Thursday, 28 April 2011

Look ma! I'm a Real Boy! - Character Design in Video Games (Written)

In my last post I ranted on the lack of diversity in character design in games. I realise it was a rant. I am unashamed of this fact, and if it weren’t for my friends glowering at me through the computer screen, I’m sure I’d start another one right now. However, I am armed with sugar, and a good old cup of tea, so hopefully it’ll still my nerves (They’re still frazzled from that dang Google search). Hopefully.

Instead I wanted to bitc-I mean discuss written and ‘acted’ characterisation - what makes an interesting three dimensional character. In truth, it’s a very hard question to answer, solely because there are so many integral facets of great character design that it’s hard to specify the most necessary. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

1. Compelling Motive

“I’m off to save the world!”


“… For the lols?”

Admittedly, even the above scenario could work if you played it right, though I doubt it, if that’s the sole motivation you’re going for. A compelling motive is realistic, identifiable, and, most importantly, in keeping with the over all personality of the character.

For instance, if your character is an asshole, they’re not going to save the world, and if they do it’s probably only because they want to get rich off the royalties of being a hero and retire. Or possibly just because it’ll be a chance to kick the crap out of someone and not go to gaol?

Even boredom can be an interesting motive if you play it right.

Conversely, if your character is a hero, chances are they’re not the most self sacrificing person in the world who has to do everything right all the time, without a motive. If they are, turn around and go back to the planning stages, because I think you just made a Mary-sue/Gary-stu. However, if they’re compensating for something - perhaps a case of self image issues, or guilt? - or maybe doing it to protect a family member, then it instantly becomes a little more understandable as a course of action.

As far as motives go, the simpler the better is usually a good rule to live by. This is your characters ambition, the thing they want or need to do most in the world, and at the of the day the player has to believe in it just as much as the character.

2. Interaction

Where would Dr Mcoy be without his dry sarcasm? Buffy without her cheesy one-liners? Deadpool without the internet?

A character who doesn’t interact is boring. Heck, even Link interacts! How does the character speak? What inflections do they put on words, do they gesticulate with their hands? Body language and the inflections of speech are inherently unique to everyone on the planet, it’s pure science. The things we experience day to day, coupled with the way we were bought up, the way we see ourselves and our genetics, alter the way we present ourselves to the world.

Your character is no exception to this.

An outspoken laid back person born and raised in New Orleans, but coming from a well off family, will probably speak with a light southern drawl, though their words would be clipped, and arraigned in formal sentences. Sparse amounts of slang would make their way into that person’s speech. They’d also hold themselves with a slightly slouched - shoulder mildly slacked, and feet an easy distance apart. But their chin would be held high, and spine comfortably straight with confidence. Most probably they’d use their entire body to enunciate, and have a fairly expressive face.

In juxtaposition, someone from Birmingham, England, with the same financial background, would naturally have a straight, more closed posture, and probably use only their hands and expression to enunciate their words.

However, it’s not just this personal, general view of interaction that needs to be taken into account. How does the character treat those around them? How do they speak with their closest friends and family? How do they treat their enemies?

A group of characters who play off of each others insecurities and emotional weaknesses are going to be more interesting than a cast who simply agree on everything and practically act like clones. Heck that’s the reason house does as well at it does. Conflict is interesting: Fact.

Balthier in Final Fantasy XII treats every one with general, sarcastic disdain and arrogance, coupled with ingrained imperialism, with a rebellious streak a mile wide. All apart from his partner, Fran, with whom he seems to have a quiet accord coupled with intermittent humour (up to and including a discreet knuckle bump at one point in the game).

Whereas, Penello from the same game is generally good natured and determined. Though she as she’s fairly quiet through the game she comes off a little shy around stranger, apart from the few moments she’s teasing/berating Vaan (the games ‘Main’ character), or skilfully playing games of politeness with a soon to be Emperor.

3. Personality

A character without personality is like a stone that bleeds. It just shouldn’t happen. Ever.

I’m not even sure it’s possible to define persona-

Personality (noun; n): per-son-alley-ti

The complex of all the attributes--behavioural, temperamental, emotional and mental--that characterize a unique individual.

-…. Thank you Google.

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