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Games with Character

December 10, 2007

I’ve been talking a lot lately about the three key elements that makes a good game great, those being graphics, gameplay and emotion. Graphics obviously involves the look of the game from textures and lighting to models and effects. Gameplay is a function of how the game mechanics actually work, which is where the “but is it fun?” question arises. Lastly emotion, though often misunderstood, is simply the immersiveness a game provides through it’s story, characters and suspension of disbelief. These are broad categories which can be broken down further, with a key one being a subset of emotion… it’s called character, and it directly relates to the other living entities within a game.

Before I talk about why character is so important to a title, we should address the fact that it is of course very subjective, but for me the following are some examples of games that were great as far as character goes;

Mafia

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You are Tommy Angelo, an up and coming mobster working for Don Salieri. The characters in this title were far and away the best I’ve ever come across in any game. You cared about Paulie, you hated Don Morello…. and don’t get me started about Sam. Even the background characters were rich and full, and essential to the overall feel of the environment. If you haven’t played this title (and a lot of people haven’t) do yourself a favor and go buy it. Just having written this paragraph makes me want to play it again.

Half Life series

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What needs to be said here? The characters in Half Life have been key to the story since the beginning, and without them the Half Life saga would likely be just another shooter. HL2 did a great job of reviving the characters from the original game like Barney, but also in bringing new ones like Alyx and Dog that were just as real and compelling. You knew them, or got to know them and cared about them.

Call of Duty 4

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Perhaps to a lesser extent than the previous examples, CoD4 still had a strong character element. Gaz, Price and the rest really existed for me while playing, and the bad guys were really alive while I did my best to ensure they weren’t. I wasn’t playing a game, I was in the mission helping my squad mates and opposing the bad guys. The game gave a sense of “being there” and the strong characters in the game were instrumental to that feeling.

There are countless other examples of games that get character right, and an even higher number that get it totally wrong or don’t have it at all. The funny thing is I don’t think it’s a hard thing to do. Hell, the weighted companion cube in Portal has garnered more attention as a “character” than most fleshed out human beings in other games and it’s a cube. Weighted no less. The soldiers in Xcom were that way too, very simple representations with no dialog or direct communication to the player but they were alive. Face it, if you played the original Xcom you named your soldiers after people you knew and you grimaced when those repulsive alien bastards killed the virtual version of your brother, your best friend or your uncle Lou. All it took with Portal was a simple interaction where you were made to feel bad for burning the cube. The cube became a character at that point, and you related to the fun feeling of awkwardness you got when you had to destroy it. How could you do that? You burned it. Great stuff.

Xcom did it quite simply by allowing the player to make a personal connection to the soldiers, if they chose to. Having a group of randomly named soldiers is one thing, but having one where everyone is named after your immediate family members is something else entirely. Instant connection, and instant empathy.

That right there, is what good character is all about in a game. The characters don’t need elaborate backstory or long winded exposition… the companion cube had neither. All they need is a hook that gets the player to care about them. They can have connection to the player through situtational emotion like the weighted companion cube, or through personal player connection like Xcom or they can build a connection through the gameplay itself like our earlier examples.

If you are playing a game with a set number of in game characters and one of them dies, you realize that the others aren’t there as front line actors… guaranteed to make it to the final reel. You realize that any of them might “die” at any time, then you start to root for them Mafia was great at that, and so was CoD4. You cared about the other characters because you got to know them, and root for them in the battles you shared. Familiarity also provides this sense of connection to character, as with the silent cheer we all let out when Barney revealed himself to us in Half-Life 2. Holy crap, it’s BARNEY! We remembered him from early adventures, and were happy to have a familiar face with us again.

I don’t think creating that strong sense of character is all that hard in gaming these days, I just don’t think it’s as often as much of a priority as it should be. All it takes care and planning from the earliest stages of a game, and it’s not so much built in as cultivated. If a game dev cycle is akin to building a house, then giving it’s characters a sense of connection is like planting a tree on the front lawn. It can be intended, but without proper care during the dev cycle it’s not going to grow.

Got any examples of games that were made greater by the inclusion of strong character, or any games that were ruined for lack of it? Post them in the comments.

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One comment

  1. […] Baum An explosive look at PC gaming « Games with Character The Witcher December 14, 2007 I started playing The Witcher last night, and I thought […]



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