Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Let's add a little character

What do you think of when you hear a game's name? What images comes to your mind when I say Mass Effect, Halo and Mirror's Edge? I'm going guess something like this...

The poster children

Recognisable characters help with the marketing of a game. Everyone can identify Mario, Lara Croft, Gordon Freeman, Sonic the Hedgehog or Pacman. Lead or likable characters that stick in the minds of players help raise interest, spark curiousity, and make people love the game. Take Duke Nukem Forever: if it were not for the love held by fans for the lead character from games over 10 years old, the idea of finishing the development of the game would have been ditched long ago. This is the kind of loyalty and dedication (though it could be aruged it's now delved into the realm of pure stubbornness) that game developers would love to be able to incite in fans for every character they create.

We've all experienced our share of games with bland main characters, but even with characters that on paper might seem the same inspire different reactions. Why is it that Gordon Freeman from Half-life was popular, whereas Isaac Clarke from Dead Space was bland? Both are silent protagonists (though Isaac does give the occasional grunt), but Gordon for some reason has charm that Isaac does not. Is it because of the way people react to Gordon compared to Isaac? Is it because Gordon is a regular man in an amazing suit? Arguably Isaac is the same.  Or maybe it's simply because of Gordon's ridiculously manly beard?

There is no chin behind Gordon's beard. Just another crowbar.

So what is it that makes a character likeable or memorable?  What is it that makes a character a hit with fans?  In games we don't often get to have the protagonist develop as a character which frequently endears people to someone as in a book or a movie. Video game protagonists are frequently static in terms of their character and behave in exactly the same manner from start to finish (even if they become more powerful or dangerous as the game progresses), though there are exceptions to this rule. Take Altair from Assassin's Creed, who goes from a self-centred egotist to a somewhat humble character trying to make up for past mistakes, and I'm sure you can think of others.  Of course, this isn't to say that a static protagonist is bad.  Duke Nukem and Gordon Freeman aren't changed by the events they experience, neither is Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden nor Master Chief, and Guybrush Threepwood is still a bumbling wannabe pirate throughout all his adventures. Yet all these characters are endearing, fun, or just plain butt-kicking-for-goodness-awesome in the minds of the players who have played their games.

Characters have to be unique and have less time to sell themselves to players (or potential players) than in other media. There has to be something that immediately says "I'm interesting", or marks the character out as different or worth our time.  Garrett from the Thief series is a master of his craft and a gravelly voiced cynic to boot, April Ryan from The Longest Journey is a art student struggling with life, Alan Wake is a troubled writer who ends up fighting zombies, Ryu Hayabusa is a death-dealing ninja without equal. Of course, there also the problem that so many characters and protagonists are white males, but that's opening up a whole different can of worms. Regardless, there are plenty more individual characters that are immediately recognisable without having to resort to low-grade tactics...

Do we really need to see video game characters like this?

Do we really demand our characters be physically attractive in order to get players attracted to a game?  Are video gamers really that shallow that sex sells in a wholly interactive medium? Surely we can have a lot more variety in the characters within modern video games, and surely developers owe it to gamers to provide that? Of course, it's also up to players to support developers when they create something that doesn't conform to the norm. That said, there are certain things that can be difficult because games are an interactive medium, like for example an unlikeable protagonist.  There are certain movies where the viewer does not find the main character(s) particularly endearing. Try The Godfather or District 9, where generally viewers don't particularly like the main character for most (or all) of the film, yet typically they still want the character to succeed. If in a video game and you're playing a character you don't like, the chances that you're going to simply stop playing the game are fairly high. This is totally undesirable.

So video game developers must make characters likable yet not blatantly sexualised, have an individual personality yet one that is quickly accessible, and recognisable yet not stereotypical. In each of these aspects, creating characters for video games is much like creating characters for any medium. But developers have the means to convey characters in an interactive medium and can allow players to shape character development according to their choices. What if a player could actually help redeem an initially unlikable protagonist, or be the push that sends a noble character tumbling down the slope of morality? Or does creating a character that is mutable based on a player's choices actually dilute the strength of their personality and hence potentially weaken the strength of that character's persona?

I don't know the answer, but I look forward to playing games that explore these possibilities.


  1. Well, the first image is generic fps looking guy, Master Chief, video game female. Master Chief is boring, but at least iconic.

    Gordon has the old school nerd glasses, and is not bulging with muscles (look at his thin neck). He probably looks like many game players. And he, gasp, actually looks like you might imagine a young theoretical physicist might. I actually know someone via the internet who looks so much like him facially it's spooky.

    That last image is at least an improvement. Not so long ago she'd still have those breasts but weight 45 kg.

  2. We have different tastes. Fighting games have some of the best character designs and animations of video games. I wish western rpgs looked as good.

    Part of the reason I got tired of nwn2 modding was how boring and ugly the characters were. Misery Stone got around that by making new models. I didn't have the ability to do that.

  3. I have nothing against fighting game characters, and in fact I think some of them are excellent examples of good character design. Some of them are very distinctive, and simply through their appearance and animation, they convey a lot about the personality of the character. These are fantastic traits. However, what the games don't need to have are female characters with ridiculously large breasts that are falling out of their outfits.