Yes, grab the roses, the wine, and the condoms. And whatever other stuff your freaky character likes. It’s time for some raunchy relationship buildin’. Handcuffs? Scented oils? Barbed wire? I’d wager you’ve never thought about it before. And those of you who have, quit it, that’s creepy, I’m just using bad humor to make a point. Have you ever considered how your character thinks?
Something that I did all too often in designing my old games was to get down a character sprite without drawing them by hand at all, do the basic animations, and move on without thinking about them much deeper than that. I’d often realize much later in the development process that I felt something was missing, but wouldn’t be quite sure what it was, and thus would develop a sort of disinterest in the character. Losing interest in the character is something that happens when you play bad games, too, and realize (or know from the start) that you don’t care what happens to them. After thinking about it for a while, I concluded that I’d been using the character as merely a vehicle. Just something through which to interact with the world. Of course, they are supposed to be this, but we can never forget they are also alive themselves. They actually live in the world you’re trying to bring your player into, and so it’s important to fully explore them too. Only then can you give your player the best possible vehicle. Like one of those big 60-mph snowmobiles. Or the Slave I.
There’s a point in the infamous Duke Nukem: Forever where Duke encounters a Half-Life-esque puzzle sequence and quips “I hate valve puzzles” – a joke that would be pretty funny if he proceeded to ignore it and blow his way through with a rocket launcher, but nope, you have to do the puzzle. Why!? If Duke wouldn’t do the puzzle, then you shouldn’t have to do the fucking puzzle. It’s an example of a character acting contrary to their established personality, which throws you out of the game and misses a great opportunity to bring the player into the world, instead opting to tack on five minutes of a shitty puzzle just to lengthen it. Guess what? If it’s a good game, no one will care that it’s five minutes shorter.
You see, while it’s true that your main character’s most important role is to bring your players into the game, they can only do this effectively when they’re convincing themselves. It’s one of the first things you learn in film-making and creative writing, and it’s something that I feel should carry into game design. Ideally, no matter what your characters, the player should be able to get lost in the game, and be totally immersed in sharing the story with them. A large part of this is dealt with in writing, but it can be accomplished in game mechanics and animations as well. They should interact with the environment in a way that’s believable, natural, clever, and always in character. Think about how your character runs. How they stop running. What gestures they use when they speak. Draw them laughing and crying. Think about whether they’re confident or timid, clever or slow, witty or dull. And always keep them charming.
But wait! What if it’s a first person game? Where you physically are the character? Well, then you have to think even more about what it’s like to inhabit that character’s body. To BE them. To walk, climb, and fall down like them. To be injured, beaten, and struggle like them. To experience things as they do. First person games have only just started doing this recently, which is pretty flabbergasting, considering how obvious it is.
But wait! Your character’s a wooden plank that bounces a ball, you say? IRRELEVANT! You sit down and straighten that torso and you think like a wooden plank. What type of wood are you? Do you bend easily or break? Are you warped from the humid environment? Do you rot? If your game’s a shooter and your player controls a ship, well, what does the ship look like? Why? What does each part of it do? What does the world necessitate it do? How does it fire, and what, and why? The number of questions you can ask yourself is infinite, and every answer you manage to provide will help to improve your game.
Once you build a relationship with your character, I think you’ll even find that development goes quicker and better. It’ll help your writing because you’ll know what he or she (or it) would say and do. It’ll help get your animations unique and in character. It may even help you refine your game mechanics, once you start thinking about what kind of world you’d like your character to live in. And it’s great for knocking up that ever-elusive long-term motivation, because you’ll really care about them, and want to see them complete your game.
So what about all the games that don’t seem to do follow this rule, but are still awesome? Games like the aforementioned Half-Life, which “stars” the ever-invisible anti-character Gordon Freeman? Well, don’t castrate me, but I’ve never thought he was that good a character, and that his popularity was mostly ironic – us totally playing along with a joke made by Valve. And I’m pretty sure his win on that Gamespot poll was just some giant shared prank on the part of PC gamers collectively trying to take down console gamers. Likely Valve’s goal was to make a completely empty character for us to insert ourselves into. I do think silent protagonists can still be rich characters (though I’m not the biggest fan), but he’s not one of them. Regardless, the games themselves were revolutionary, and he happened to be in them. Well, kind of. Does that mean I don’t like him? Hell no. But I would argue that he’s not really a character.
Oh, neither is Cloud, by the way. Also he likes big black dildos in his bum! *Run*