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It Builds Character: Character Development Techniques in Games
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It Builds Character: Character Development Techniques in Games

August 10, 2005 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next


The conversation is used to establish the vocabulary and speech patterns of the major characters in your game. One of the things that can help differentiate major characters from one another is the choice of words, the way that they talk.

The choice of words can really establish a character's identity. Key words or phrases, diction, accent, slang, code phrases, sentence structure, profanity, even the amount of dialogue - all of these can tell the audience a great deal about the persona of the character you're creating.

In order to develop these voices, write fictional conversations between major characters in your game. Expore the way the characters talk in a hypothetical conversation that takes place in the game world. However, the conversation isn't actually going to be featured in the game. It's an asset that you're creating as part of your design, but it's not intended for inclusion in the game's dialogue. It's a writing exercise, nothing more.

So, there's no need to set the scene with text. You just want to write as though the two characters are talking to each other about a topic of significance in your game world. Let them converse as you write, first in one character's voice, then in the other's. Gradually, as they talk, you should hear differences begin to emerge. For starters, select characters who have opposing philosophies, so that there will be disagreement of some kind.

Sometimes the best interactions occur between heroes and villians such as the diner scene between Pacino and De Niro in Heat.

As you continue to write, observe the emerging voices of these two characters. Focus on one character through various conversations. Say you're working on a game set in the world of Roman mythology. Sit Mars down with Jupiter, and then pair Mars with Venus. Maybe they can talk about the time that Venus' husband caught them together, I don't know. Then Mars and Mercury, and so forth. Then, once you've got a real feel for the testosterone-driven god of war, set him aside and focus on that vixen Venus. Is she as trashy as she looks? There's one way to find out.

These conversations don't have to be very long. After a few pages, you should really begin to have a feel for the way your characters talk. If it helps, instead of writing the conversations down, role-play them. Get a pocket tape recorder and talk to yourself in the voices of two of your major characters. Make sure there is no one around when you are doing this. You don't want to get caught ("Oh, I love you so much!" "I love you too! You are the most precious... uh... oh, hey, guys. I didn't think anyone was coming in over the weekend. Say, anyone got a cyanide capsule I could borrow real quick?"). When you're done, listen to the recording, or read what you've written. What phrases reappear? What diction, style, vocabulary, accent?

Try to free-associate. Don't worry about grammar or spelling when writing by hand. Keep writing, even when you don't know exactly where you're going. Yes, most of what you're doing is going to get scrapped. But you will hear voices emerge.

It may help you to sit down with a highlighter and mark key phrases that impacted you in some way. If you see something interesting or noteworthy, ask yourself where it came from. What in that character's nature inspired that particular turn of phrase? Does it fit with where that character grew up, or received an education? If ideas occur to you during this part of the process, take copious notes. Don't think you're going to remember it later, because you won't. Write everything down.

In Rainbow Six: Lockdown sometimes friendly discussions are none too friendly.

When it's all over, you should be getting an idea of where the characters are coming from, and this may later inspire you to create scenes in-game or in cinematic sequences. This may also give you an idea of where the characters stand philosophically, which can help you establish what some of the major conflicts will be in game.

It's not always necessary to pair up two heroic characters for a conversation. Some of the more interesting conversations take place between heroes and villains. For instance, DeNiro and Pacino had a fascinating talk in a diner in the movie Heat. They talked about dreams, death, and each other. This conversation, a calm discussion between a criminal and a police detective over coffee, foreshadowed the film's final scene.

Conversations between heroic characters don't have to be smooth or friendly. Towards the end of Rainbow Six: Lockdown, two of the counter-terrorism operatives engage in a heated discussion about how to handle the terrorist group they're fighting. Both operatives have the same goal in mind, but they disagree on how to handle a critical, life-or-death situation, and long-simmering disagreements between the two culminate in a vicious argument about who gets to make the call. This scene emerged from various conversations I wrote between the two characters.

The Quandary

The quandary is used to describe the various ways in which characters react to stressful situations. It's an insoluble dilemma of some kind, a hypothetical situation set in the world of the game that you're creating. It is a problem with no best option, no clear best choice to make. It presents each character with a crisis requiring a solution, but affording no easy way out.

For each of the major characters in your game, write a description of how the character resolves the quandary, and how the situation plays out.

Write one for each of the major characters in your game, whether heroes or villains. Don't worry about how the character ought to behave. Many of the most interesting moments in games occur when ostensibly heroic characters are shown to be petty or self-absorbed (like Wesker in the original Resident Evil), or when presumably villainous characters display humanity or mercy (such as the brutal zealot Craymen in Panzer Dragoon Saga).

It's not necessary to end on a happy note for all of these scenarios. You may want many of these quandaries to end in victory or tragedy; it depends on the feel of your game. If you're working on a dark, serious game, an unhappy ending is obviously more appropriate. The important thing is that you understand why the characters are making those particular decisions. Ask yourself as you're writing the resolution for each scenario: okay, what's motivating the character to do this? Is the character capable of making serious mistakes in judgment?

One of the big shortcomings of many games that feature heroic characters is that the protagonists are superlative in every way, eliminating many opportunities for depth or drama. If the heroes can't be fooled or betrayed or outdone, the drama becomes extremely thin and boring. There's no threat, no chance that the hero will be undone. However, if the characters are human, and therefore fallible, they become more interesting.

Establish the reactions of the major characters to problems or crises, and see how they respond to situations of loss. See how they adapt. Be aware that it's acceptable for some of the characters behave similarly, but you don't want them all to react in exactly the same way.

For example: In the fictional superhero game "Justice Unit", one of the heroes (Ice Queen) is in the path of a bus, but doesn't see it. She's getting ready to fire a plasma beam at a group of bank robbers, and isn't aware that there's a bus headed straight for her. The bus driver has just slammed on the brakes, but isn't going to be able to stop in time, and Ice Queen will be killed when the bus hits her. On the other side of the street, a group of bank robbers has just emerged from the bank with the stolen money, and one of them is about to shoot an innocent bystander cowering next to his car.

The protagonist, super-powered marketing executive Bulletpoint, has a choice: rescue the bystander, or save his partner. But it's impossible to save both. The answer depends on what the character values.

If Bulletpoint believes that the hostage must be rescued above all else, then Ice Queen dies. But he may believe that electing to don the costume means placing one's life in danger again and again, with the understanding that one day, your luck will run out. Therefore, the innocent bystander is the person who deserves to live the most.

Or, Bulletpoint might feel a strong bond of loyalty, and save Ice Queen's life, even though it might result in the death of a hostage. Or he might save her because he believes that keeping Ice Queen alive will result in saving hundreds (even thousands) of lives down the line. So, rescuing his partner is for the greater good, and the death of that innocent person is a necessary evil. Or maybe he chooses to save Ice Queen's life because he's got feelings for her.

This process reveals the way that Bulletpoint actually feels about his work, about the people whose lives he saves, and about his teammates. It tells you how he sees the world.

The scenario might continue after the quandary has been resolved. For instance, after saving the hostage, and thereby losing his friend, Bulletpoint might then kill the bank robbers in a fit of rage. Or, after saving Ice Queen, but letting an innocent person die in the process, he might decide to give up crimefighting out of guilt.

This process will help define what makes your characters tick.

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