Previously on, "Getting Players to Care"
I talked about all sorts of interesting stuff and laid out the foundation for this article series. Each part leads directly into the next and explains what the heck is going on. If you haven't read a previous part, check out Part 1 and skip along merily through my linear corridor of an article-design. I'll work on an open-world article series next time, I promise.
Creating Compelling Characters
A story’s characters might be some of the most meaningful objects for players to emotionally invest in, however not all characters are created equal. Some characters are remembered fondly for years while others leave audiences desperately trying to forget them. To take an example from cinema, Yoda is a character well loved by Star Wars fans around the globe.
Jar Jar Binks, on the other hand, evoked such hatred in audience members, particularly hardcore fans, that he was all but eradicated from the later prequels. In fact, one fan released an edited version of the film called, “The Phantom Edit” which removed as much of Jar Jar Binks’ antics as possible without sabotaging the plot. Robot Chicken, the stop-motion comedy TV series, even did its own take on channeling the fan-base’s hatred towards the annoying character.
At its core, the death of Yoda was a moment heavy with dramatic meaning. The death of Jar-Jar, on the other hand, is a subject of comedy and catharsis. Though the character was intended to be likable, he instead incited intensely negative emotions in the audience. In the end the joke becomes that he annoys even the characters of Star Wars so much that they’re willing to murder him.
This type of mistaken character design can be even more painful in videogames. If a character the player is supposed to want to protect becomes so unlikable that the player wishes they would die, the entire dramatic power of the narrative is undermined. As an analogy, it would be hard to motivate most players by calling them to save a country’s leader if that leader happened to be Adolf Hitler. If a player hates a character, giving them the job of protecting that character will make them absolutely miserable.
The Ambassador Dupuis
One of the most infamous examples of this from my own gaming sessions is a character named Dupuis. I designed him to act as a well-meaning but utterly incompetent character that would attempt to aid the players but ultimately endanger them at every turn through his idiocy.
During one gaming session, the players unwittingly caused Dupuis to be promoted to an ambassador and were given the task of taking him to the Council of Lords (an organization of 12 powerful representatives from the various kingdoms, working together and against one another in the style of the United Nations). The players were tasked with presenting the case against a foreign kingdom to the council and they were doing rather well on their own.
However, Dupuis interrupted them constantly to add his own spin on things, correct their slightest misstatements, completely obfuscate key details and regularly attempt to conclude their testimony under the claim that, “the truth is obvious”. The players found their careful attempts at diplomacy torpedoed at every turn by the well-meaning Dupuis until they were fantasizing about killing him. This is not an exaggeration. The players talked about various ways they might put Dupuis out of their misery throughout the session.
Their opportunity came in the very next session after Dupuis’ introduction. After being tasked with providing protection for the ambassador, the players soon found themselves confronted by a giant. Seeing their chance, one of the players gave the helpless Dupuis a motivational speech, encouraging him to charge this foe and make his kingdom proud. The player succeeded and Dupuis charged at the giant, promptly ending up smashed underneath the giant’s club. At the character’s death, the players let out triumphant cheer.
Dupuis was an excellent example of a well-intentioned character that players can end up hating. Simply because a character is an ally and wishes only to help the player does not make the character likable. Luckily, I had not intended Dupuis to be a likable character.
Unlike Jar Jar, Dupuis was intended from the beginning to be a character the players would despise. Despite being a well-intentioned ally, he functioned as a force of antagonism within the game. He consistently undermined the players’ efforts and generated the same hostility in the group as my best-designed villains. It was even more infuriating for the players to realize that they couldn’t solve this problem with swords. They couldn’t simply turn around and kill their ambassador in the middle of the council chamber. It took guile for them to finally figure out a way for Dupuis to meet his death without actually murdering him.
Dupuis was, in many ways, the dark mirror to Jar Jar Binks. While he held many of the same qualities as the hated alien, the difference lies in the execution and role he served in the game. If I had attempted to make Dupuis into a lovable fool, as George Lucas did with Jar Jar Binks, it would have backfired. If I had attempted to make the stakes of a conflict revolve around Dupuis’ safety the same way that the stakes of The Sarah Phenomenon revolved around Sarah’s safety – the players would have laughed and sat back to watch the man die. It would have been an utter disaster.
However, by using Dupuis intentionally as a negative force, he served as an excellent diplomatic antagonist to the players. The thrill of victory they received from finally figuring out a way to kill him off rivaled that of defeating a challenging boss. The principle was clear; characters have specific roles. Even a character that players hate can serve the story if they serve as a force for antagonism. However, if a character is miscast in a role then the consequences can utterly destroy the players’ emotional investment. I’ll be exploring this in greater detail later. For now, the cartoon Sealab 2021 might have said it best in showing the major characters’ reaction to a section of their base being destroyed.
The Worst Mistake of All
The worst mistake a writer can make in designing a character is often the most common, making the character bland. As demonstrated above, even an intensely unlikable character can serve the game experience, but a bland character offers nothing to the experience. Bland characters are not memorable, incite no emotions in the player and, worst of all, they’re not interesting. A bland character is a waste of an opportunity in a game, a lost chance to make the players lean forward in their chairs. Sadly, even the AAA titles of the game industry are often filled with forgettable characters – wasted opportunities for emotional investment, world-building or provoking player interest.
Before any character can be a vessel for emotional investment, the character first needs to be interesting enough in order for the player to stop and pay attention. If a player is not interested in a game’s characters, it becomes impossible to make the player care about their situation. Players need to be willing to take a break from what they’re doing and pay attention because they are genuinely interested in a character’s situation. Otherwise the most intense inner conflict driving the character in question will fall upon an uninterested player’s glazed eyes.
So how do we avoid the worst mistake of all? Let's tackle it in Part 7 next time. You'll definitely be surprised.