Sunday, 27 March 2011

Characters in Video Games

Utterly absorbed.
Games have an advantage over all other media. That advantage is interactivity. No other entertainment medium offers (demands?) the same level of interaction. Interactivity allows the player to connect with the elements in the game – the world, story and characters. Further than that consumers typically invest a greater span of time in a game than a film, TV episode or book.

But very few games have brought me to tears or thrilled me in the way films or TV can. To connect most deeply with the consumer, the media must nail everything just right. An unbelievable world, an uninteresting story, poor writing or acting – any of these things will break the spell. But one thing games often fail at – and consequently lose their magic – is in creating interesting characters that the player cares about.

Of course, we can make excuses for games – facial animation is still generally unbelievable, the gameplay disconnects the player from the drama, “engaging characters” don’t sell games (directly)… but the simple fact that there are games which have got this right, proves that it can be done.

I can only really list two game characters I connected deeply with. The first is Link’s childhood friend Saria in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time. The friends part ways in Link’s youth, but even after Link learns to travel through time, he is unable to prevent Saria’s death or even say a final farewell – just her haunting melody echoes through the Kokiri Forest Meadows.

Lost Odyssey delivered short stories with simple pictures
and music to develop the characters
The other character with whom I developed a strong connection was Kaim Argonar from Lost Odyssey (2008). Much of Kaim’s character is revealed in the game’s Thousand Years of Dreams sequences where Kaim remembers things from his past. In these sequences, the player is presented with third-person prose accompanied by simple abstract visual backdrops and music and ambient sounds. Through these “dreams” the player is shown the sword-for-hire mercenary’s sympathetic and caring nature.

Curiously, neither example relies on bleeding-edge visuals or carefully orchestrated cutscenes. Written word and well-pitched audio are the only thing used to develop a connection with the player and enhance the emotional experience. While Kaim’s multifaceted character sustains interest and believable humanity, the simplicity of Link and Saria’s friendship tragedy was enough to pull at my heartstrings without overdeveloping the characters’ depth.

Poor Maximus never wanted to mutilate all those gladiators,
he just wanted to get touchy feely with the corn.
Call it macabre, but few things get the emotional response from me as a classic greek tragedy – a hero’s fall. Maximus, the protagonist from the 2000 film Gladiator is a good example of a character who “works” for me. We see him first as a general, then as a father and husband, then as a vengeful warrior. Exposing so many of these facets of the character, and being so close to him during pivotal moments in his life allows the viewer to develop a very strong relationship with the character.

In most cases the character’s appearance is only used to make an engaging first impression and provide a visual summary of the character, but this importance shouldn’t be understated. In some cases, the appearance can be used to support emotions which put greater emphasis on appearance. Familiarity is generally broken by characters with an inhuman appearance – and consequently attachment is lost. This is often intentionally the case with “the bad guys”. Physical attraction can also be important if the story nurtures a relationship between two characters; Hollywood knows all too well to use attractive actors and actresses when making romantic films and the same should be true for games.  

But ultimately, I feel the single most important part of creating an engaging character is the script. The events which happen to the character, their backstory and also what they say during the experience are what separate engaging characters from flat ones. Books are unable to use visual appearance and films are necessarily short, yet memorable and deeply emotional character engagements happen in these media frequently.

Increasingly, Hollywood talent is providing voice acting in games. But it’s still rare that big or small screen scriptwriters get contracted for games. If the games industry cannot – or will not – attract the best of this (and other) writing talent, then its little wonder the characters come up short. With the ever-increasing budgets required to make games, why not splash a little cash in the writing department? Let’s see if they can come up with some characters that players actually care about.

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