Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Characterisation or Story?

There's been a growing trend in RPGs to tend towards stronger NPCs. No, I don't mean physical strength, I mean in terms of the depth and complexity of their character. By making the characters that the player interacts with more compelling and interesting, the aim is to draw the player in more. However, given that there are a limited amount of resources when creating a game, where should the line be drawn in terms of developing a character?

I will note that this isn't a problem exclusive to RPGs. Any plot driven story needs to balance the development of its characters with the development of plot itself. However, I think I'd argue that RPGs tend to be more gripping when they revolve around the plot.

This is because the RPG is the player's story. It is the player's choices and decisions that cause events to happen. If their actions don't have the most important effects, then the player is relegated to the position of a supporting cast member in the show in which they are supposed to be the star. This was a major problem I had with the original Neverwinter Nights. So much of the story ended up revolving around Aribeth instead of the player that I felt like a secondary figure to her protagonist role.

It should be very rare that the player does not feel like the star of the game. Even in the climax of Oblivion's main plot, where the player is not the ultimate hero, they are thanked profusely and made to feel like they indeed the saviour that made the success possible. Which is true, of course, but players need to be reminded of that.  Gamers play RPGs to be the hero (or the villain!) and want to feel that they are doing that. The problem with strong characterisation is that it can potentially take away that feeling.

So given that point, it follows that we cannot risk the plot itself in favour of characterisation. This is not only in order to make the player feel like the protagonist of the story, but also to ensure that we give the player enough time to experience a suitably epic story.  As I said, there's a limited amount of resources when making a game, so making sure the player gets a gripping story should be among the foremost of concerns. As much as people say the "saving the world" cliche gets old... it really doesn't. We've been doing it for years now in games of all genres, and gamers still love it. Regardless of the spin of a story, there has to be something at stake for the player to be invested to succeed in the story.  What higher stakes are there than the nation... the world... the universe?

Now just to do an about-face, I'm going to say that characterisation is also an excellent way to get players invested in a story.  If we care about the people involved, we're going to want to see good things happen to them, or if we're given reason to hate them, bad things!  Could we have a game based entirely around a set of characters and their fates based upon the decisions of the player? Would it be memorable, or simply forgotten because it lacked the epic scope of its story-driven competition?


  1. This is just my opinion, but that last point may be good discussion for the ME1 vs. ME2 stories.

    Mass Effect was a game based on the story and plot, with characters supporting the plot.

    Mass Effect 2 switched to a story based on characters, who were supported by the plot.

    Both types of stories can be memorable. With a good plot, the story will have a dramatic effect on the audience (game or book or etc.) People will also connect to characters that they have grown to like, who they will remember after the story is done.

  2. I figured someone would compare ME1 and ME2. I almost did it in my post, but I feel like I've been bringing up ME and DAO far too often lately...

    That said, there is more of a focus on characters in ME2. But in that the game struggles a little with its own focus, as it's torn between dealing with the characters (which is the majority of the game) and furthering the plot of the trilogy. As a result it feels as though the game fails to deliver what it could/should in terms of story.

    Don't get me wrong, I still love it, but it feels as though the character focus of the gameplay isn't necessarily played out to its full extent in the culmination of the game itself. If your actions had profound effects on the character of the party members, then it might feel more empowering? Though you do decide their fate, and that's fairly potent...

  3. I preferred ME2, mostly because I felt the characters were so much better and because of the fact that the missions you get regarding them are often quite interesting.
    But I didn't find ME1 to be a particularly interesting game, I don't think the plot was interesting.

    But I will *definitely* agree with the fact that ME2 feels very confused in terms of its place in a trilogy. Even though they always planned it as a trilogy from the start, ME2 really felt like a "write it as you go along" type of deal. Very little happens in the story, characters like the Illusive Man sorta feels thrown in there and the whole "omg Shepard died" is completely unnecessary and seemingly only there so that there is an excuse for the player to re-customize their character.

    But generally speaking, I'm not really sure on what "type" I like the most. Regardless of what happens, I think the player should be in the driver's seat as much as humanly possible. Decisions for the player shouldn't be smothered or cut away in favor of the totally awesome story that the developer might have cooked up. It's a game, so it should be very interactive.