Sunday 21 October 2012

How to give your characters more character

In the last few blog posts I focused on carefully structuring and refining game mechanics to increase engagement. While these mechanics are an important part of games, there are also other gameplay elements to consider, such as story-related components. Today we are going to look at one part of stories: the characters that the user will encounter and interact with. Some of these characters might play a minor role, but there will be others that are going to be key to the story. If such a character lacks personality, they will only make the user less interested in the story.

Final Fantasy XIII - While in general Final Fantasy games have characters with a lot of depth, Final Fantasy XIII was criticized for having bland and one-sided characters.

Designing characters
As in real life, characters don’t suddenly materialize out of thin air, without any recollection of who they are and why they’re there. As a designer, you should have a good idea of the goals and characteristics of each character. What do they want out of life, and how do they try to achieve their goals? What have they done, and how does that have an effect on how they are? How do their hopes and dreams fit into the overarching story?

To The Moon - Life is not always about the good moments; To The Moon features an engaging story about the impact of character flaws on relationships.  

Interacting with the characters
Once you’ve thought up the characters, you need to think about how they relate to the user’s goals and actions. Do their goals align, creating a reason for them to help you, or to join you on your quest? It’s important to consider here that the reason should make sense; if characters join the user in a fight for life and death, they need to do so for very strong reasons (instead of the ‘I had nothing better to do argument’). By giving the user opportunities to interact with the characters outside of action-packed moments, they get an opportunity get more information about their personality and background.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: If one of your companions does something harmful to you on purpose, you should have the option to kick them out of your group. Why should you even keep them around?

Interaction between characters
Another way to increase the user’s affinity with characters is by having them interact with each other. This interaction can be positive, such as two characters slowly developing a romantic relationship, but it can also be negative, such as two characters fighting with each other. Small additions like these can make the characters feel more ‘alive’, and create a sense of surprise in the user. This sense of surprise is very important; we can’t predict everything in real life either.

Tales of Vesperia - Within these short optional skits the characters talk to and about each other. It's a good way of seeing how their relationships grow over the course of the game.

Within societies
The next step is going from an individual level to a society level. Where do these characters come from, and how does this affect their behavior. These kinds of differences can generally be thought of in terms of behavioural tendencies. These tendencies can follow existing stereotypes, such as dwarves being grumpy and having the tendency to drink a lot. Existing stereotypes might feel comfortable to the user, but they might also feel old and stale. Some tips to help you think about societies: where do these characters live, and how would that affect their behavior. For instance, groups of characters living in a barren land would probably be hard workers with little time for frivolous activities. Does gender have an effect? How do they treat those with a different status?

Kingdoms of Amalur: This game features interesting societies that are very different from the traditional archetypes.

Do note that most of these elements will not be visible to each user and reside solely in the mind of the designer. However, they will help you to think about other characters, and the overarching story, and create a sense of internal consistency. Do you have any others tips you’d like to share, or some other ideas on how to make characters more engaging? Any subjects you would like to see a blog post about? Don’t hesitate to tell us below!

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