character is king
Games were not a significant part of my life while I was growing up. But films were, especially animated films. Seeing stories told in such creative ways and with such appealing characters have shaped my analytical lenses in extremely significant ways. This means that when I wear my designer hat, I have to very consciously remind myself to put gameplay first. At first, I thought this meant that story beats and character relationships and themes that I loved from film would need to be first on the list of anything to cut. And often, they are. Games are first and foremost, games, after all. But the gap seems to be decreasing all the time, even if the process itself won't get any easier.
Then, in 2017, I played over thirty titles. It started as curiosity, then it grew into a more obsessive study as I started exploring what this medium has to offer. Seeing the raw potential of this field to bring characters to life, as games mature as an industry, has changed the course of my career.
(For the curious, notable mentions from that list include: Borderlands 2 and Pre-Sequel. Ori and the Blind Forest. Portal and Portal 2. Transistor. Bastion. What Remains of Edith Finch. The Stanley Parable. ICEY. Life is Strange. Inside. NieR:Automata. Oxenfree. Orwell. The Uncharted series. The Last of Us.)
The hard part about game avatars is that they can rarely be considered characters in the cinematic sense. If they grow as characters, then they change, and this can shatter the illusion of roleplaying or projection of self into the game. But when it is done right... it is what makes story in games such an incredibly powerful force. Interactivity brings the relationships of characters and narrative to a deeply personal level. Projection is a powerful empathetic generator when it comes to considering the emotional nature of story being told. Gameplay mechanics that are in support of building these kinds of relationships are incredible storytelling and world-building tools.
Interactivity makes trying to design story into games incredibly difficult, as I've described before. This time, I want to focus on what makes those character relationships really work in games, and explore why they have such a powerful impact when they are done correctly. My main takeaway is that as opposed to the Pixar adage for animated films ("Story is king"), character is king when it comes to bringing a narrative game to life. A strong character supports, and is supported by, a strong game world. This is the core foundation for both story and gameplay. I believe this to be true for the following reasons, which I explore in the discussion of some of my favorite game characters (spoiler free as possible):
- Characters are the player's lens and guide to the game world
- Time spent with that character is an emotional investment into that character and the game world
- Interactions and moments that are nonessential to gameplay are essential in making the character feel real
Transistor - Red
World discovery alongside player, separate agency from the player
Entering a new game world is often intimidating, especially for those who aren't familiar with games. Red enters the game right there with the player; her world has just dramatically changed and she needs to learn the new rules, right alongside of you.
As the player is introduced to the world and gains gameplay experience, Red gains new skills while her relationship with the talking sword reveals more about the world, and the people who used to inhabit it.
Red doesn't speak; her voice has been stolen from her. The events that transpire are mostly narrated by the sword in a familiar manner; they were clearly very close before the events of the game have occurred. She occasionally makes her questions and opinions known through typed statements, but her muteness is a valuable tool for allowing the player to project a piece of themselves onto her.
The game rewards exploration by letting players get to know her; she is occasionally able to make her opinions and questions known when exploring digital interfaces within the game, which contain key story and character moments. These questions are completely natural for her to ask as the world she knew is quite literally crumbling around her, while also providing great insights for the player.
Though she is functionally a game avatar, what makes Red a memorable character is that she consistently makes her own choices, independently of the player and of the talking sword. The player is able to get a sense of who she is and what her motivations are through these choices, throughout the entire experience.
The Last of Us - Joel
Changes and grows through his relationship with Ellie
As far as gameplay goes, Joel is essentially the quintessential video game avatar; he doesn't talk much, he does what needs to be done. He's respected in the world as a badass, and the decisions he makes are the practical ones.
The most obvious part about Joel's memorable traits as a character is this special relationship that the entire experience is built around; his relationship with Ellie.
One of the ways in which the game supports taking time to explore the world is by the triggering of optional conversations (left video). These encourage the player to slow down, savor the world and the conversations; investing time into hearing how these two very different characters are getting to know one another, and change each other. This is one of the most remarkable things about Joel; he feels like a real person, but it rarely breaks immersion. Every decision he makes is one that makes sense in the context of the world and of the story. And while his gameplay never changes (apart from finding new weapons throughout the game), he as a person grows and changes. This is usually a disaster for the player's fantasy projection of themselves onto the game avatar; if the character grows emotionally in a way that the player is unable to connect with, then immersion is broken. However, the story is slow, the writing is minimalistic, and the emotional beats are always shown (never told). These allow the player to grow emotionally alongside the character.
Coming from a love for film, seeing and feeling this level of character connection in a game was astounding.
Moss - Quill
Recognizes the player's presence
A disclaimer: I can't yet speak to my personal experience with this game as I have not played it, but Quill is impossible for me to ignore in a post about emotional game characters that tell stories. Richard Lico gave an incredible GDC talk about how and why she was designed for Moss, and that thinking helped to shape this post.
Developed by Polyarc, Moss is a PSVR game which features an incredible relationship between two game characters; the tiny protagonist, Quill, and the player, who is invited into the world as Quill's guardian spirit. What makes this relationship particularly unique is that direct cooperation and communication between Quill and the player is necessary to progress throughout the puzzles in the game.
As a character, Quill is pretty typical of fairy tales; she is young, earnest, eager, and also incredibly visually appealing. The power of VR brings the player directly into an interactable gameplay setting; Quill makes eye contact and directly responds to the player's actions; she gets bored, she likes being petted (but not too much), she takes interest in the world, and she is also the game's hint system if the player is stuck on a puzzle. Her spunky personality makes her attractive, and makes the player want to help and protect her, and as her guardian spirit, that is directly their role. VR removes a barrier of a screen between the player and character, and allows the two to interact and form an emotional relationship with one another as they travel throughout this world and story.
Developing this intimately personal relationship only serves the narrative arc as the game progresses. Players viscerally feel the story of Moss as they travel with Quill, follow her adventures, fight alongside her.
Characters are king when it comes to telling stories in games.
Regardless of the way the game world is built, it's always viewed through the perspective of some kind of character avatar (first-person games provide a character for players to inhabit). Game characters are typically flat, devoid of their own agency, in order to react perfectly to controller inputs. This is fine most of the time; games are first and foremost, games. Crafting a deep storytelling experience is hard regardless of the medium, and it becomes even more difficult because the resources and design considerations of good games and good stories don't always align.
But with the enhanced capability of modern technology, these empathetic stories are more achievable than ever. Having characters that grow and change in their own stories is a completely natural expectation. Why not fight for them?