I am a man of nondescript age with little to no formal training. I am not a game designer, a storyboard editor or a psychologist. In fact, it has been over 20 years since I’ve written any practically relevant code. If there is one point you take away from my entire body of work I would want it to be the exact opposite of the Jackass warning: I am not trained professional, please try any of these exercises at home.
So, my friend Wayne asked me a question this morning. I won’t go into detail because it’s a personal conversation and you know the deal. Speaking my true name backwards banishes me to the 5th dimension, so forth so on. Anyways, he asked me who my least favourite video game protagonist is. After about 10 minutes of us rapping over the subject I came to a startling realization. Now, those of you whom have followed me since the beginning knows that one of my favourite things about video games is the fact that writing for them is fundamentally different than any other medium. Tricks and techniques that come off brilliantly in music, literature and film have a nasty habit of falling flatter than Auron’s voice acting when translated to an interactive medium.
Funny thing is, now that I think about it, the idea that this issue would also translate to character development seems laughably obvious but I never really gave it the thought. I mean, we have folks out there doing it right like Kratos and Samus (so long as you pretend very specific chunks of Other M never happened, not all of it, just the bits where she mindlessly fawned over Adam. The Ridley scare scene can stay. Loved that bit). Anyway, now that I think about it, we still largely use many of the techniques popular in film when trying to build our characters. I mean, I will watch Tidus fake-laugh to cheer Yuna up all day and love every second of it but in a medium like video games, wherein dialogue is so compressed, we are seriously hamstringing ourselves by not using every single second informing our fans. I mean, imagine a version of Pulp Fiction where the “Does Wallace look like a bitch” scene was relayed entirely through dialogue as a past-tense exposition dump during one of the many car rides. Doesn’t that sound ludicrous? That version of the scene would not only be harder to pull off, but it wouldn’t have -half- the narrative power. Thing is, while that sounds ridiculous here, thats almost exactly how we treat character exposition in video games. So, lets put down some tips for building good characters.
First off lets start with the first layer. I know this is a ‘no duh’ thing but your character needs to look her part. Generic orc or generic mage isn’t going to cut it here. I’m looking at you, Blizzard. I know that you have put blood, sweat and tears into making cool looking baddies but look at Worldshaman Thrall. Prayer beads and a dirty robe isn’t going to cut it if your character is the big daddy of shamans. I mean, hes wearing the Cata robe along with his bracers so I get they were shooting for the ‘little old, little new’ vibe; but in a universe where even the lowest scourge cultist has glowing green eyes and a wicked looking dagger, during an era of lore that even the devs can’t describe without throwing in the word ‘brutal’ 3 times a sentence, brown rags and a hand-me-down pair of bracers doesn’t quite cut it. I wouldn’t know how to fix it at this point in development. I personally feel Blizzard painted themselves into a corner with their aesthetic design. He’s off to pre-crack Draenor to kick ass and save the very heroes that inspired him as a child (and wow, once you word it that way, WoD actually sounds pretty badass) and if nothing changes, he will do so in plain robes that makes him look like he’s level 10. Contrast Archmage Jaina. Snow white hair, glowing blue eyes and a scowl that would make C’thun hesitate just bleeds that Draenor aesthetic. The gloves are off. Garrosh has succeeded in driving the world’s most accomplished ambassador and near Buddha-level pacifist to burning rage bordering on madness. She has more power in her right pinky finger than an entire clan of rampaging orcs and now she’s coming for you.
Next up, voice work. I have 3 words for you: less is more. We don’t need a wall of text explaining why your hero is a badass. The 2 words ‘Burn, whelp!’ says so much more about your hero’s intention than “forces of earth, wind and fire, flow through my hand. Take my blood and my rage and crush my enemies. Rage of Abaddon!”. Take the threats from the Sylvari in Guild Wars 2. How many times have you heard “This rose has thorns! Here they are!”. Yes, it was clever and funny the first time. It even feels clever a few times in the future but after that you feel like the Sylvari are one-trick ponies. We all have a friend who has that one quip that he keeps parading out because it was hilarious the first time and it just gets better with age. Contrast the Asura male’s ‘Go ahead, hit me!’. Contextually it’s the same exact phrase, they are even queued to use it under the same exact circumstances (it’s the “I just got buffed with damage reflect” voice stab for both of these examples). Yet you can repeat the Asura version all day and it doesn’t get tired because that statement is so broad and so well stated that it could be a threat, a challenge or even a brush off. Stated before engaging a clearly lesser foe it even sounds like a non committal ‘Any action you take is inconsequential’ dismissal. In short, it doesn’t matter how clever your quip is, if it isn’t also brief and broad in implication it will make your character look long winded or dull.
Thirdly comes animation. This one is probably the biggest character killer. I think the issue here might be an attitude that cost equals quality. All the time you see billion dollar budgets directed at imitating micro expressions that almost invariably come off horrible (looking at you, LA Noire.) I am about to come off repetitive so let me just say the following: the best, most powerful quality possessed by video games is their ability to compress truly titanic amounts of raw data. You don’t have to show players that your protagonist is a badass. Your players don’t just want a protagonist that looks cool. they want a character that has weight and breadth. they want to love every aspect of how it feels to play. The biggest offender here is Square. I mean, yes, watching Ifrit rip 3 tons of earth out of the ground, set fire to it, and throw the resulting flaming pile at you is impressive; but an hour later the cat is out, we’ve seen it, and ultimately nothing of import has been said about Yuna or the nature of summoning. Contrast post-reboot Dante. The guys at Ninja Theory didn’t need a 5 minute cutscene involving Dante whooping the hell out of Mundus’s minions. Just spend 2 minutes playing. Even without any of the bonus weapons or upgrades. Just watch how unbalanced he always looks after a combo. One of the standard Rebellion combos literally ends with him staggering on one foot while trying to cancel the tremendous momentum of his charge. You can clearly tell that Dante has a serious and flagrant disregard for his safety or the safety of anyone who gets caught in his blade flurry. I even bet Ninja Theory spent less money on Dante’s acrobatics than Squareenix did on that 40 second Ifrit cutscene.
I’m sure you notice a pattern here. From pre-Other M Samus to Hyrule Warrior Link, budget and technological expertise has never and will never stand between you and the amazing character you wish to portray. Just remember, the stuff that comes out of your hero’s mouth is just as important as your aesthetic direction. Also keep in mind’ even if you make him look badass and give him stellar voice work, it will all be for naught if his actions don’t sync up to the bio. Remember the first rule of game design: do, don’t show. Thanks for reading, see you next week.