20 April 2010

[Literature] Fundamentals of Game Design, ch6: Character Development

Even though characters should have a clear role to the player, they must not be too stereotypical (if they are, they should have a little something that differentiates them from the standard stereotype). Characters should be credible. Even if they can be complex, they must stay consistent. Like in movies, a game's IP and marketing often rely on the main character. Games often use the main character's name for the game title to make consumers associate the IP with the character. Examples are Super Mario Bros, Duke Nukem or Sonic the Hedgehog. In short, characters should be appealing, believable, and the players should be able to identify with them. Incongruity and Disharmonious elements can be introduced for humor's sake.

Relationship between player and avatar

In RPGs where the player avatar is designed by the player, the avatar has no personality other than what the player chooses to create. In old textual adventure games (or Half Life), avatars (like Gordon Freeman) are nonspecific: the game designer does not need to specify or ask anything to the player about the avatar because the player never sees it. But computer graphics improved. It became awkward to write more and more complex stories about empty avatars.

Avatars became specific. Depending on how the player controls the avatar, he/she will not identify with it the same way. Some avatars such as Mario or Lara Croft remain puppets inside the hands of the player. Others such as April Ryan from The Longest Journey have their own will (she refuses to act too dangerously when the player asks her to). The avatar utterances can also be very important to the player. April Ryan speaks a lot (and sometimes gives clues to the player when she talks) while Gordon Freeman from Half-Life does not speak at all. The player can be directly inside the avatar (Half-Life) or just suggesting where it could move (The Longest Journey). Semispecific avatars are between nonspecific and specific avatars: the player does not know enough about them to form an opinion, but these avatars have a decent background (like Link in Zelda or Mario).

Men can identify with female avatars as long as the character is acting in a role that men are comfortable with such as exploration or adventure. However, women can be disgusted by hyper-sexualized female avatars. While men tend to simply use an avatar as a puppet, women care more about it and may appreciate to be able to customize it as they wish. The more details given by the designer about an avatar, the more independent it will be.


Three factors help show a character's personality: its appearance, behavior and language.

Visual appearances: art-driven character design

Art-driven character design consists of thinking about characters' appearance first. It is usually employed for quite shallow and straightforward characters that can also be used in other media like TV or comics. Characters can be humanoid (2 legs, 2 arms and a head), non-humanoid (vehicles, machines, animals or monsters) or hybrids , robots like C-3POr cyborgs). Cartoon appearances can provide 4 stereotypes to characters:

  • cool (detached but focused, clever and often rebellious to authority) like Ratchet or Otcho
  • tough (aggressive, strong, often hyper-sexualized) like Duke Nukem or Lara Croft,
  • cute (large eyes and heads, round body, innocent look but sometimes handle weapons bigger than themselves), like Mario, Sonic or Pikachu
  • goofy (funny, comedic), typically like Goofy from Disney

Representations of stereotypes may vary depending on the culture (cute in a manga is not the same as cute in Tintin or Marvels) and age (cute or scary is differently represented for 5-year-old girls or 30-year-old men). Although kids love cartoonish characters, they hate goody-two-shoes ones.

Clothes and weapons suggest a lot about a character: see Darth Vader's helmet or Indiana Jones' hat and whip. A rapier suggests elegance, while a meat cleaver suggests blood and violence. Jewelry and accessories such as crowns, bracelets or rings also help a lot to recognize a character's role. They can also act as containers of skills or powers that can be transfered between characters. Names (Bugs Bunny), nicknames (Snake), clothes color palette (blue, red and yellow for Superman versus plain black for Batman) or sidekicks (Tails for Sonic or Watson for Holmes) also help define the characters. Sidekicks can also sometimes help the player (the fairy Navy in Zelda) or provide an additional perspective of the hero to the player.

Concept art is done early in the design process and should not consists of too elaborated drawings. The concept arts are to be used by the marketing and programmer teams to get a rough idea of the game.

Behaviors: story-driven character design

Story-driven character design consists of thinking about the character's role, personality and behavior rather than its appearance. Artists come after the designer has decided how the avatar interacts with the game mechanics. Even though the interactions were not really complex, SSX Tricky gained a lot in including meaningful character rivalries in a snowboard game.

When characters appear for the first time to the player, there is a minimum of information about them to give to the player: where does the new character come from? Why does the avatar meet him/her? Also, character traits should be shown/seen/experienced rather than directly mentioned in the game handbook. Behaviors convey more depth about character's personalities than their appearances, providing the player has opportunities to observe these behaviors.

A character can be described by its attributes. Status attributes such as Health Points change frequently while characterization attributes such as age or gender (nearly) never change in the game. Emotional states and relationships like in the Sims are another very recent kind of attributes that describe characters' behaviors.

Dimensionality can give a more realistic perception of a character. The table nearby, deeply inspired by figures 6.9 to 6.12 of the book, illustrates the possible dimensions of characters found in the Lord of the Rings. Zero-dimensional characters have binary emotional states with no mixed feelings. They may have more than two emotional states, though. One-dimensional characters only have one emotion that can change during the game. Two-dimensional characters have multiple non-conflicting impulses, they face no ambiguity, while three-dimensional characters can have contradictory and conflicting emotions producing inconsistent behaviors. Three-dimensional characters can do things they do not really want to, reluctantly, or even sabotage their own efforts subconsciously.

Number of character dimensionsLord of The Rings exampleFigure
0 dimOrcs
1 dim Gimli and his attitude towards elves change over time
2 dim Denethor never faces any moral dilemma... until the end
3 dim Gollum towards the Ring

Characters, especially the hero, can grow while the player progresses through the game. They can grow physically, intellectually, morally or emotionally. RPGs often feature a rich and complex growth of the hero and other characters in the game. The stats of the character, its appearance, skills, language, interactions with other characters or even the plot can evolve to show various types of evolution (more power, more knowledge, etc.). Some character archetypes such as the mentor or the rival have proven they were instrumental in the success of a story, but they should be used wisely.

Language: audio design

Characters can also be recognized to their notorious sound (Darth Vader's breath) or phrases ("What's up doc?" from Bugs Bunny). Much of sound design involves psychological expectations: "glug glug glug" for a drowning person or metallic sound when metallic-looking objects are touched. Sounds must also fit the movements of the character.

Accent or vocabulary specific of a time-period, social class or country helps setting the context of the game. Bad grammar reveals bad schooling or Master Yoda. Speed of speech can indicate excitement, boredom, anxiety or suspicion. The tone of the speaker and vocal quirks such as slutter also convey a lot about the character.

Test your skills

  • Think about a human two-dimensional character as a child, teenager and adult. Give several attributes giving clues about the age and maturity of the character at each stage.
  • Imagine two characters whose strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Show how they seem unalike but nevertheless complement each other quite well. Show how they are weak when they are alone.

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