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On Towerfall Ascension's approach to characters

On Towerfall Ascension's diverse but mechanically indistinguishable roster, and why player choice matters.

To understand this post you should understand Towerfall Ascension. I think you ought to generally do that anyway; it's one of my favorite games of last year. But if you aren't familiar with the game, stop for a second and watch this video:

It's actually slightly amusing, because it goes to great pains to explain the game's characters and back-story, something that doesn't come through in the game itself at all. But that's actually useful for this post, and I'll explain why in a little bit. 

What you need to know is this: It's a four-player 2D fighting game in which everyone's a very agile archer; the goal is to shoot your opponents (or squish 'em, Mario-style) and not get killed yourself.

If you don't have time to watch a video, here's what it looks like:

A conversation I had with Towerfall's developer, Matt Thorson, this week has had me thinking. I interviewed him (I'll publish that later). Afterward, we continued to talk, about the game's characters and player attitudes toward them.

At that point, we'd already spoken in the interview about the fact that, in the game, all of the characters are only cosmetically different -- there's no gameplay difference.

The quintessential one-on-one fighting game, Street Fighter II, has a variety of characters that all play differently and have different command inputs (think Ryu's fireball vs. Guile's Sonic Boom -- one requires a quarter circle forward on the stick; the other requires you to move it from side to side, but both are projectiles.)

This character-specific section of the Street fighter IV manual only makes sense for Ryu.

The Smash Bros. series, meanwhile, has a huge variety of characters that play differently but have the same command inputs. Everyone has a basic attack and a special button. What happens when you use them varies from character to character, but you don't have to learn to input new moves when you switch.

The Super Smash Bros. for Wii U controller config screen serves as its special move tutorial, too. You'll have to experiment to see what your character actually does for each input, but the inputs never change.

And Towerfall? It has a variety of characters that look different but play exactly the same. There's zero difference in either movement or capabilities -- between any of them.

One reason Thorson put a big roster in there, he said, is simply because people expect different characters in a fighter, and he felt the need to oblige that expectation. But we got on to talking about somehow, you form an attachment to a specific character -- your "main," in fighting game community parlance.

I have a main in Towerfall, called The Last of the Order:

What's funny is that I probably pick my main in Towerfall even more regularly than I might in a fighting game where the characters play wildly differently. I've been playing a lot of Smash 4 since it came out last fall, of course, and over any decent-length session, I'm likely to switch between Villager, Pac-Man, and Kirby. The Last of the Order? I never fail to pick her unless someone else picks her first. 

My husband, meanwhile, always, always, always picks The Assassin Prince:

One funny thing (to me, anyway) is that when I mentioned this to Thorson, he said that "cocky" players tend to gravitate toward the Prince because of his name and attitude -- as seen in that grin in the artwork above. (It's funny to me because it describes my husband. When Thorson said that, I immediately smiled in recognition.)

Here's the image of the Prince from the game's post-fight results screen:

Look at him, the little shit.

According to Thorson, the current Towerfall world champion also picks the Prince, so my husband is in good company.

It turns out that "pink" and "blue" -- as Thorson called them during our conversation -- are the most popular characters in the game. One of his ideas about why that is, is that they're inverted. In other words, the cultural expectation that "pink is for girls and blue is for boys" is subverted by the pair. That's an interesting observation, I think.

The Towerfall Ascension post-fight results screen. Image borrowed from this review.

Every fight is capped off with a win/loss screen like the one shown above. The winner looks thrilled and the losers look destroyed. Of note is the fact that each character has a unique fanfare that plays during this screen -- so while that may not be an immediate factor in choosing a character, as you begin to understand how the game works, you become aware you're picking that, too.

One thing I pointed out to Thorson is that I've come to find the Prince's fanfare annoying because my husband tends to win. (Remember what he said about "cocky" players?) He laughed in recognition of that observation.

Er, sorry, IGN. I didn't have time to take my own screenshot!

Ultimately, when you select a character in Towerfall, you're not merely selecting that character's appearance. You're selecting the color (they're all very closely aligned to a single shade, as you can see above -- note the gemstones) and victory tune, too.

I called out the video I embedded at the top of the post because when you're actually playing the game, none of that back-story exists; the game doesn't even have an opening movie. Yet that doesn't impede player loyalty to the characters, either! Just a color, a design, and a suggestive name is enough. "The Assassin Prince" and a smirk is all the back-story you really need, in this context.

And, of note, you're actually free to select for purely subjective, aesthetic reasons, because there's no difference in play-style between the characters. Anyone who plays fighting games knows that you often need to strike a balance. I like Big Band in Skullgirls (full disclosure: I worked on that game!) becuse he's such an incredibly cool-looking character, but I'm unlikely to select him because I prefer to use smaller, faster fighters.

In the end, Towerfall is strengthened by having this large character roster, even if it's a lot more expensive than just having a single avatar in multiple colors, which would be identical from a pure functionality perspective. It's because they're strongly identifiable. A lot of work has gone into making them appealing (and diverse, so appealing to a broader audience) as well as cool, and that was a very deliberate choice on Thorson's part. If one thing came across during our conversation, it was his thoughtfulness about how he designed his game.

I think the takeaway here is that there's a lot of power in choice, even when it's purely cosmetic; and freedom of choice doesn't impede player loyalty to even a pre-designed character. In other words, it's not just characters you make yourself, or that you specifically enjoy playing with, that matter to players. Choices matter. The issue as developers is determining which choices matter, and then investing time and effort into supporting those.

Note: You might have noticed that this post ignores the topic of the positive aspects of creating a game where characters all play the same, from a game design standpoint; the interview with Thorson tackles that topic, so you'll be able to read more about that later.

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