Shatter stereotypes to write better, richer game characters

"The first thing you need to do is end 'white cisgender able-bodied men' as the default," said dev Shawn Alexander Allen today in his GDC talk on breaking stereotypes to write better game characters.

Game developer Shawn Alexander Allen is best known today for his ongoing work on Treachery in Beatdown City, but before that he spent years working at Rockstar.

Today at GDC he drew on his experiences both within a big-budget studio and as an independent developer to lay out some concrete examples of how games are often filled with two-dimensional, homogenized characters -- and how game creators can craft better, more interesting characters by breaking out of that mold.

“The first thing you need to do is end ‘white cisgender able-bodied men’ as the default,” said Allen, pointing out that while such characters feature prominently in the lion's share of high-profile stories, “a lot of the stories that we have [in culture] can be read in multiple ways.”

To illustrate this, he pointed out how the basic summary for the sitcoms Martin and Seinfeld are basically the same -- but one cast is black, and the other is white. Later, he highlighted how similar the sitcoms Friends (predominantly white cast) and Living Single (predominantly black cast) were, noting that Living Single preceded Friends and inspired it.

Allen then brought up a lineup of roughly 40+ mugshots of different white male protagonists in games, from Uncharted to BioShock Infinite. As a thought exercise he suggested the audience ignore all the characters they thought were boring or poorly written.

He then cut all but three: the lead characters in Dead Rising, Metal Gear Solid, and Deadly Premonition. Allen noted that yes, each was created by Japanese developers, but more importantly, he believes each of them is an interesting character who by their very existence said interesting things about the world. 

Dead Rising protagonist Frank West, for example, is to Allen's eyes more than a protagonist: he's an interesting character that serves as commentary on things like the business of journalism. He's a white male protagonist, but he's more than just a shell for the player to inhabit, and Allen suggests that devs can create better characters by taking the time to justify why they exist.

“If you’re going to make a white male main character, you should really try to justify that choice,” said Allen “If you take those steps to really justify why you’re doing that, hopefully you’ll make a character that’s better.”

So for example, what if sidekick Ellie was the main character in The Last Of Us, rather than Joel? What if the black female character Riley was the main character, and Joel was the subordinate character?

Allen suggests either of these choices would have created more interesting character moments than the "protect Ellie" narrative which underlies most of the game (notably odd since, as Allen points out, Ellie is effectively invincible and invisible to enemies), but that the pressures of working in a big studio can often preclude game devs from taking important risks. Still, says Allen, they should -- big-budget games are high-profile projects, with unparalleled power to influence the game industry at large. 

“As writers, if you were to take the stand on this grand stage of triple-A, you would make this game industry better for it,” said Allen. “If they aren’t doing it, who can?”

However, he also cautioned against defining characters by trauma or oppression. This is something Allen says he’s wrestled with in his own game -- trying to avoid defining the white characters as oppressors and harassers, and avoiding defining the marginalized non-white characters as oppressed and harassed.

He also recommends that you give some thought to who the enemies in your games are -- who they are as characters, why they hang out where they do, and who they hang out with. Designers often fall into the trap of designing enemy forces around shallow stereotypes; for example, Allen points to the recent open-world game Watch Dogs 2, which features an enemy gang with no more depth than "Mexican drug gang." 

Allen vouches for this in his own work, acknowledging that it’s taken a lot of extra time and effort to flesh out the enemies in Treachery in Beatdown City but that the extra effort is evident in the game’s dialogue.

“I know none of the characters are perfect, but the effort put in creates very satisfying dialogue overall,” said Allen.

Here’s another example : Allen played two clips, one of an ‘Office Linebacker’ commercial featuring pro football player Terry Tate and the other featuring Gears of War character Cole Train, which Allen says was based heavily on Tate. In the commercial Tate is shown to be both an aggressive, threatening player and a courteous, intelligent coworker; by contrast, says Allen, it took three long Gears of War games to establish similar depth of character for Cole Train.

His point is not that developers shouldn’t base characters on charismatic football stars, but rather that devs should strive to flesh out their characters as real, believable, multi-faceted people, rather than shells which serve a purpose for the player.

This also extends to protagonists, which are typically literal shells for the player to inhabit. As an example, Allen suggested the 2016 game Mafia 3, which takes place in Louisiana in 1968. According to Allen, Clay is too boring -- he’s “like a black John Cena” who only seems to care about hustle, loyalty, and respect.

“This is pretty weird, because as a black man in the south in the ‘60s, he seems like he should be a lot angrier,” said Allen. “It’s like he forgot everything that’s going on. He’s not a person -- he’s just a shell for the player to use.”

And while there are lots of people of different backgrounds represented in the cast of Mafia 3, Allen says the fact that the two main drivers of the plot are Clay and a white man (John Donovan) is a failure of representation.

“We need more than 2 people of marginalized descent in important roles on a game,” said Allen.

If you're looking for some concrete examples of what you can do to improve, Allen offered the following steps for crafting better, richer characters in your work:

  • Be specific: Who is this character? Where do they come from?
  • Be detailed: Who do they hang out with? What do they like to do? How do their relationships influence their tastes and habits? 
  • Be deliberate: Justify your decisions. Don't just go with what's normal or typical -- be deliberate about the choices you make when creating and writing characters.

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