly affect millions, and heroic choices that once received praise may now be perceived as naive. The consequences of villainous choices are suddenly magnified. Benevolent characters may be pushed to make moral compromises during their rise to power "for the greater good," and wicked characters may find a sliver of humanity.

These are simple scenarios, but they both provide a path that ensures players cannot use the same decision-making formula throughout the game (at least not without reevaluating it along the way). They both provide easy escalation of stakes and a reason for a player character's decisions to evolve over time to any number of different end points.

One sidebar to this whole discussion: Earlier, I talked about putting the player "into conflict with the values he or she has grown comfortable with." But how uncomfortable do we want to make the player? If the player really just wants to sit in front of his or her TV, get some adrenaline flowing, shoot some baddies and feel like a hero... why are we making him or her squirm? How does that sell games?

Even feel-good "escapist" entertainment tends to have moments that are highly unpleasant for the protagonist (Luke Skywalker loses his family, or Sam and Diane scream at each other in the Cheers bar), and it's these moments that are crucial to defining and changing that character. The emotional impact of these moments, if done well, is going to be greater for a player interacting directly with the story than for a passive reader or TV watcher. So what's too much?

I don't have a good answer for this other than "think about it and be careful." Who is your audience, what's the tone of the game, and what level of discomfort is too much? Are there moments of comic relief or emotional release close at hand? Is the tone of the start of the game sufficient to prep the player for later moments of hardship, so the player is emotionally prepared? Experience in interactive media is helpful here -- never assume the rules of traditional narratives apply.

And of course, never make your audience more uncomfortable than it needs to be for the story you're telling.

Part Three: Revealing a Protagonist's Inner Life

A good rule of thumb when writing interactive narratives: If a game does not acknowledge a decision in the story, that decision, for story purposes, never existed.

The acknowledgment can be small, but somehow, a player's decisions must appear in-game to be validated. If a player chooses to publicly fistfight his superior officer in a military game, this should come up again... and probably more than once, with quite a few characters. If a player chooses to create an African-American character in "American Civil War: The RPG", then the story should play out differently in places than if the player created a white character.

Now consider another type of example. If I'm playing a fantasy RPG and dress my character in robes instead of plate mail, do other characters react as if my character were a mage instead of a knight? Even if I really am playing a knight?

In most games, no -- clothes don't matter. Clothes are a game mechanic, but they have no story component. They are not validated as a choice in the narrative. They are compartmentalized in a separate part of the player's mind.

Which brings us to inner conflict. Even if we build a story and a set of decision points in accordance with the principles outlined in part two, if a player character's inner conflict is not called out explicitly (and repeatedly -- games are long, and players may take breaks of days or weeks between sessions), it does not exist in the game's story. It exists as a possibility in the mind of the player, if at all, but not as part of an integrated whole.

Deux Ex: Human Revolution does an excellent job of exploring the player character's inner life early on. It puts the player through a major trauma related to the themes of the game (cybernetic implantation), then has different characters voice their concern over how it may or may not psychologically affect the player character.

The player is essentially told, "The trauma you've experienced will change you; if it doesn't, it's because you made the decision to fight against it." The inner conflict is explicitly identified.

The player character is also repeatedly asked about his feelings regarding his cybernetic implants, allowing him to voice his reactions. Even if the player chooses a "I don't want to talk about this" option, it forces the player to consider how his or her character would respond.

Dialogue options that give the player the ability to express a variety of different feelings suggesting genuine inner conflict are an incredibly powerful tool. Another character -- a superior, a psychiatrist, a close friend, a mocking enemy -- asking "How do you feel about X?" and giving the player a chance to answer will validate the interior life of some players (who may have already been role-playing reactions in their heads) and force others to consider the player character's psychological state.

If the player character is consistently denied opportunities to speak about his or her interior life, potential internal conflicts will fade from the player's mind. Potential character progression will go unacknowledged by the game itself.

Part Four: Things to Consider and Conclusions

Summing up, a few easy questions to consider when developing a branching narrative:

If I choose the default player response from start to finish, does the player character appear to grow and change as a person? Does the story react to and acknowledge the player character's growth?

Does the story push the player into new circumstances that force him or her to re-evaluate his or her values and methods of decision-making?

Is the player character's inner conflict validated by dialogue options? Are situations and non-player characters established that draw forth responses from the player reflecting his or her inner conflict?

Much of this article may seem obvious to game writers. Nonetheless, I believe it's helpful to have a common language and a common frame of reference for discussions of theme and long-form character development -- and I also believe that we should have such discussions more often than we do. We often feel our way through these story issues without explicitly passing on the lessons we learn to newcomers, and without examining our assumptions as a community.

So, too, do we often focus on individual elements of interactive narrative -- how to write an engaging conversation, how to ensure the player understands the plot, how to create player choices that don't become too costly to implement -- at the expense of less modular elements like the player character's own narrative arc.

"Meaningful player character arc" isn't a feature that can be easily advertised on a box or shown in a company presentation. A player character that evolves along with the player can't be demoed in fifteen minutes at E3 or gamescom. But everything we've discussed intimately and profoundly affects a player's engagement with the game. That makes it worth considering.

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