How to develop convincing video game characters
"How do I create a great character?" This is a question I hear a lot - from students and professionals alike. Writing is like cooking - there's always more to learn. Game writers dream of creating characters that gamers will love (and play) for years to come.
Early on, most of my approach to character development was based on trial and error. Since then, I've spent a lot of time researching and thinking about how writers can set themselves up the right way for a successful creative process. Here are three steps I'd recommend to any writer who wants to set themselves apart from the pack. First, ask:
What does my character want?
This sounds like an easy question. But it can be surprisingly hard to answer. Think of Star Wars: A New Hope. What does Luke Skywalker want?
When I asked my game-writing students this question, here are some of the answers they came up with:
Technically, all of those answers are correct. (I bet you and I could add more options to the list!) But what the writer is looking for is the goal that matters MOST to Luke - the burning desire that is pushing him forward, the thing that will keep him going through all obstacles.
One way to figure out which desire matters most is to say, "Well, if the hero achieved this goal, would he stop? Would he be done?" If what Luke wanted - more than anything in the WORLD - was to leave Tatooine, it would have been a pretty short movie. Boring, too.
Characters may start with a simple, small desire - like getting off Tatooine - but then their dreams get bigger as their adventure unfolds. What the writer wants to find is the ULTIMATE desire, so that every moment of the story can build towards that big, exciting finale.
We can figure out Luke's ultimate desire by skipping to the end of the movie. The final showdown is the moment when Luke is either going to get what he wants - or die trying.
So far, we've only talked about movies. What about games? Well, games throw a monkey wrench into the system, because game writers have to think about what the character wants AND what the player wants, too. The player is driving the action, after all. The player's opinion matters.
And what the player wants is to win the game.
So if you're a game writer, ask the designer how the player wins the game. Then make that your character's goal, too. Then the player and the avatar are on the same team, fighting for the same thing.
(There's more to this step, but we'll talk about that in a future post.)
So far, so good: you've got a character who wants something. Now what? The next step is to ask:
What's holding the character back?
Because if the character could get what they wanted right away, it wouldn't be much of a story. Desire and obstacle are the classic building blocks of any story. We WANT to see characters struggle.
And we're not talking about EXTERNAL obstacles here. We're talking about INTERNAL obstacles - otherwise known as flaws. Flawed characters are the best! They're interesting, complicated, relatable...they're us.
But most players don't like the idea of playing a character that is flawed or "weak."
What to do?
Here's a trick I learned from God of War: turn a character flaw into a gameplay strength.
Kratos, the player's avatar, is one of the greatest warriors that ever lived. And when you play, you really DO feel invincible. It can be fun to be a maniac! The game delivers an incredible power fantasy - and then turns it all inside out, in the final story reveal.
(I won't spoil the ending. Go play the game to see how the story unfolds. It's worth it, I promise.)
So to review - you know what your character wants, and you know what character flaws are holding him back. The next thing to figure out is:
How is the character connected to the world?
This is not a question that most screenwriters or TV writers usually ask. But it's a great question for game writers, especially when it comes to developing NPCs (non-player characters). And here's why:
Players pay a lot of attention to the environment. It's where both the trouble and the treasure lie.
If you can find a way to make the world an extension of a character, you're bringing the character onstage, long before the player ever actually meets them.
A great example of this is Andrew Ryan in BioShock.
Ryan is the architect of the underwater city of Rapture. Everywhere you go in the game you see (and fight) what he conceived. The city is a reflection of his genius - and his madness. By the time you actually meet Ryan, late in the game, you feel like you already know him. And that's because, in a way, you do.
So there you go! Three questions that will help you create characters that gamers will play, and fight, and remember for years to come.
I hope you find these writing prompts helpful. Now I'd love to hear from you. Who is one of your all-time favorite characters? And why? Share in the comments below!
Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.
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