Mutual Engagement: how to craft compelling character interactions

A game design article that talks about how to create compelling character interactions that suck the player into the experience through personal and interpersonal enthrallment.

Since the halcyon days of ancient Greek theater, creative minds from all artistic mediums sought to tap into the human psyche to immerse their audiences into their work and provide an experience that could arouse all sorts of emotions within them. One of the ways those authors accomplished this was through the creation of personalities whose peculiar and intermingling traits begot interactions that would intrigue the participant with their juxtaposition of different characters that could lead to palpable moments of drama, action and conflict, a potent trio of narrative qualities that can also be applied to gaming.

In video games, character interactions had a rather humble beginning, with interactive fiction like Planetfall and adventure games such as Maniac Mansion making heavy use of text and visuals to impart the mindset that their respective characters embodied through their comments. Although technologically restrained, developers still utilized the resources and ideas they had at their disposal to craft enthralling encounters that not only highlighted the traits of each character, but also bolstered the experience's narrative and presentation through a varied and consistent mix of the aforementioned trifecta.

Over the course of several gaming generations, new possibilities for character interactions began to arise, with titles such as Sam & Max and Mass Effect leveraging the advent of voice acting and moral choices to bake a distinctive and interesting personality in each character from an individual and interpersonal standpoint. As impressive as the evolution of gaming technology may be, it alone cannot act as a substitute for the intricacies tied to the tricky process of designing genuine character interactions, whose lifeblood stems from the handicraft and attention-to-detail courtesy of the designer themselves.

As one of the core pillars of a game's narrative/presentation, characters and the way they engage with one another represent some of the most valuable opportunities for a designer to sell the player into the experience, which can be done through compelling interactions that strongly contextualize the gameplay. With a rock-solid grasp of their game's themes and a malleable mindset with regards to directing different kinds of interactions, developers can strengthen the immersion factor by crafting characters that can stand on their own and enhance their appeal through interpersonal circumstances.

I shall develop my argument by listing five important principles that can constitute memorable interactions between two or more characters. For each element, I’m going to give you an example of a game that gets that particular aspect right.

NOTE: The tips that I'm sharing with you may or may not be compatible with every game depending on the designer's philosophy and vision, but they serve as general guidelines that can benefit the virtual experience when well-implemented.

1 - Keep the dialog/actions in line with each character's overall disposition

One of the first factors that the designer has to take into account with regards to interpersonal interaction is to ensure that each character stays true to their overall demeanor by having their lines/actions accurately reflect the kind of individual they really are while interacting with different personalities in various scenarios. Achieving such a multifaceted feat requires the developer to properly empathize with the characters in question by leveraging their physical, psychological and sociological (PPS) dimensions and figuring out the kind of comments/deeds they would make when faced with a particular situation, which can help make the interactions feel more genuine, compelling and more entertaining in the eyes of the player.

The Daedric Prince Sheogorath from the Elder Scrolls games immaculately encapsulates the importance of consistent and noteworthy characteristics with regards to one's demeanor towards other characters. From his comically maniacal and presumptuous comments on the nature of mortals to his delightfully devilish proclivity for nonsensical madness, Sheogorath's interactions with the player character and NPCs serve to paint a picture of a god whose larger-than-life personality and towering authority are enough to command the attention of those in his presence and engender madcap conversations and endeavors that will firmly stick in the player's head long after the conclusion of their epic adventure in Tamriel.

When it comes to creating a game world engrossing enough to pull the player into the experience and hold their attention in the long run, the game designer has to ensure that the characters who inhabit said world not only impart their respective qualities in the most authentic of lights, but that they also do so while dealing with various other personalities in sundry circumstances. By providing each in-game inhabitant with a dynamic and inspiring demeanor that allows them to reveal a part of their PPS dimensions through their lines/endeavors in a believable fashion that's in character, the game developer will be able to craft intriguing and/or multilayered characters whose unique mentality isn't one-note.

2 - Amplify the characters' demeanor by making use of gestures 

Another aspect of character interaction that the developer should consider looking into to enhance the overall playing experience is to have the characters in their game not only sound the part, but also act the part while engaging with others by making smart and effective use of gestures to further bolster the palpability of their respective temperament. While the expressiveness of said gestures should be correctly gauged as to avoid looking unduly emphatic or minute, having body language complement the dialog can greatly improve the title's immersion factor and help the player get a more lucid sense of the convictions that each character embodies and the motivations that they harbor, allowing them to appear and sound more multidimensional.

Portal 2's Wheatley is an intriguing example of a character who makes constant use of physical mannerisms in order to clearly communicate his thoughts and impart his generally flighty temperament. As a uniquely loquacious and self-aware personality core, Wheatley engages with the main character by accompanying his remarks and statements with motional tilts and optic tics that can range from subtle to conspicuous. These help enhance the player's interactions with the quirky construct, whose expressive and fast-talking nature provide entertaining and unfading moments throughout an experience defined by its minimalistic but spot-on characterization and ambiance, a testament to Valve's unique approach to storytelling and worldbuilding.

As human beings, we make constant use of our bodies to voice our thoughts more lucidly when engaging in others, which has become second nature to us. Since video games are a medium that rely heavily on audiovisuals to dish out information to the participant, the game designer should think about incorporating the concept of nonverbal communication into their characters to provide a more stimulating and natural experience. When this interpersonal principle is coupled with the slew of distinct personalities that populate an ever-changing virtual world, the game developer can make full use of the many interactional opportunities for each character and complement all of their traits with a gesture that sells the player into their bearing.

3 - Leverage the characters' relationships to beget compelling chemistry

In addition to the individual qualities and peculiarities of each character, the game designer should also see to it that the attributes of the various personalities in the game effectively intermingle with one another. This can be achieved by delving deeply into the characters' relationships and identifying sundry ways to provide an interesting juxtaposition between their distinct characteristics and/or making the traits that they  do share "click", which can trigger convincing interactions demonstrating solid chemistry between the personalities, which in turn contributes greatly to character development and unlocks another part of their PPS dimensions in a way not possible without interpersonal engagement.

Ellie and Joel from Naughty Dog's The Last of Us perfectly exemplify the kind of interesting interactions that can emerge from intriguing character development and dynamic interpersonal relationships.Throughout the length of the journey across post-apocalyptic America, the generationally dissimilar but equally steadfast survivors converse with one another in a way that displays a gradual but noticeable shift in their respective personalities. This can produce incredibly genuine moments in the story that highlight the inner struggle and the sanguineness of the main characters as they forge a stronger bond with one another and their conversations become more heartfelt, which help reinforce the poignant themes that define the experience.

As a useful tool for generating character progression and ripening the characteristics of each individual personality, character chemistry serves a vital interpersonal purpose that benefits both the designer and the player. It enables the former to tinker with the traits of the interacting characters in question to uncover new ways to expand their inner selves and relationships, which can pave the way for more engrossing scenarios that will whet the latter's appetite for narrative depth/entertainment. Through a meticulous examination of each personality's distinct/common qualities, the developer can more effectively determine the best course of action for interactional engagement and produce scenes that can portray the characters in a refreshing and captivating light.

4 - Provide a noteworthy subject for the characters to talk about

On top of the personal/interpersonal attributes that characters can embody, the developer can also add a dash of personality to each in-game inhabitant by providing them with opportunities to initiate social interchanges on various and sometimes unconventional topics. This technique can be used to fill the downtime between important events or make said events more entertaining, but it can also serve as a way for the characters to present their perspectives and/or reveal previously unknown aspects of their psyche, which can engender intriguing interactions. What makes this method useful is that it's compatible with even the most insignificant of characters, making it a flexible device developers can use to fill the world with a stronger identity.

The various H.A.R.M. henchmen and civilians from No One Lives Forever take that design aspect to heart, allowing them to showcase a certain level of charisma not often seen in NPCs that are featured in FPSs. In this comedic shooter series, the player will occasionally come across characters discussing random and sometimes far-out subjects while sneakily traversing the complex levels. From the art of having a flawlessly evil laugh to the correlative sociology of crime and alcoholism, no topic is too outlandish for the NPCs to tackle while carrying out their mundane duties, which make them a cut above the average FPS bystander/foe and further contribute to the charm and clever humor that encapsulate Monolith Productions' stealth-oriented shooter series.

Given that video games don't allocate quite as much time to interpersonal interactions as other entertainment mediums such as film and literature, the developer has to find creative ways to make the game world and its inhabitants more dynamic and captivating, and the implementation of conversations on pertinent or miscellaneous subjects that pique the player's interest is one effective way to fulfill that goal. By taking into account the tone of the title and determining the kind of topics that can be selectively chosen for each group of characters and scenario, the game designer can more efficiently enhance the feel of the virtual universe and deliver a more well-rounded experience through the engenderment of fascinating exchanges.

5 - Contextualize character interactions in a way that makes them entertaining

Of course, interactions between characters don't exclusively revolve around internal factors such as their individual traits and interpersonal communication. The circumstances under which they engage with one another can similarly have a large impact on the situations they find themselves in and the dialog that they deliver. Much like how a well-woven narrative can help make the action more meaningful, providing an interesting context for the interactional scenarios that effectively leverage the title's themes and tone can help bolster the characters' actions and words, which can subsequently lead to memorable scenes that do justice to the experience's premise and enable the characters to shine both individually and collectively.

TimeSplitters: Future Perfect cheekily embodies that writing principle with its unconventional but colorful scenarios. The game follows the exploits of Sergeant Cortez who travels through time and teams up with characters from several time periods to stop a balmy mad scientist from wrecking temporal havoc. As one can probably assume from the synopsis, such a fast-paced and time-spanning adventure can lead to side-splitting encounters stemming from the constant time jumps that the characters make to pursue their goal. The result is a tongue-in-cheek and memorable experience filled with comical interactions that make great use of the themes that make the game entertaining to play and watch.

Of all the components that can make or break character interactions in any creative work, context unarguably sits at the top of the food chain, and nowhere is that principle more indispensable than in video games, where opportunities for memorable interactions are less plentiful and more precious. This is where the developer can creatively make use of the high concept they came up with for the game to imbue said opportunities with the overarching themes that constitute the experience, and this can be done by brainstorming the many ways the characters, world and narrative mingle with one another at specific points in the game, which can enable the designer to craft interpersonal scenes whose impact is bolstered by the smart use of the game's context.

So writing genuinely captivating characters is a hard enough endeavor for the designer, but whipping out convincing interactions can be even more daunting when taking into account pacing, world-building and the need to keep individual personalities consistent. But with challenges come opportunities for the developer to get creative when it comes to providing compelling exchanges that do justice to the experience goal. With the guidelines that I laid out in this article, the developer can make full and efficient use of the themes and narrative structure they came up with to create memorable scenes that can depict the characters at their personal and interpersonal best and potentially provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the entire title that nicely complement the gameplay.

Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.

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