Game Design: Characters as a Route to Immersion

One of the major gripes I’ve had as a games reviewer is that a lot of the time games just don’t get a passable story down. The main root cause of this is poor writing, but not necessarily even with regards to the narrative. I’ve seen incredibly complex narratives, such as Dishonored’s, fail not because the core narrative failed but because the characters as individual parts of it did.

I’m willing to bet that ninety to ninety five percent of video game characters are stereotypical or archetypical. All could probably get lumped into one category or another, but there are a few that feel real and developed. Some of this is actually fine; so long as it’s not an offensive stereotyping (e.g. Skyrim’s Nordic warriors aren’t an attempt to degrade real-life Nordic people), it won’t always hurt a game. However, there are times when it’s far too easy to get a stereotype to cross lines that offend, and just as easy to have it become boring.

One piece of advice I’d give every video game story writer is to pick up a copy of The Truth About Fiction by Steven Schoen, or some other real guide to writing by someone who knows what they’re doing; look for a focus on character and cause-and-effect writing. I keep my copy near at all times when I’m working on a setting or character design, and it’s great practice for creating a character that could just as easily find themselves in a novel or a movie as a deep and memorable figure.

Let’s look at the rebooted Lara Croft. She’s British, but not in the ways that make her a stereotype, and she’s also a woman without the usual stereotypical baggage of women portrayed in a video game. She’s needy and vulnerable at times, but so is most any college student suddenly thrust into life-or-death situations in which they have witnessed the death of close acquaintances. She, however, also has strong bonds with her fellow survivors-including the ones that die or turn against her, avoiding a common habit in writing of diminishing the importance of non-protagonists, especially those who wind up playing a minor role in the plot. In fact, because she has a relationship with the other survivors, and references her life before being shipwrecked, we can actually get a fair look at her as a character without having to have a lot written about her. I’d imagine that had the writers wanted to, they could have listed off twenty or twenty-five things about Lara that aren’t incredibly complex but when considered in common made her a consistent and engaging character who grows and develops over the course of the game.

On the extreme other hand, look at Blake Dexter from Hitman: Absolution. He’s a profane Texan businessman. He exists mostly isolated from the other characters, and those that he has connections to explicitly avoid him. The few major choices of the game usually could come back to have a personal involvement with him, but as far as I can tell there is no difference between ways of dealing with them because he is overtly antisocial. He is exactly what a good, engaging, character should not be-shallow, meaningless, and pointless. Even though he’s meant to be a villain that everyone can hate, he’s more of the villain that everyone gets a lukewarm feeling about-by the end of the game killing him, as the story required, felt more like giving him what he deserved than even vanquishing a threat or enemy; he was an overtly pitiful character.

This was the problem that Dishonored ran into; while it felt like a satisfying steampunk England, and the core narrative had a satisfying amount of twists and action to keep things feeling right, the actual characters were too vague. It would be tempting to blame this on screen time, as is possible with many other games, and which is a plausible excuse, but I think it is rather the fact that the game doesn’t capitalize on its assets; it’s so afraid of moving into the hardcore steampunk genre and marginalizing people who would perceive it as “too nerdy” that it chooses to remain shallow in its character development. Every character follows an archetype, and they do so incredibly well, but the interpersonal narrative itself feels so shallow because the interesting characters, like Granny Rags, don’t play a role in it. The Outsider is even intentionally cryptic, and Daud is only spoken of in whispers for much of the game. Indeed, Corvo doesn’t get to be a character save for the introduction and conclusion to the game, where he is given an opportunity for authentic interactions. The failure in the case of Dishonored lies not in an individual part, but in the lack of authentic interactions portrayed through the characters, and this is something that writers must be savvy about when designing their games.

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