One of the biggest struggles of a narrative designer in games is creating strong characters when they have such limited showtime and script. Movies and cinematic cutscenes give writers a certain control over how we see characters act, but how do we handle character building in less story-centric and less narrative-driven games?
What we lack in dialogue and action, we need to make up for with a depth that helps characters shine during the limited airtime they do get. So firstly, what actually makes a character, a character?
Character: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual
Behaviours, habits, mannerisms... these are what we see most obviously in characters, but where is it exactly that these qualities originate from? Characters are much more than a set of characteristics; they have wants, needs and fears that drive them. So when it comes to writing stories, we need to begin with the motivation that builds the foundation of that story. For this, we have two simple ingredients:
- Intensity of wanting something
- Something standing in the way
It is conflict that all stories are based upon, and conflict that should drive a character.
What does your character want? What stands in their way?
Players have a special relationship with protagonists in video games, unique from other mediums. Avatars are the characters that we want to be, to project ourselves into. As game designers, we can utilise this chance to create something more intimate, as a roleplaying vessel to play as. This can be via:
- An ideal fantasy - For example, roleplaying as a spy or princess. This is something we can never be, something amazing and beyond our reach in real life, but oh so fun to taste the power of it in a fantasy world.
- A blank slate - Sometimes known as silent protagonists, these characters have no notable characteristics or backstory. By giving the player less detail and complete customisation over their character, we give them more opportunity to project themselves onto their avatar.
- A combination of the above
Of course, a blank slate is what it is: Blank. Therefore, much of the character building in this article will only apply to side characters and protagonists with established characters. When it comes to a blank slate, we need to hold back on personality traits and leave the player more control over who they're playing as. I struggled with Fallout 4 because my character had a voice, and it wasn't who I wanted it to be. In previous Fallout games where my avatar was mute, I could imagine my own ideal persona for my character without having that illusion shattered.
We need to remember to maintain this roleplay and character-player connection. They should share pain (more on this in my immersion article!), victory, knowledge, surprise and learning together. So, for example, the player shouldn't be able to magically see enemies hiding and waiting to surprise the protagonist in a prior cutscene. And vice versa, the protagonist shouldn't already know a twist before the player learns of it either. When we do these things, we break that roleplay connection. On the other hand, even the simple act of the protagonist levelling up and unlocking new moves as the player themselves masters the game alongside them is a bond in itself. You're in it together.
Are there any imbalances between the player's knowledge and the protagonist's? By starting the game in an environment new and unknown to the protagonist, the player can learn and explore together along with them, without disadvantage over one another. Just beware of using cliches (*cough* memory loss!).
Three Dimensional Character
Good characters are often described as three-dimensional. They're complex and unique, with fully developed lives, attitudes, and weaknesses. We need realistic characters to help immerse us in a game's world, engage our emotions, and motivate us to share their goals. However we can avoid 'flat' characters by breaking them down into their physical, sociological and psychological dimensions.
This is everything that makes up the physical body of your character: Their appearance, race, gender etc. Physical traits may even affect a character's story or lot in life, for example being shunned from society as a mutant or facing hardship from prejudice. Just be careful not to stereotype a character's appearance to fit their story.
Think of this as the hard facts about a character's story and environmental factors: Their culture, history, upbringing. This includes where they have come from and where they are now, and how these past and present factors have molded their present character.
This is how we see the character act and react: Their view of the world, opinions, attitudes, actions. It's important to remember that a character does not know themselves: their emotions and character are revealed through action and the paths they choose, largely during hardship. The true psychological dimension of a character is revealed when the character takes off their comfortable mask in a crisis. In other words, when us writers fuck everything up for them.
Which we will do.
Self awareness is boring and, frankly, unrealistic. Characters should never explain themselves, their emotions or their behaviour, because they shouldn't know their psychological dimension much better than the player does.
At the end of this article, I'll share a checklist of questions I commonly use when building characters and their three dimensions, but until then...
(Credit to Reedsy and their character arc guide)
Our job as narrative designers is to compel the player, to make them like a character... Or alternatively, if the character is a complete asshole, make the player mesmerised by them. As previously mentioned, by seeing a character change, by seeing them in crisis, we see a true depth that allows us to empathise with their struggles. As writers, we have to be horrible to our characters to find out who they really are. And that's where growth and development come in.
Story must move forward. If it doesn't progress, it's not a story. But when the story moves forward, the characters must change with it. This is what fuels the forward momentum of a story: If the protagonist starts down in the gutter, make them rise up and find courage. If the protagonist starts high and proud, tear them down to the ground. It is when we're forced to face conflicts and obstacles that we have to grow. This can be physical challenges and rivalries, or mental battles and moral dilemas. We can use every one of these incidents to reveal depth of character and learn truths about them that even they don't know themselves.
Now, this is all very useful for a heavy game narrative but, outside of the main story, how can we reflect growth in gameplay? Unlockable combat stances, ballsier battle cries and dialogue barks, and increasingly impressive armour can be a brilliant way to reflect a growth of character without having to rely on cutscenes and linear story. It's gradual, it's subtle, and we're constantly absorbing and acknowledging these changes as we play. But we can also add smaller reinforcements from NPC reactions to the player: Remarks on their actions, rumours of effects on the world from the things that they've done, and recognition of their name. All of it reflects one satisfying thing: Progression.
What skills or insight is lacking in a character, and what room for growth is there? What setbacks can we match to these moments of growth? And at what cost does this growth come?
A Worthy Antagonist
Let's not forget one thing: Bad guys are people too.
It shouldn't just be the protagonist that grows; equally the antagonist needs to advance along with them, both in character and gameplay level. A story is only interesting if the rivals are evenly matched, therefore the antagonist should be very capable of beating the protagonist every step of the way with increasingly powerful minions, moves and weapons. And to keep the narrative compelling? Their character must be as strong and fleshed out as the protagonist's too.
Bad guys are usually a large part of a story's motivation, and that motivation must be strong to make us actually care. We can have enemies so evil that we love to hate them, but we can also have greyer enemies we might begrudgingly cheer against while silently rooting for their own redemption. Let's take the Turks from FFVII for example, they show glimpses of humanity, of remorse and brotherhood; qualities that remind us they're not just drones. And they're just... so damn cool.
Antagonists should be equally as developed as protagonists, despite less screen time. Give them a tragic flaw. Reflect their personality and actions via NPC ambient gossip, their treatment of victims, the architecture of their lair, and their minions in their mannerisms, phrases and actions.
Humans are complicated beings, and we're also pretty screwed up and confused, like, all the damn time. Characters don't know themselves, and they don't necessarily always react how the audience expects. Trauma, fear, bereavement, general suffering can, unsurprisingly, do weird things to a person.
But when characters react the opposite to how we expect, it can also be all the more emotionally powerful, surprising and attention-grabbing. For example, a tough character finally breaking down and falling to pieces under pressure or fear. Or irrational anger at a dead loved one for 'leaving'. These unexpected behaviours can allude us to exactly how deeply affected and vulnerable a character is, despite appearances.
One of my recent favourite Star Trek episodes, 'One', sees the tough and together Seven Of Nine have a bit of a breakdown as she finds herself alone on the ship with a psychopath. The build-up of a strong unshakable character is all the more powerful when they finally are shaken enough to just lose their absolute shit. Let emotions explode in weird ways and the results might pleasantly surprise you.
Unexpected emotion and outbursts should be used sparingly and never forced. Otherwise... well, they're not so unexpected. They need to be suppressed and built up... then you can let it explode for maximum impact, like a big 'ol sparkly bomb of tears and hysteria.
The obvious moments to exercise unexpected emotion are after the deaths of companions or side characters. But, alternatively for non-linear games, we can have characters act unexpectedly in difficult times such as the run-up to an ultimate boss. Find (very) rare gameplay moments when characters are really pushed to their limits.
Do, don't say
Backstory is dull. It's all too easy to shove backstory down the player's throat in a three-page long monologue, but this more often than not only results in a loss of immersion and detachment from the player. If something happened to someone or was important to their past, don't talk about it: show it in a flashback. If the player sees it vicariously for themselves, they can form an actual emotional attachment along with the protagonist as opposed to passively hearing it third hand.
Take the Last Of Us. Joel's past isn't forced on us through unnatural speeches and clunky throwbacks. Instead, we get to live his memory out ourselves in the game's prologue. And it works beautifully. So make it personal, and make the player witness what makes an antagonist so evil or how deeply the protagonist loves another.
Of course, we don't always have to use long, grand flashbacks to convey a character's memories, not to mention we don't always have the functionality in some types of games. But we can still sprinkle the backstory of characters throughout their actions and current habits, for example, becoming nervous or enraged in certain places, or not wanting to talk about certain things. They could even hold a keepsake from a loved one, with an uncharacteristic protectiveness over it.
It's always better to show little than to reveal too much: Just because a character has a backstory, doesn't mean we are obliged to tell it. Mystery can be far more powerful, and all it takes is a few seeds. Alternatively? Save reveals for later, after you've made the player want to know more.
Character Building Checklist
I always find that scribbling down the answers to a few key questions for my characters really solidifies exactly who they are in my head and makes them really come to life. Once I've established these little details, I write up some dialogue for them just to get a good feel of how they'd typically react to stuff (even just dialogue barks, for example, victory barks).
- Name and nickname - why are they called this?
- What is their goal?
- Their motivation?
- What is their backstory vs present story?
- What do they look like
- What is their disposition
- Where do they live
- What do they eat
- How do they dress
- Any major experiences or traumas?
- Any failures or internal conflicts?
- How was their childhood?
- What are their ruminations?
- What are their obsessions?
- What are their fears?
- What are their flaws?
- What are their strengths?
- What is their happy place?
- Are they in love?
- Do they have any medical conditions?
- What are their hobbies?
- What are their friends like?
- What are they embarrassed by?
- What do they believe in?
- What makes them relatable?
I hope the pointers mentioned in my article help to strengthen your characters like they have my own! Obviously, human beings are pretty complex subjects so there's a hell of a lot more ground we can cover when writing good characters in games. Next up, I'll be expanding on archetypes and character relationships that add richness to squadmates with the least airtime: companions. You can follow along here on Gamasutra or on my personal blog. Thanks for reading!