Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 24, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 24, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Spinning a Character Web
by Anne Richards on 11/20/12 02:12:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.




Maybe it’s just my four-year-old’s obsession with Spider-Man, but I’ve been thinking a lot about webs recently. The webs I have in mind, however, are something pretty different than what Peter Parker’s alter ego and his arachnid relatives spin.

The webs I’ve been thinking about are character webs – why these kinds of webs are so important, and how they can be applied to developing great games for kids.

First, I guess I should explain what the heck I mean when I say “character web.” A lot of the writers out there are probably already familiar with the term, but a character web is essentially a group of characters in a property who interact with each other. The easiest way to describe this is to think of pretty much any great television series.

Whether it’s 30 RockThe SopranosSesame Street, or Homeland, most narratively successful shows are built around a set of complex interrelationships between their characters. Each individual character is important and has distinguishing characteristics that makes them unique, but what drives the story is the way that these different characters react to the same situation and to each other.

One of the kids properties I often think about when I think about character webs is Winnie the Pooh, an all-time classic. Winnie the Pooh is an amazing character, with lots of different appealing qualities that make him unique. But when you put together Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, things get so much richer — the relationship between the big, jolly enthusiast and the small, nervous but huge-hearted friend is the stuff that great stories are made of. Then add Owl, or Rabbit, or Roo, or Tigger, and things only get funnier and more complex.

Combining any two or three of these characters automatically sets in motion a series of dynamics that are both predictable and a joy to watch unfold. Watching Rabbit’s anal-retentive side brush against Tigger’s careless exuberance or Owl’s pontificating or all of these at the same time makes for a surefire comedic moment. And the sweetness that characters like Piglet and Roo and Christopher Robin bring to the mix round out the property without making things saccharine.

So character webs are an integral part of most traditional storytelling, but they’re less common in interactive properties, especially those for kids. There is a tendency in interactive development to focus on one main character at the expense of including others, and this makes sense on some levels. There’s not the time in games to spend explaining backstories or complicated interrelationships, and the emphasis should rightly be on playing and interacting and not passively listening to background information.

I truly believe, however, that a great character web, whatever the medium, isn’t about stopping the action to explain things. If you think back to Winnie the Pooh, no narrator pops up and says, “Well, let me explain what’s going on here. Pooh loves honey so he’s going to do anything to get it and Rabbit’s impatient and so he’s going to be frustrated with that…” and so on.

Even in the very early Winnie the Pooh stories, these qualities are communicated through the characters’ actions, not long speeches or narrative commentary. The same is true of any well done sitcom. No one on 30 Rock interrupts the storyline to say, “Well, Liz is kind of neurotic and Tracy is a spaz and Jenna only thinks about herself, so when they get together, watch out!”

Rather, those great dynamics are just a part of the show, and they play out in each story in a way that’s self-explanatory even for people who haven’t watched every episode.

There’s no reason that games can’t do this as well – and I really believe that kids are sophisticated enough to pick up on those dynamics, and understand and enjoy them, without having to be lead through each relationship with tons of dialogue or text.

So, I’ll continue to advocate for character webs in kids games. The richness and opportunities both for humor and emotional engagement can go a long way in terms of making kids emotionally invested in what they’re playing. After all, entering into a world of friends to play with is what kids love to do, whether they’re in the schoolyard, watching television, or playing on a tablet.

Be part of our character web! Email us at or follow us on Twitter at @noCrusts.

Photo © Horia Varlan

Read more:

Related Jobs

The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey — Ewing, New Jersey, United States

Assistant Professor - Interactive Multi Media - Tenure Track
Bohemia Interactive Simulations
Bohemia Interactive Simulations — Prague, Czech Republic

Game Designer
Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer


Taekwan Kim
profile image
I suppose the focus of this post is on kids' games, but I think it's worth mentioning that any decent party based RPG does this quite well, as do many games that maintain some sort of internal reputation/relationship metric. Crusader Kings II and the Sims come to mind, for non-RPG instances. Indeed, CK2 is a game whose central mechanic is the manipulation of a character web, and the experiences of loyalty and betrayal that can be encountered are often quite moving.

I can, as a personal example, cite a playthrough in which careful marriage arrangements of several generations lead to the King of Ireland becoming the heir to the throne of Scotland, ruled by the heir's mother. In this playthrough, the King of Ireland assassinates his own mother to claim the throne—the same mother who, only a handful of turns ago, had faithfully answered the call as an ally to go to war with England, despite being mired with her own problems in the form of rebellions.

As for the Sims, we can refer to this gameplay journal as a demonstration of the capacity of games to utilize interpersonal interactions:

The nice thing about games is that personalities can be procedurally generated, and the fact that they aren't at all predictable (as opposed to, perhaps, the predictability of "traditional" storytelling) is the very thing that makes their interactions so interesting and engaging. (It's hard to overstate the power of narration through mechanics.)

And, of course, there are always multiplayer games, with games like DayZ creating tense meetings between players running the gamut from unexpected bouts of legendary altruism to sociopathic preying.

At any rate, it's really a matter of where you're looking—I would even argue that character webs in games are really not too rare.

Taekwan Kim
profile image
Ms. Richards, I want to apologize (terribly belatedly) for the dismissive tone of my previous comment. It was needlessly defensive, stemming from a falsely perceived accusation that games are underdeveloped as an art form, and I am genuinely sorry that the above comment was discouraging, exclusionary, and nonconstructive. Again, my unreserved apologies.