Excerpts are from Character Development And Storytelling For Games by Lee Sheldon, published by Cengage Learning PTR. The book can be purchased at Amazon.com, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. Find more books on Game Development at www.cengageptr.com.
There’s a double meaning in the title of this article. The word “respecting” can mean “about.” It can also mean “bestowing respect.” It’s not enough to populate a story with characters because you’re supposed to. It’s not enough to heedlessly scatter characters throughout a game like chicken feed in the barnyard mud because we need an adversary at this moment, a merchant here, or a puzzle-giver there. Characters in games must be more than clones of Vanna White, magically revealing those letters on Wheel of Fortune. Characters have a right to their own lives in the game. And giving them that right—granting them purpose beyond the designer’s convenience—in fact, makes it easier for us to tell our stories. There’s no reason not to respect characters as much as we respect collision detection.
William Archer in Play-Making notes that “the power to observe, to penetrate, and to reproduce character can neither be acquired nor regulated by theoretical recommendations.” And despite what the current vogue in how-to-write books might want us to believe, Archer also reminds us that “... specific directions for character drawing would be like rules for becoming six-feet-high.” What we can do, however, is present some ideas to consider as we bring to life the inhabitants of our games.
We call well-rounded characters three-dimensional. The same term is applied to the physical world around us and to computer art that is represented by height, width, and depth. That description of characters is often used as is, but it actually does have a definition. The three dimensions of a character are physical, sociological, and psychological. And they apply to all major characters in a game, whether they are the player-character or significant non-player-characters.
The easiest dimension to reveal to your audience is the physical character, particularly in visual media. What does Chuck Noland look like in Castaway? A chubby Tom Hanks. What does Carl Hanratty look like in Catch Me If You Can? Tom Hanks in glasses and a bad suit. What does Thomas Schell look like in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Tom Hanks in glasses and rolled-up sleeves. In games, we draw our heroes to fit their parts the same way Mr. Hanks binges when necessary to fit his. Do we run the risk of stereotyping our characters?
Unfortunately, yes. A stereotyped character is not a respected character. It is a tool of the author, the artist, the marketing department, or all three. So we draw (both in words and pictures) our characters to fit their roles in our games. And most often, they’re drawn to reflect the character’s personality or function in the game. But often we stop there, simply layering on a toolbox of skills, mannerisms, and catch phrases as we need them in the game. To create the well-rounded character, we need a bit more.
In the game Ico, a boy is born with horns, a physical deformity that recurs in his small village and is viewed by the villagers as a bad omen. Their attempts to kill him lead directly to the adventures that make up the story. Here, the physical character is notable both for the unique entry point it provides into the story and the fact that at the beginning of the game it is more important than either of the boy’s other two dimensions.
The sociological character includes the character’s past, her upbringing, and her environment, both local and cultural. By giving a character a past, we put her actions in perspective. They are no longer simply authorial conveniences, but they add weight and interest to the character. Sly Cooper’s character is drawn and animated as a wily raccoon. But add family tradition, and the recovery of the Thievius Raccoonus becomes more than just the final goal of the game. It becomes an essential character-driven goal, and it underlines the game’s theme.
Environment in this context is not only where the character grew up, but also where the character is now. This can be by choice as in a sandbox game like the Legend of Zelda games or Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. Each features many environments, and the player doesn’t necessarily have to finish one before exploring another.
Or it can be by circumstance in the more structured levels of an action game like the Super Monkey Ball series. The characters may need to draw on different skills or knowledge dependent on their environment, but they cannot be dragged out the first time they are needed. Even the James Bond film franchise (not heavily into three-dimensional characters) reinvented Bond in Casino Royale’s prologue flashback where we see the new, rough-edged Bond earning his 007 status for the first time in a men’s lavatory.
A word of caution: it is far too easy to go overboard on a character’s background. It is easy to confuse lists of details of a character’s past with pertinent information that helps mold the character. Just as drama is selective of incident where life gives us every moment, so too a character’s past should be filtered by necessity. If you know where you want your character to go, it is only necessary to provide a route, not a map of the world.