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Story Design Tips: Identifying with Characters

Here are the 3 ways to get the player to identify with your character.

Guy Hasson, Blogger

December 7, 2011

5 Min Read

A Reader's Question 



A reader asked by mail:


One question that continues to arise in my mind relating to storytelling in video games is how much of a part the player's character should play in the story. It seems many of the greatest games have us, the player, as a silent observer, simply experiencing the story around and affecting it only through our own actions (killing the bad guys, saving the world), whereas other games have tried a story whereby giving the player's character a back story and his own motives, etc. And so any cut-scenes seem to end up abstracting away any concept of *being* this person as there is no longer a common understanding between the player and the character he's controlling. As story designers, can we give the main character in games a history and a personality without alienating the player from this character?


Basically, the core of the question is: What makes us identify with a character and what makes us become alienated from him or her?


Identifying with Characters


Three things make us bond emotionally with characters:


1. We identify with a character's situation.


This means that, regardless of who the character is, good or bad, if a player identifies with a situation the character is in, then, even for a moment, he is with that character. Note that neither here nor in the next two items will you need to establish a background to create identification. Establishing a background takes time. Establishing a situation can take half a second.  


It's easy to give examples about identifying with heroes. Let me show you this is true, by having it work on villains. Say you see the dictator of North Korea, all-powerful in his country and in control of everything. And yet, as you watch him this morning, you see that things fall out of his hand, his morning coffee drops from the table as he touches it and breaks, his toilet no longer works, and so on. He has one of those frustrating mornings in which nothing goes right. You're going to identify with him and for a while he's going to stop being a villain in your eyes.


Or imagine Hitler's arguments with Eva mirroring your arguments with your girl/boyfriend.


We identify with situations, period. And that makes identification an easy thing to manipulate (the story designer giveth and the story designer taketh).


2. We identify with someone who is what we want to be.


This is the core of most first person and third person shooters. As the game progresses, our character proves to be more of a hero, more of a badass, more of a paragon, or more of a renegade, and we like him more and more for it. It's not who most of us are in real life, but it's who we want to be. This is established through deeds, deeds, and more deeds.


3. We identify with someone who we feel is 'like us'.


Every person tells himself a story about who he is. That story may be false or it may be true. Usually, it's false, and usually it's a lot worse than whatever the truth is. Outwardly, a person can appear insecure or overly secure, but inside he believes himself to be a loser. That's the story he tells himself, and that's the story he'll identify with. Another person can feel like he's in a constant competition that he can't win. Another person can feel like the entire world is against him. These are all stories we tell ourselves. When we see them in others, even if we don't realize we share the same story, we identify with that person.  


We identify with these characters, even if what they seem to be is the last thing we want to be. (As opposed to item 2 above). If any of you have seen Fawlty's Towers (a must!) you won't be surprised to know that Manuel was the most beloved character by most, and not the main heroes. He is the only one there who had no power over his life, and so people identified with him. He wasn't the hero, he wasn't what the viewers wanted to be, he was what they felt inside that they were.


Background Stories


Note that 'background' was not a criteria for identifying with a character. Although creating a background is what almost everyone will tell you it's a must. That's simply not true. Many backgrounds don't create identification, and many identifications are caused without the players/readers/viewers getting the background. The only times that seeing a background works is if it answers one of the three criteria above.


Permanent Bonding


A string of situations that lead to identifying with the character will cause the player to be permanently bonded to him/her. In any cut scenes that you make, in any situations you put your character in, make sure they are consistent with the core of the elements which caused the players to identify with your character in the first place. If not, then you only have so much leeway before the bonding begins to melt away…


In Conclusion


I didn’t mention the reader's name, since I wasn't sure if he had a problem with it or not, but I hope this answers your question. (In the future, when you send questions, please tell me if it's okay to mention your name.)


Next week, we're going to talk a bit more about identifying with characters.



[If any of you have any questions for future Story Design Tips columns, please write them in the comments or send me an email to guyhasson at gmail dot com.]


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