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Developing Meaningful Player Character Arcs in Branching Narrative

March 21, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Part Two: Crafting the Story and Inciting Change through Recontextualization

The crux of an RPG is choice. Story choice, character-building choice... even the illusion of choice is vital when actual choice isn't possible. The player character's development and inner conflict can be no different -- thus, any character arc focusing on the player can have no fixed outcome.

In other words, we can't know if the player is going to create the story of a struggling hero, a tragic fall, or a genuine saint. We shouldn't try to know. There are plenty of other storytelling media for that.

(In fact, another scenario that can cause RPGs to fail to deliver a compelling player character arc involves well-intentioned designers -- aware that a changing character provides some of the best drama -- forcing a specific set of changes upon the player character regardless of the player's choices. That is, the player character is shown to experience a specific reaction -- or a set of reactions -- without player input.

This can damage or destroy the empathetic relationship between player and player character as control, once the keystone of the story experience, is wrested away... often accompanied by the player angrily shouting, "My character would never say that!")

So we can't know the details of how the player character will change. But what we can do is help determine the theme of the story by framing it as a question. Let's go with that Breaking Bad example from above.

Breaking Bad is about a science teacher who engages in an enterprise that changes him from an underachieving family man into a criminal mastermind.

Fair enough, but that doesn't leave much room for player decision-making. Shall we change it?

Breaking Bad is about a science teacher who engages in an enterprise that tests his morals as a family man. Will he succumb to the temptations of power, or find a way to reverse the damage he's done before time runs out?

And suddenly, you've got a game. You've got a clear set of themes and ideas to build decisions around. You've got some clear end points for the player character, any of which could be natural consequences of player actions. You've got a bit of middle ground to work with -- your protagonist isn't required to be a saint or demon, but can fall somewhere in-between.

You still don't have a reason for the player to change over the course of the game (I love my family and do no wrong at the start, why wouldn't I love my family and do no wrong at the end?), but you know what possibilities you want to explore.

Note also that by keeping the question open, we limit the sorts of stories appropriate for a decision-based RPG. There's a good reason we're using Breaking Bad instead of Star Wars as an example here. (That's A New Hope specifically -- the other movies don't have this particular problem.) If Star Wars is about a farm boy who's caught up in a galactic war that pushes him to find the inner strength he's always lacked, then the clear alternative (the farm boy doesn't find that inner strength after all and either fails or stays at home) isn't really appropriate for most games. Very few players are going to choose the options in an RPG that result in total failure and the premature end of the game they paid to play.

With themes identified, it becomes the writer's obligation to find a way to create the "difficult circumstances" we talked about earlier -- circumstances that test the player and, if they don't change the player, force the player to actively resist change. These circumstances must put the player into conflict with the values he or she has grown comfortable with.

Maintaining the original status quo must become difficult or impossible. When considering important in-game decision points, ask the questions:

  • Why would the player make this decision differently from earlier decisions?
  • What differentiates the stakes or the circumstances?
  • Do the decisions the player must make build in a manner that allows for consistent character progression in multiple ways?

The original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic handles this problem with a well-timed sledgehammer blow. (For those averse to spoilers: Plot details follow.) The first half of the game involves the player gradually gaining more and more personal power, going from ordinary citizen to mystical Jedi. Perfectly fine, but the circumstances and pressures the player faces don't, for the most part, force a change in the player's perspective or decision-making process.

Then comes the revelation: the player is a former villain who's been brainwashed into forgetting his or her old ways. This encourages a re-evaluation of all past decisions and a recontextualization for all future choices. If the player has been acting heroically, he or she is now pushed to reconsider why and friction is generated with his or her allies. If the player has been acting villainously, the revelation is perhaps less effective -- but it still asks the player to consider his or her motivations in a new way. The revelation may serve as a warning not to continue down the same road a second time, or act as a promise of what could be.

But recontextualization is possible without a singular moment of revelation. Consider two generic examples:

  • Scenario One: The player character begins the game as part of a benevolent quasi-military organization. As the game progresses, the player character is rewarded with respect and recognition and develops strong bonds with supporting characters loyal to the organization. The organization, however, gradually begins making more and more morally dubious decisions. Where once the player could feel confident that "doing the right thing" and "supporting his or her friends" were the same thing, as the game goes on, the two become more and more at odds, and the player must re-evaluate the decision-making process.
  • Scenario Two: The player character begins the game as a knight, facing evil on a personal level and becoming hero to the locals. This heroism gradually earns the player greater and greater positions of authority, until the player is no longer merely responsible for his or her own life and the lives of a few others; now the player's decisions as king or queen suddenly affect millions, and heroic choices that once received praise may now be perceived as naive. The consequences of villainous choices are suddenly magnified. Benevolent characters may be pushed to make moral compromises during their rise to power "for the greater good," and wicked characters may find a sliver of humanity.

These are simple scenarios, but they both provide a path that ensures players cannot use the same decision-making formula throughout the game (at least not without reevaluating it along the way). They both provide easy escalation of stakes and a reason for a player character's decisions to evolve over time to any number of different end points.

One sidebar to this whole discussion: Earlier, I talked about putting the player "into conflict with the values he or she has grown comfortable with." But how uncomfortable do we want to make the player? If the player really just wants to sit in front of his or her TV, get some adrenaline flowing, shoot some baddies and feel like a hero... why are we making him or her squirm? How does that sell games?

Even feel-good "escapist" entertainment tends to have moments that are highly unpleasant for the protagonist (Luke Skywalker loses his family, or Sam and Diane scream at each other in the Cheers bar), and it's these moments that are crucial to defining and changing that character. The emotional impact of these moments, if done well, is going to be greater for a player interacting directly with the story than for a passive reader or TV watcher. So what's too much?

I don't have a good answer for this other than "think about it and be careful." Who is your audience, what's the tone of the game, and what level of discomfort is too much? Are there moments of comic relief or emotional release close at hand? Is the tone of the start of the game sufficient to prep the player for later moments of hardship, so the player is emotionally prepared? Experience in interactive media is helpful here -- never assume the rules of traditional narratives apply.

And of course, never make your audience more uncomfortable than it needs to be for the story you're telling.

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