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We need to respect game characters as much as we respect collision detection, says game designer and academic Lee Sheldon.

Lee Sheldon, Blogger

August 5, 2013

12 Min Read

Excerpts are from Character Development And Storytelling For Games by Lee Sheldon, published by Cengage Learning PTR. The book can be purchased at Amazon.com, iTunesBarnes & Noble, and other retailers. Find more books on Game Development at www.cengageptr.com.


There’s a double meaning in the title of this article. The word “respecting” can mean “about.” It can also mean “bestowing respect.” It’s not enough to populate a story with characters because you’re supposed to. It’s not enough to heedlessly scatter characters throughout a game like chicken feed in the barnyard mud because we need an adversary at this moment, a merchant here, or a puzzle-giver there. Characters in games must be more than clones of Vanna White, magically revealing those letters on Wheel of Fortune. Characters have a right to their own lives in the game. And giving them that right—granting them purpose beyond the designer’s convenience—in fact, makes it easier for us to tell our stories. There’s no reason not to respect characters as much as we respect collision detection.

Three Dimensions

William Archer in Play-Making notes that “the power to observe, to penetrate, and to reproduce character can neither be acquired nor regulated by theoretical recommendations.” And despite what the current vogue in how-to-write books might want us to believe, Archer also reminds us that “... specific directions for character drawing would be like rules for becoming six-feet-high.” What we can do, however, is present some ideas to consider as we bring to life the inhabitants of our games.

We call well-rounded characters three-dimensional. The same term is applied to the physical world around us and to computer art that is represented by height, width, and depth. That description of characters is often used as is, but it actually does have a definition. The three dimensions of a character are physical, sociological, and psychological. And they apply to all major characters in a game, whether they are the player-character or significant non-player-characters.

The Physical Character

The easiest dimension to reveal to your audience is the physical character, particularly in visual media. What does Chuck Noland look like in Castaway? A chubby Tom Hanks. What does Carl Hanratty look like in Catch Me If You Can? Tom Hanks in glasses and a bad suit. What does Thomas Schell look like in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Tom Hanks in glasses and rolled-up sleeves. In games, we draw our heroes to fit their parts the same way Mr. Hanks binges when necessary to fit his. Do we run the risk of stereotyping our characters?

Unfortunately, yes. A stereotyped character is not a respected character. It is a tool of the author, the artist, the marketing department, or all three.  So we draw (both in words and pictures) our characters to fit their roles in our games. And most often, they’re drawn to reflect the character’s personality or function in the game. But often we stop there, simply layering on a toolbox of skills, mannerisms, and catch phrases as we need them in the game. To create the well-rounded character, we need a bit more.

In the game Ico, a boy is born with horns, a physical deformity that recurs in his small village and is viewed by the villagers as a bad omen. Their attempts to kill him lead directly to the adventures that make up the story. Here, the physical character is notable both for the unique entry point it provides into the story and the fact that at the beginning of the game it is more important than either of the boy’s other two dimensions.

The Sociological Character

The sociological character includes the character’s past, her upbringing, and her environment, both local and cultural. By giving a character a past, we put her actions in perspective. They are no longer simply authorial conveniences, but they add weight and interest to the character. Sly Cooper’s character is drawn and animated as a wily raccoon. But add family tradition, and the recovery of the Thievius Raccoonus becomes more than just the final goal of the game. It becomes an essential character-driven goal, and it underlines the game’s theme.

Environment in this context is not only where the character grew up, but also where the character is now. This can be by choice as in a sandbox game like the Legend of Zelda games or Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. Each features many environments, and the player doesn’t necessarily have to finish one before exploring another.

Or it can be by circumstance in the more structured levels of an action game like the Super Monkey Ball series. The characters may need to draw on different skills or knowledge dependent on their environment, but they cannot be dragged out the first time they are needed. Even the James Bond film franchise (not heavily into three-dimensional characters) reinvented Bond in Casino Royale’s prologue flashback where we see the new, rough-edged Bond earning his 007 status for the first time in a men’s lavatory.

A word of caution: it is far too easy to go overboard on a character’s background. It is easy to confuse lists of details of a character’s past with pertinent information that helps mold the character. Just as drama is selective of incident where life gives us every moment, so too a character’s past should be filtered by necessity. If you know where you want your character to go, it is only necessary to provide a route, not a map of the world.

The Psychological Character

We build a relationship with the characters we write, just as we do with people we meet in our lives. If we want that relationship to grow stronger, we need to know the person as well as we can. The difference is that we theoretically know everything about a character we write, every treasure buried on the lost islands of their minds. But as we can spend too much time on their past, we can also spend too much time on what that past has made them, if we’re not careful.

Instead, we take a look at the actions of the character, his attitudes, his opinions, his view of the world. And we do it without letting the character in on the fact that we know as much as we do. Characters who explain themselves are not only boring, but they are not true-to-life. We writers know a secret. Even the most self-centered of human beings knows less about himself than he may think (case in point: Young Adult’s Mavis Gray!). If the characters are too self-aware—“I know I’m a self-made man, Pamela, and am rough around the edges. But gosh darn it, honey, underneath it all I have a warm heart and a pretty decent brain to boot.”—it’s a sure way to spot a hack writer.

Sometimes the most unaware of characters can be the most interesting. There is a sweet delight in the audience that is ahead of a character whose own actions or words condemn her. “But how did you know the killer had carved a star into the lieutenant’s left palm?” “Well, I read about it in the newspaper account of his death.” “That fact was never published! Take him away!”

The Coen brother’s first film, Blood Simple, takes this delicious moment of the audience knowing more than the character to a relentless, hilarious, and ghastly extreme: none of the characters knows who is doing what to whom. They all think they have a grasp on the situation, but they’re all totally wrong.

When is the best time to reveal the psychological dimension of a character? In a moment of crisis. It’s easy to wear a mask when everything is going smoothly in drama as well as in life. But watch the mask get stripped away when the character is faced with a crisis.

Character Progression

As Lajos Egri reminds us, “There is only one realm in which characters defy natural laws and remain the same—the realm of bad writing. And it is the fixed nature of the characters which makes the writing bad. If a character in a short story, novel, or play [or game!—ed.] occupies the same position at the end as the one he did at the beginning, that story, novel, or play is bad.”

Minor characters may not need to change. They may only be present for a single moment of time, and not every one of the moments can or should be a satori for every single character. But major characters, whether PC or NPC, must, like sharks, keep swimming or they will die. This change takes two forms: growth and development. They are often thought to mean the same thing. They don’t.


Character growth describes the changes that occur to the character as she progresses through the story.

In Dark Side of the Moon, written by Mark Barrett and me, the player-character Jake Wright moves from a shy, lackadaisical young man to a relentless seeker of the truth, then on to the determined protector of an entire alien race. The growth would have been artificial and unbelievable if we had not planted the seeds for this transition early in the story. The first clue that there is more to Jake than meets the eye is the fact that he has embarked on this trip to a distant moon in the first place, instead of shrugging it off, as he had most other things in his life. It is the love of his uncle that gives him the initial impetus that simple curiosity alone could not have. And in his search, he finds the strength to stand up against corporate slavers and the soulless creature who murdered his uncle.

Beyond helping to portray a fully developed character, growth assists us in our storytelling. Growth implies forward momentum. Character growth helps to propel us through the story of the game. Matching moments of character growth to moments of conflict in the story is surprisingly easy once you know the character and have mapped out the conflicts she must face.

We need character growth. For that reason, we must know where, psychologically, the character is when the story begins. If the character begins triumphant, we’ll have to tear him down. If he starts in the gutter, it will be a lot easier to enjoy the road he takes to the throne.


Character development is, as William Archer says, “… not change, but rather unveiling, disclosure.” He compares it to the developing of film. A drama ought to bring out character as the “photographer’s chemicals ‘bring out’ the forms latent in the negative.” He uses Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House as a prime example: “… we cannot but feel that the poet has compressed into a week an evolution which, in fact, would have demanded many months.” At the end of a play, Archer insists, “We should … know more of the protagonist’s character than he himself, or his most intimate friend, could know at the beginning….”

Terry Mallory, Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront both grows and develops. As he moves through the film toward his ultimate bloody confrontation and triumph on the docks, his character grows from a man who has always played by the rules of the corrupt union to a man driven by the developing realization of where his life has brought him. “I coulda been a contenda, Charlie!” he cries in the famous taxicab scene.

So if Jake Wright grows, how does he develop in the game? He learns along with the player a truth about his past, and the player at last sees what Jake himself may never know: the source of his strength and courage. It was in the genes all along.

The Pivotal Character

The pivotal character is the character who sets the story in motion. It can be the protagonist Hamlet who sets out on his course of revenge after the visitation by his father’s ghost, or “honest, honest” Iago, apparently dedicated to the interests of his lord, Othello, until his promotion is turned down.

Egri tells us, “Without a pivotal character, there is no play. The pivotal character is the one who creates conflict and makes the play move forward. The pivotal character knows what he wants. Without him the story flounders … in fact there is no story.”

The protagonist can be the pivotal character. Sly Cooper is an example of a player-character protagonist who is also a pivotal character. In many games, the pivotal character is the antagonist, who, with Pinky and the Brain determination, is bent on world domination in one form or another. Most RPGs begin with an evil force already at work. The player-character reacts to the resulting crisis.

If neither the hero nor the villain is the pivotal character, you still need one. In Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, it is the sidekick character, Daxter, who sets the story in motion.

His transformation into a rodent by falling in a vat of dark eco sends Jak, the player-character, on the search that is the spine of the game’s action to help him regain his original physical form.

There’s a twist that games bring to the concept of a pivotal character. In games, it could be the character who sends the player on missions or quests who is a pivotal character in gameplay, and yet another character may be pivotal to the story of the game. Oh brave new world that has such people in it!

“A good pivotal character must have something very vital at stake.” Egri emphasizes. He “is necessarily aggressive, uncompromising, even ruthless.” Here we can see why both villains and anti-heroes make particularly strong pivotal characters.

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About the Author(s)

Lee Sheldon


Lee Sheldon is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has written and designed more than two dozen commercial and applied video games and MMOs. His most recent book from Course Technology PTR is The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game. Lee began his academic career at Indiana University, where he instituted the practice of designing classes as multiplayer games, and wrote and designed the alternate reality games in the Skeleton Chase series. Most recently, Lee was lead writer/designer on three games based on Agatha Christie novels, lead writer on Star Trek: Infinite Space, and lead writer on Zynga’s Facebook game Indiana Jones Adventure World and an upcoming Kinect game for Harmonix. He is head of the team that is building the Emergent Reality Lab at Rensselaer, a mixed reality space for research and education; lead writer and design consultant on a game teaching math; and lead writer/designer of games teaching Chinese and business ethics. Before his career in video games, Lee wrote and produced over 200 popular television shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and Charlie’s Angels.

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