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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 3 of 3

The Character Web

This technique is used to develop major relationships between the characters in the game, and explores the way that they feel about one another.

The character web is used to define interpersonal relationships in your game. The idea is that you create a web, a flowchart that diagrams all of the major characters in your game, and all of the relationships between them. It defines the way that the characters feel about each other, and relate to one another, and the kind of affections or animosities they hold for one another.

The idea is that it's more complicated that mere like or dislike. A fully-developed character web will delineate allegiances, factions, attitudes, hierarchies. It's more complicated than love or hate.

The important thing to remember is that two characters aren't necessarily going to feel reciprocal feelings for one another. There will be unrequited love, concealed animosity or grudges, and you're also going to have a number of disassociative elements. For example, between a mentor and a student, you may have a mentor's pride in his student's achievement, and the student's resentment for being held back by someone whose time has passed.

Not all of the emotions will be shared by the two characters, but there will be some common feelings. For example, they may share the love of a father and son.

There may be different layers of emotion and relationships between the characters in your game, which brings us to the idea of multiple character webs.

You may have different character webs for the different characters in your game. For example, a character web for your heroes, and one for your villains, or one for the major characters, and one for the minor players.

There may be certain characters in your game who only appear in cut-scenes, or in certain missions, and this will require specific webs that only deal with these characters and their attitudes towards one another.

You may also create character webs devoted to specific types of relationships. For example, if you're working on a military shooter, you might create a character web that pertains to hierarchy and rank, and the way that soldiers relate to one another and their superiors in that context. One of your characters, a macho private who does things his own way, may resent one of his superior officers. The officer might not even be aware of the private's resentment, and may feel that the private is a loyal and reliable soldier. Another web for the same group, focusing on interpersonal relationships outside of rank, could delineate a mutual respect between the two dating back to an incident that transpired years ago. Conflicts arising in the game could bring the resentment to the fore, or could strengthen the bond between the two characters.

This series of character webs can deepen the relationships between the characters in your game.

The other thing to think about when creating a character web is the idea that different-sized webs require different levels of detail. For a large web with multiple characters, you want to keep it as simple as possible. If your web features a dozen characters, you probably want to keep the interpersonal descriptors down to a single-word relationship.

If you only have three characters, you can feature more complex relationships and attitudes between the characters. For example, you may connect the characters with two lines, instead of one. On one of the lines, you can indicate between a king and a warrior, for instance, you could indicate their attitudes towards each other. The warrior envies the king's wealth and power, and yet admires his inner strength. The king, on the other hand, envies the warrior's youth, and also admires his loyalty to the crown. On the other hand, you have their working relationship, which is straightforward. The warrior is completely loyal to the king, and the king is ready to send the warrior out to do battle.

So you'll feature multiple threads connecting characters in a tightly-focused relationship map.

On a map with more characters, you'll feature a single word or concept, such as obedience. So the king issues orders, and the warrior obeys. Simple.

It's also important to think about the structure. There are a number of different possibilities. With a single major character, you might consider a radial web, where you've got the major character in the middle, and all other characters emanate from her. The other characters emanate from her, because they're defined in relationship to her.

There are a few characters who will have feelings for one another in this web, so you'll want to think about where you place them in relationship to one another. You will want to place them next to characters that they interact with routinely, so that you can define these attitudes on your primary map. But you'll probably need another map just to define the minor characters outside of their relationship to the player character. Ultimately, your central character web deals with the major character and how she relates to all these people, because when you're writing your dialogue, when you're developing your cut-scenes or storytelling elements, you're going to want to know how the player character relates to the other characters, and how they feel about her. Is she admired? Is she loved? Is she feared? Is she underestimated?

If, however, you're working with an ensemble cast, if your player controls several characters at once, a number of them will still shine through as principals. Watch an ensemble movie like X-Men, and a small group of characters still seize the attention of the audience.

You want to build your web around that notion. You build a web that focuses on that small cast of central characters, and focus on them.

The last thing to consider when creating character webs is the idea that characters can evolve. The character web can actually change over time depending on the events that transpire in your game, because relationships between these characters, the emotions and attitudes, can evolve as things change.

Characters attitudes do change as characters interact with one another. So, depending on the story in your game, you may want to create multiple character webs to support the major evolutions in your storyline.

So, if a third of the way through your game, the player's closest friend is murdered, and another third of the way through, it is revealed that the murderer is an ally of the player (who, as it so happens, was a double agent all along), you're going to need three maps for each of those stages. After the murder, the major characters may feel grief and anger, which may alter the way that they relate to each other. Some may swear vengeance, others could counsel reason. They may split along those lines. After the revelation of betrayal, suspicion may cloud friendships, or it may draw the player's allies closer together as they band together for a final stand against the enemy. Either way, you want to define these emotional ties between characters in the context of the major events of your game.

Figure 1. The Justice Unit, prior to the battle of Wall Street.

In figure 1, we have the Justice Unit, from the fictional game of the same name. The player controls Bulletpoint, a former marketing executive who now fires bolts of justice in the name of freedom. or something.

There are four other characters in the unit. Sensei is the leader of the unit, an old wise karate master. He trained Bulletpoint, and taught him to fight for justice. Their relationship is garden-variety mentor-pupil. Ice Queen is beautiful but aloof, and Bulletpoint wants her bad, bad, bad. But she gives him the cold shoulder (sorry). Major Malfunction, the old Army veteran who breaks everything he touches, likes to drink a few cold beers with the kid every once in a while, and the feeling's mutual. They hang out, they get along. By contrast, the demented Canadian ninja, Caribou, really intimidates Bulletpoint. Mainly, it's the antlered warrior's enigmatic nature and his tendency to fly into the terrifying Caribou Rage. Bulletpoint is also a little jealous of Caribou, because enigmatic warrior guys who fly into a rage but also have a code of honor are just a lot cooler than normal guys with superpowers.

Figure 2. The Justice Unit, after a shift in relationships.

After the battle with Overcharge (a former credit card industry CEO who laid siege to Wall Street in an armored exoskeleton), Bulletpoint demonstrated astonishing powers that the Justice Unit didn't even know he possessed. In the aftermath of this battle, during which Bulletpoint pretty much saved the day, the relationships have shifted somewhat. Major Malfunction sees the kid pretty much the same way. But Caribou has gained a little respect for the guy - he earned his chops in the field. Ice Queen has thawed just a tad, and Bulletpoint has enough confidence now to be honest with her about his feelings. Not that it matters, she's still frosty towards him. Sensei is now intimidated by Bulletpoint, who may well be the Golden Warrior promised in the ancient prophecies.


During preproduction, before the game's concepts begin to congeal, there is an opportunity to develop living, breathing characters with goals and values. Hopefully, the aforementioned techniques will help you begin the process of learning about these characters.

For More Information

David Freeman. Creating Emotion in Games: The Craft and Art of Emotioneering. New Riders Publishing, 2003.

Robert McKee. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. Regan Books, 1997.

Lee Sheldon. Character Development and Storytelling for Games. Muska & Lipman, 2004.




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