Why character development in games?
As games continue to mature and become more sophisticated, the expectations for production values become higher. These production values include graphics, music, and story. Story is the result of character development: what happens to the characters as events transpire around them.
Character development in and of itself isn't going to make your gameplay any better, but it will create a more satisfying experience because you're furnishing a more well-developed context, a more immersive world for the player to explore.
You can't read a review of an adventure game or shooter without seeing some kind of reference to the storytelling, the dialogue, the characters. Can you relate to the characters? Are they well-developed? Are they interesting? It's become an expectation, an industry norm. Cliches and stereotypes are unacceptable.
So these well-developed characters will engage the audience and immerse the player in a well-developed fantasy world. I'm not just talking about heroic fantasy, either. These techniques are applicable to a wide variety of games. In all cases, we are creating a fantasy world that the player can discover and explore. That illusion can be shattered by uninspired writing and character development.
The final reason to consider character development during the development of games is that these characters can become iconic represenations of a brand. There are numerous characters whose very names are synonymous with their respective franchises, such as Master Chief and Samus Aran.
In this article, we'll cover a number of methods that can be implemented during preproduction to help you answer questions about the characters in your game.
What are these techniques?
These techniques are a means to an end, and can be used by the writer or designer who is responsible for the storytelling elements. In and of themselves, these techniques aren't going to create strong characters for you. That's the work of the writer on your project. But they are stepping stones, guideposts on the way. They are going to help the writer on your project to create more believable, three-dimensional characters.
Consider these exercises during preproduction, as part of the process of creating your characters. Using these techniques will open doors and start conversations; it's a form of brainstorming. If you're starting from square one, you'll wind up with a stronger set of ideas afterwards.
These techniques pose specific questions about your characters. But by characters, I don't mean all one hundred of them. We're talking about the highlights, the primary characters, the ones that the audience is supposed to relate to or have an emotional response to (admiration, hate, amusement). These techniques pertain to characters who are supposed to be fully-developed actors within your game's world. They're intended to answer questions about personality traits that will later shape your game's dialogue or cut-scenes.
These methods include the tarot deck, the quandary, the conversation, and the character web.Tarot Deck
The Tarot may prove a surprising source of character development.
The tarot is a card deck imprinted with symbolic images. There are numerous variants on the deck, some of which date back to the 15th century. Traditionally, the cards are used by fortune-tellers to divine the future by laying cards out in different patterns. Some believe that the cards allow psychics to exercise precognitive abilities, while others hold that the cards' symbols merely jog subconscious beliefs, or that meaning arises from the random juxtaposition of images, triggering sudden ephipanies. Some people think it's all nonsense.
If used during preproduction, the tarot deck can help you create more fully-realized characters. The tarot deck is a free-association tool. Think of it as a starting point, a Rorschach blot that you can draw inspiration from. You'll need a deck of cards, which you can buy or make. Tarot decks are sold at game and hobby stores. If you'd rather make your own deck, you can find numerous breakdowns of the deck online.
Before shuffling the deck and dealing the cards, you want to familiarize yourself with the symbols and their various meanings. For example, according to some, the Tower symbolizes the fall of pride, or impending doom. The Magician indicates a divine motive of some kind, the Star suggests hope or immortality, and so forth.
After preparing a list of symbols and their various meanings, deal two or three of the cards for each of the major characters in your game. Consider the symbols and the order in which they appear.
For example, let's say that you're working on a science-fiction game. One of your characters is a scientist named Lennix. We deal three cards for him, and come up with Star (hope/immortality), Magician (divine motive), and Tower (fall of pride/doom). So if we consider the symbolic meaning for these cards, we could come up with hope, divine motive, and a fall of pride.
Perhaps Lennix sees technology as humanity's last hope, a way for humans to transcend their pettiness and bigotry. Through science, he hopes to accelerate the evolution of humans, advancing us to a stage of elevated consciousness. This quest ends in failure, resulting in a fall of grace because of his pride. Possibly his experiments result in death (or worse), or possibly he is discovered and expelled. So Lennix is driven by guilt. He knows what he wanted to achieve, and he may feel that he was wrong, and that he has learned a lesson. Or he may feel that he was thwarted, and he may be continuing his experiments in secret.
Reading the cards in another order produces different results. Let's say that we've dealt Tower, Magician, and Star. In this light, perhaps Lennix underwent some personal tragedy, a catastrophe that caused him great pain. He lost his faith in science, but has recently found a different kind of faith - religion, or magic, or communion with Nature, or whatever - and now, he believes that there is hope after all. Silly fool, there's no hope.
Ask yourself what the cards stand for, and whether that interpretation really fits with the kind of game you're developing. As patterns emerge, think about the personalities of the characters that you're visualizing, and ask yourself whether they really fit. If you like the icons, but aren't sure of the order, rearrange them, as in the above example, and see if that works better for you.
The alternative method is to create your own tarot deck, based loosely on the iconography of the deck. This is not uncommnon - T. S. Eliot played fast and loose with the tarot in his poem "The Waste Land", as did Stephen King in his Dark Tower novels. You may want to create your own tarot deck of archetypes, each with its own set of symbolic significance.
The conversation is used to establish the vocabulary and speech patterns of the major characters in your game. One of the things that can help differentiate major characters from one another is the choice of words, the way that they talk.
The choice of words can really establish a character's identity. Key words or phrases, diction, accent, slang, code phrases, sentence structure, profanity, even the amount of dialogue - all of these can tell the audience a great deal about the persona of the character you're creating.
In order to develop these voices, write fictional conversations between major characters in your game. Expore the way the characters talk in a hypothetical conversation that takes place in the game world. However, the conversation isn't actually going to be featured in the game. It's an asset that you're creating as part of your design, but it's not intended for inclusion in the game's dialogue. It's a writing exercise, nothing more.
So, there's no need to set the scene with text. You just want to write as though the two characters are talking to each other about a topic of significance in your game world. Let them converse as you write, first in one character's voice, then in the other's. Gradually, as they talk, you should hear differences begin to emerge. For starters, select characters who have opposing philosophies, so that there will be disagreement of some kind.
Sometimes the best interactions occur between heroes and villians such as the diner scene between Pacino and De Niro in Heat.
As you continue to write, observe the emerging voices of these two characters. Focus on one character through various conversations. Say you're working on a game set in the world of Roman mythology. Sit Mars down with Jupiter, and then pair Mars with Venus. Maybe they can talk about the time that Venus' husband caught them together, I don't know. Then Mars and Mercury, and so forth. Then, once you've got a real feel for the testosterone-driven god of war, set him aside and focus on that vixen Venus. Is she as trashy as she looks? There's one way to find out.
These conversations don't have to be very long. After a few pages, you should really begin to have a feel for the way your characters talk. If it helps, instead of writing the conversations down, role-play them. Get a pocket tape recorder and talk to yourself in the voices of two of your major characters. Make sure there is no one around when you are doing this. You don't want to get caught ("Oh, I love you so much!" "I love you too! You are the most precious... uh... oh, hey, guys. I didn't think anyone was coming in over the weekend. Say, anyone got a cyanide capsule I could borrow real quick?"). When you're done, listen to the recording, or read what you've written. What phrases reappear? What diction, style, vocabulary, accent?
Try to free-associate. Don't worry about grammar or spelling when writing by hand. Keep writing, even when you don't know exactly where you're going. Yes, most of what you're doing is going to get scrapped. But you will hear voices emerge.
It may help you to sit down with a highlighter and mark key phrases that impacted you in some way. If you see something interesting or noteworthy, ask yourself where it came from. What in that character's nature inspired that particular turn of phrase? Does it fit with where that character grew up, or received an education? If ideas occur to you during this part of the process, take copious notes. Don't think you're going to remember it later, because you won't. Write everything down.
In Rainbow Six: Lockdown sometimes friendly discussions are none too friendly.
When it's all over, you should be getting an idea of where the characters are coming from, and this may later inspire you to create scenes in-game or in cinematic sequences. This may also give you an idea of where the characters stand philosophically, which can help you establish what some of the major conflicts will be in game.
It's not always necessary to pair up two heroic characters for a conversation. Some of the more interesting conversations take place between heroes and villains. For instance, DeNiro and Pacino had a fascinating talk in a diner in the movie Heat. They talked about dreams, death, and each other. This conversation, a calm discussion between a criminal and a police detective over coffee, foreshadowed the film's final scene.
Conversations between heroic characters don't have to be smooth or friendly. Towards the end of Rainbow Six: Lockdown, two of the counter-terrorism operatives engage in a heated discussion about how to handle the terrorist group they're fighting. Both operatives have the same goal in mind, but they disagree on how to handle a critical, life-or-death situation, and long-simmering disagreements between the two culminate in a vicious argument about who gets to make the call. This scene emerged from various conversations I wrote between the two characters.
The quandary is used to describe the various ways in which characters react to stressful situations. It's an insoluble dilemma of some kind, a hypothetical situation set in the world of the game that you're creating. It is a problem with no best option, no clear best choice to make. It presents each character with a crisis requiring a solution, but affording no easy way out.
For each of the major characters in your game, write a description of how the character resolves the quandary, and how the situation plays out.
Write one for each of the major characters in your game, whether heroes or villains. Don't worry about how the character ought to behave. Many of the most interesting moments in games occur when ostensibly heroic characters are shown to be petty or self-absorbed (like Wesker in the original Resident Evil), or when presumably villainous characters display humanity or mercy (such as the brutal zealot Craymen in Panzer Dragoon Saga).
It's not necessary to end on a happy note for all of these scenarios. You may want many of these quandaries to end in victory or tragedy; it depends on the feel of your game. If you're working on a dark, serious game, an unhappy ending is obviously more appropriate. The important thing is that you understand why the characters are making those particular decisions. Ask yourself as you're writing the resolution for each scenario: okay, what's motivating the character to do this? Is the character capable of making serious mistakes in judgment?
One of the big shortcomings of many games that feature heroic characters is that the protagonists are superlative in every way, eliminating many opportunities for depth or drama. If the heroes can't be fooled or betrayed or outdone, the drama becomes extremely thin and boring. There's no threat, no chance that the hero will be undone. However, if the characters are human, and therefore fallible, they become more interesting.
Establish the reactions of the major characters to problems or crises, and see how they respond to situations of loss. See how they adapt. Be aware that it's acceptable for some of the characters behave similarly, but you don't want them all to react in exactly the same way.
For example: In the fictional superhero game "Justice Unit", one of the heroes (Ice Queen) is in the path of a bus, but doesn't see it. She's getting ready to fire a plasma beam at a group of bank robbers, and isn't aware that there's a bus headed straight for her. The bus driver has just slammed on the brakes, but isn't going to be able to stop in time, and Ice Queen will be killed when the bus hits her. On the other side of the street, a group of bank robbers has just emerged from the bank with the stolen money, and one of them is about to shoot an innocent bystander cowering next to his car.
The protagonist, super-powered marketing executive Bulletpoint, has a choice: rescue the bystander, or save his partner. But it's impossible to save both. The answer depends on what the character values.
If Bulletpoint believes that the hostage must be rescued above all else, then Ice Queen dies. But he may believe that electing to don the costume means placing one's life in danger again and again, with the understanding that one day, your luck will run out. Therefore, the innocent bystander is the person who deserves to live the most.
Or, Bulletpoint might feel a strong bond of loyalty, and save Ice Queen's life, even though it might result in the death of a hostage. Or he might save her because he believes that keeping Ice Queen alive will result in saving hundreds (even thousands) of lives down the line. So, rescuing his partner is for the greater good, and the death of that innocent person is a necessary evil. Or maybe he chooses to save Ice Queen's life because he's got feelings for her.
This process reveals the way that Bulletpoint actually feels about his work, about the people whose lives he saves, and about his teammates. It tells you how he sees the world.
The scenario might continue after the quandary has been resolved. For instance, after saving the hostage, and thereby losing his friend, Bulletpoint might then kill the bank robbers in a fit of rage. Or, after saving Ice Queen, but letting an innocent person die in the process, he might decide to give up crimefighting out of guilt.
This process will help define what makes your characters tick.
The Character Web
This technique is used to develop major relationships between the characters in the game, and explores the way that they feel about one another.
The character web is used to define interpersonal relationships in your game. The idea is that you create a web, a flowchart that diagrams all of the major characters in your game, and all of the relationships between them. It defines the way that the characters feel about each other, and relate to one another, and the kind of affections or animosities they hold for one another.
The idea is that it's more complicated that mere like or dislike. A fully-developed character web will delineate allegiances, factions, attitudes, hierarchies. It's more complicated than love or hate.
The important thing to remember is that two characters aren't necessarily going to feel reciprocal feelings for one another. There will be unrequited love, concealed animosity or grudges, and you're also going to have a number of disassociative elements. For example, between a mentor and a student, you may have a mentor's pride in his student's achievement, and the student's resentment for being held back by someone whose time has passed.
Not all of the emotions will be shared by the two characters, but there will be some common feelings. For example, they may share the love of a father and son.
There may be different layers of emotion and relationships between the characters in your game, which brings us to the idea of multiple character webs.
You may have different character webs for the different characters in your game. For example, a character web for your heroes, and one for your villains, or one for the major characters, and one for the minor players.
There may be certain characters in your game who only appear in cut-scenes, or in certain missions, and this will require specific webs that only deal with these characters and their attitudes towards one another.
You may also create character webs devoted to specific types of relationships. For example, if you're working on a military shooter, you might create a character web that pertains to hierarchy and rank, and the way that soldiers relate to one another and their superiors in that context. One of your characters, a macho private who does things his own way, may resent one of his superior officers. The officer might not even be aware of the private's resentment, and may feel that the private is a loyal and reliable soldier. Another web for the same group, focusing on interpersonal relationships outside of rank, could delineate a mutual respect between the two dating back to an incident that transpired years ago. Conflicts arising in the game could bring the resentment to the fore, or could strengthen the bond between the two characters.
This series of character webs can deepen the relationships between the characters in your game.
The other thing to think about when creating a character web is the idea that different-sized webs require different levels of detail. For a large web with multiple characters, you want to keep it as simple as possible. If your web features a dozen characters, you probably want to keep the interpersonal descriptors down to a single-word relationship.
If you only have three characters, you can feature more complex relationships and attitudes between the characters. For example, you may connect the characters with two lines, instead of one. On one of the lines, you can indicate between a king and a warrior, for instance, you could indicate their attitudes towards each other. The warrior envies the king's wealth and power, and yet admires his inner strength. The king, on the other hand, envies the warrior's youth, and also admires his loyalty to the crown. On the other hand, you have their working relationship, which is straightforward. The warrior is completely loyal to the king, and the king is ready to send the warrior out to do battle.
So you'll feature multiple threads connecting characters in a tightly-focused relationship map.
On a map with more characters, you'll feature a single word or concept, such as obedience. So the king issues orders, and the warrior obeys. Simple.
It's also important to think about the structure. There are a number of different possibilities. With a single major character, you might consider a radial web, where you've got the major character in the middle, and all other characters emanate from her. The other characters emanate from her, because they're defined in relationship to her.
There are a few characters who will have feelings for one another in this web, so you'll want to think about where you place them in relationship to one another. You will want to place them next to characters that they interact with routinely, so that you can define these attitudes on your primary map. But you'll probably need another map just to define the minor characters outside of their relationship to the player character. Ultimately, your central character web deals with the major character and how she relates to all these people, because when you're writing your dialogue, when you're developing your cut-scenes or storytelling elements, you're going to want to know how the player character relates to the other characters, and how they feel about her. Is she admired? Is she loved? Is she feared? Is she underestimated?
If, however, you're working with an ensemble cast, if your player controls several characters at once, a number of them will still shine through as principals. Watch an ensemble movie like X-Men, and a small group of characters still seize the attention of the audience.
You want to build your web around that notion. You build a web that focuses on that small cast of central characters, and focus on them.
The last thing to consider when creating character webs is the idea that characters can evolve. The character web can actually change over time depending on the events that transpire in your game, because relationships between these characters, the emotions and attitudes, can evolve as things change.
Characters attitudes do change as characters interact with one another. So, depending on the story in your game, you may want to create multiple character webs to support the major evolutions in your storyline.
So, if a third of the way through your game, the player's closest friend is murdered, and another third of the way through, it is revealed that the murderer is an ally of the player (who, as it so happens, was a double agent all along), you're going to need three maps for each of those stages. After the murder, the major characters may feel grief and anger, which may alter the way that they relate to each other. Some may swear vengeance, others could counsel reason. They may split along those lines. After the revelation of betrayal, suspicion may cloud friendships, or it may draw the player's allies closer together as they band together for a final stand against the enemy. Either way, you want to define these emotional ties between characters in the context of the major events of your game.
Figure 1. The Justice Unit, prior to the battle of Wall Street.
In figure 1, we have the Justice Unit, from the fictional game of the same name. The player controls Bulletpoint, a former marketing executive who now fires bolts of justice in the name of freedom. or something.
There are four other characters in the unit. Sensei is the leader of the unit, an old wise karate master. He trained Bulletpoint, and taught him to fight for justice. Their relationship is garden-variety mentor-pupil. Ice Queen is beautiful but aloof, and Bulletpoint wants her bad, bad, bad. But she gives him the cold shoulder (sorry). Major Malfunction, the old Army veteran who breaks everything he touches, likes to drink a few cold beers with the kid every once in a while, and the feeling's mutual. They hang out, they get along. By contrast, the demented Canadian ninja, Caribou, really intimidates Bulletpoint. Mainly, it's the antlered warrior's enigmatic nature and his tendency to fly into the terrifying Caribou Rage. Bulletpoint is also a little jealous of Caribou, because enigmatic warrior guys who fly into a rage but also have a code of honor are just a lot cooler than normal guys with superpowers.
Figure 2. The Justice Unit, after a shift in relationships.
After the battle with Overcharge (a former credit card industry CEO who laid siege to Wall Street in an armored exoskeleton), Bulletpoint demonstrated astonishing powers that the Justice Unit didn't even know he possessed. In the aftermath of this battle, during which Bulletpoint pretty much saved the day, the relationships have shifted somewhat. Major Malfunction sees the kid pretty much the same way. But Caribou has gained a little respect for the guy - he earned his chops in the field. Ice Queen has thawed just a tad, and Bulletpoint has enough confidence now to be honest with her about his feelings. Not that it matters, she's still frosty towards him. Sensei is now intimidated by Bulletpoint, who may well be the Golden Warrior promised in the ancient prophecies. Conclusion
During preproduction, before the game's concepts begin to congeal, there is an opportunity to develop living, breathing characters with goals and values. Hopefully, the aforementioned techniques will help you begin the process of learning about these characters.
For More Information
David Freeman. Creating Emotion in Games: The Craft and Art of Emotioneering. New Riders Publishing, 2003.
Robert McKee. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. Regan Books, 1997.
Lee Sheldon. Character Development and Storytelling for Games. Muska & Lipman, 2004.