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AGDC: MGS' Abernathy Talks Importance Of Game Characters
AGDC: MGS' Abernathy Talks Importance Of Game Characters
September 16, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

September 16, 2008 | By Christian Nutt
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In this presentation from Tom Abernathy (Destroy All Humans), formerly of Pandemic and recently moved to Microsoft Game Studios, a call to arms for both more compelling characters and tighter integration of writing and design is heard -- with the benefits clearly enumerated.

Galatea is a character from a Greek myth -- about a sculptor who created a sculpture called that he loved so much she came to life. "The reason I entitled the lecture that is that I've always liked that image, as a sort of iconization of the relationship between creator and creation. And what we're talking about today is characters -- which is the first, most important aspect [of a game] that the player will interact with. Characters are the most important thing from the player's point of view."

The Symbiosis Between Writing and Design

Abernathy says, "There is some mistrust between these two camps. That's a bad thing." In his view, the closer together, these two disciplines can work, the better. "The whole point of this is to integrate these things as much as possible."

Opening his presentation in earnest, Abernathy says, "There are three general reasons [characters] matter. Games are, generally, at their root, a fantasy experience, an aspirational experience. There's an aspirational element to all of that."

Just as compelling -- and more easily pitched to the business interests at the company, Abernathy says, "The fact of the matter is, the buzzword is 'transmedia'. Think about Harry Potter. The think about any franchise... the thing to hang it on is the characters. Harry Potter -- it's in the title. People relate to the characters to identify with, to relate to, to live vicariously through. The better characters you build, the better hooks you give the biz dev people to hang onto."

Talking about Portal

"Story emerges from characters -- from the character's wants and needs. It is from these things, or the conflict between these two things, that story emerges." Using the consistently acclaimed Portal as an example, Abernathy suggests, "You need to reed between the lines [to figure out what the game's antagonist, GLaDOS, needs and wants.] Part of the brilliance of Portal is the blanks it lets us fill in -- and note that, because audiences love when you give them room to do some imagination work."

In Abernathy's view, "The result between the conflict of GLaDOS' want and need [to be liked and to test the portal gun] causes her to go crazy." Whether not you agree with this assessment, "It's obvious to anyone who's played Portal that games can benefit from character."

Strong characters make games, even those without much in the way of an ability to deivate from the linear narrative, feel inevitable. "Even when you give player the choices to make actions," if these actions stem from the characters' drives, it makes these actions feel correct to the players. "That narrative faculty we love in books and movies" can fit into games in this manner.

The Questions You Should Ask

When devising a character for your game, you need to ask yourself fundamental questions about your game, Abernathy suggests. Questions to ask yourself at the beginning include:

- Whether it's a first person or third person game
- The genre of game, and ramifications of that choice
- Whether the character is a user-created avatar or a distinct fictional entity -- "For my money this is the most important question you have to answer." Abernathy notes that Mass Effect "splits the difference" in this regard. "It's about giving the people the feeling they're having the agency in this stuff," rather than actually giving them the profound choices.
- If you give your character a distinct personality, should it be an everyman/everywoman? Iconic hero, or antihero? "What do you want them to feel out of that?"
- And finally, of course, is your character male or female?

Of course, naming the character is important, and follows from these questions. And it also supports the IP question, too, if you're shooting for a property that can be developed beyond games. Abernathy says, "If you're taking IP it matters... because the name can do an awful lot. Master Chief, and Max Payne. What do those names tell you? What do they suggest about each of those characters?"

Creating Objectives

Per Abernathy, "If there's one area a good game writer is needed it's in establishing the tone of the game." Though there are sometimes creative directors and others who fulfill this role, "More commonly there is not someone who is capable of doing that (they may think they're doing it)." He also says, "In my experience artists like nothing better than having a writer who understands the tone of the characters and what they do."

"Don't reinvent the world here -- people have been creating characters for millennia, so draw from other creative techniques." Interestingly, though, Abernathy -- whose background is in acting as well as screenwriting -- draws from acting technique. "I have found as a game writer that what I learned about Stanislavski and technique is intensely applicable to game characters. For example, one of the first things actors will do is take the text and analyze it. They'll go through everything and look at what the character says about himself and what the other characters say about that character. As the writer, I am making the text, so I can't do that." But what he can do is track the character's desires -- and use it to build game objectives.

Objectives come in several layers, maintains Abernathy, including a "super-objective", the meta overarching objective in the story, objectives within sequences (i.e. a mission or level) and objectives within specific scenes. "These tasks help bring the [character] more into focus."

Actors use the word "tactics" to describe what a character does to achieve his or her goals within a narrative. "How does the character go about getting the things he or she wants? This is especially important in games because the player is going to be acting as the character -- so this means that tactics are game mechanics. The character's needs help provide or indicate the obstacles we can set up to stop them as writers or game designers. And obstacles + tactics = the definition of gameplay."

It's not just about devising great player characters, says Abernathy. "The full realization of nonplayer characters is as important, and in some cases more important, than player characters. Every major character in your story should have an arc -- their own little plotline with a beginning, middle, and end. Arcs make characters feel more satisfying, and as result more real. This is especially true of villains. When people complain about villains feeling one-dimensional, this is why."

The Future: Integration

Abernathy is adamant in his demand for improved characterization in games. "Strong characterization is inextricable from strong game design in narrative games. If you are making a game, and you don't have a full time experienced writer on staff, get one. What's wrong with you?"

Speaking to the writers in the audience, he says, "If you are tired of being brought on late just to polish other people's crappy dialogue, get interested in design. Read books on design. Network with designers. Hopefully they will get past their mistrust and realize you will make their lives easier and make them look better. We need each other and we need to work together."

Questions and Answers

When asked for a good examples of strong characters he likes, Abernathy's response was somewhat unexpected: Sly Cooper. "It's kind of an odd choice -- it's one that I love. It's perfect for what it is. The idea was to make a cartoon come to life, and give the characters this kind of Warner Bros. Chuck Jonesy kind of look. The relationship between the animations and the things he's doing... that's one that jumps to mind."

When quizzed about the necessity for player agency, Abernathy again discussed the apperance of choice over the actuality. "The idea is that obviously we want to give players at least the illusion of having the power to determine a lot of things. For them to have the feeling they have it, they will come away just as satisfied. ["Agency"] is a buzzword that you'll hear constantly in developers' offices, thrown around, because everyone is thinking about the player feel like they're calling all the shots here. We want them to have that feeling."

On the buzzword front, Abernathy was quizzed about use of the word "aspirational". Abernathy says, "There is so much breadth in what we do, that it's hard to make a statement [definitive], but I guess where I am taking that from, that's something people have talked about wanting the player to be." He pointed out the division between wanting to actually be the character and deriving pleasure from his abilities: "Nobody wants to be Mario -- but you do want to be able to do the things he does... so in that sense it's aspirational."

When quizzed about focus groups, Abernathy was cautiously positive, except maybe for kids' groups -- which he says often provide "crazy" results. In general, "They're very useful, but the problem comes in when people forget how they're useful. They're not intended to be prescriptive. 'That 8-year-old-kid said he didn't like long pants, so we have to put shorts on the character.' You need to get the general sense of things. [When focus testing] what we found was a lot of our impulses had been ones that were sound. That's not always the case... it's a necessary evil, but it can be useful, definitely."


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