8 January 2011

Creating Compelling Characters - by Shelly Warmuth

      Posted 01/07/11 03:32:00 pm  

Ethan sits in front of a computer.  A disembodied voice asks him if he is prepared to suffer to save his son.  If he is, he has five minutes to cut off the last section of one of his fingers in front of the camera.  If he does it, Ethan Mars may just be the most compelling character in video game history.  

Everything is 3D now.  We have three dimensional TV’s.  Movies are thought to be better in 3D.  It’s all designed to make the experience more engrossing and more immersive.  Still lacking, however, are characters who jump off the screen at us; characters we can identify with and feel an emotional response for.  To create this, it is not enough that we make characters we can empathize with.  Rather, we need to give them character.  What will the person do when they are faced with an ethical or emotional decision that matters?   What do they do when no one is looking?  What about when they don’t have time to weigh the consequences?  

Would your character lie to benefit the greater good if the truth could save his life?  Is he as selfish as he seems or would he show himself to be a hero deep down, if the situation presented itself?  If it mattered whether or not you saved the Little Sisters or harvested them, would you take the buff?  Or would you rescue these small strangers?  What motivates the character deep down?  What is it about him that we can’t see on the surface?  This is what is needed to create a compelling and convincing character.  

This does create unique problems for game developers, however.  The largest problem is that it may limit the audience.  If a player can’t get behind the character or empathize with the situation, they won’t want to play that character. If, instead, the decisions are all in player hands and character is demonstrated through the player, himself, the scope of the story and its branches could become mind-boggling.  Unless we find a way to funnel the story back toward branches that we, as designers, control, the project could too easily suffer from feature creep.  

The only time a persuasive player character really works is when we want the player to know what it’s like to be him.  What is it like to be the star quarterback, the least popular, an astronaut, or Harry Potter?  If we had all of those experiences, we’d understand.  But, if we create a completely foreign character and try to get the player to react as we want him to, we automatically limit the audience to people who can empathize.  

The solution, therefore, lies in creating compelling NPC’s and telling the story from a first-person viewpoint.  This allows the player to react and take part in a story they really don’t have control over and to become immersed in the story in a whole new way.  They, the player, are part of it, empowered and yet powerless.  Because, really, we can never control the thoughts or actions of another, but we can control how we react to it.  

As video games become more story-driven, we must strive to create characters and stories that are more compelling.  There is potential to draw players in, to create emotional response and to become more immersive as a genre while still maintaining the “play” aspect of the industry.  While visuals certainly help to create mood, improved graphics are not the answer; story is.  Compelling characters are only the beginning. 

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