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Building Character: An Analysis of Character Creation
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Building Character: An Analysis of Character Creation


November 19, 2001 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

Dialogue

Dialogue: writing the words that go in the character's mouth. Your writing may be the final form of the dialogue, if it will be displayed as text, such as in an online game, where the size of the datastream is an issue, or a cart-based game, where the overall data size is an issue. Or, you might be writing a script that voice actors will use to produce recorded voices.

Try to find an interesting manner of speech for the character, which is consistent with who the character is. For example, I once heard a talk by Isaac Asimov, in which he was talking about the writing of his first "robot novel", The Caves of Steel, which is about a pair of detectives, one human and one a robot with human appearance. Asimov was trying to find a speaking style for the robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, and hit upon the idea of having him never use contractions: "I do not think we should go there." This was extremely effective in making him seem robot-like, since humans rarely avoid contractions. Asimov pointed out that this trick was also used for Spock's dialogue on Star Trek.

Another example is the character Claude Rains plays in my favorite movie, Casablanca, chief of police Louis Renault. He is constantly producing suave and witty lines even in the most pressure-filled situations; when Major Strasser asks him about the investigation of the murdered Nazi couriers, he says, "Realizing the importance of the case, my men are rounding up twice the usual number of suspects"; when Rick is holding a gun to Renault and points out that the gun is aimed at his heart, Renault says, "That is my least vulnerable spot."

About 15 years ago I wrote a game called Leather Goddesses of Phobos, in which your primary sidekick character was named either Trent or Tiffany, depending on whether you were playing the game as a man or as a woman. This character was a massively overenthusiastic, gung-ho, can-do personality. When writing Trent and Tiffany's dialogue, I always mentally imagined every sentence ending with half a dozen exclamation points, even though they rarely appeared in the actual text; this helped me maintain the right tone for their lines.

Also, in his talk earlier in the conference on story elements in computer games, Bob Bates pointed out an excellent way to use dialogue to make characters memorable and underpin their personalities, which is to give them a catchphrase. Schwarzenegger produces one of these in just about every one of his movies: "I'll be back" or "Hasta la vista, baby". Another good example is Robin from the Batman TV show, with his "Holy (whatever), Batman!" Of course, Bob rightly pointed out to be careful not to overuse it, which is easy to do in a game environment.

Voice Characterization

Voice characterization is a fantastic way to get a lot of bang for your buck. Even if you line up some very talented professional voice talent, you'll be spending a fraction on vocals than you will be on graphics. And the human brain is equally attuned to audio and visual signals, so voice characterization is an excellent and not very expensive way to telegraph personality to the player.

Voice characterization is particularly important if your main character is a first-person character, and is rarely or never seen.

I think that Nintendo did a great job with Mario's voice in Super Mario 64, which is proof that you can get a lot of mileage from a little bit of audio. It's a cartridge game, of course, so there's not a lot of room for sound files. In fact, apart from his opening greeting, "it's me, Mario!", I'm not sure he actually speaks in the game. But the game is loaded with grunts and whoops that perfectly paint exactly the right audio tone for Mario who, in my book, is a "roly-poly guy who's had too much caffeine, too much sugar, or both".

Here's another great Leon Schlessinger story that I heard at that Chuck Jones lecture. They'd just created the first Daffy Duck cartoon, and Mel Blanc, who did all the Warner Brothers cartoon voice characterizations, was having difficulty coming up with the right voice for Daffy. Well, as a joke, he did Daffy as a slight exaggeration of the lisping Schlessinger, and everyone was in stitches, so they decided to go with it. But then, as they were nearing completion of the cartoon, they realized with horror that Leon would be screening the completed film, as he did with all of the studio's cartoons. When the day for the screening came, the team sat frozen with fear, sure that they were all about to be fired. The film ended, the lights came up, and Leon turned to them and said, "That wath great! But where'd you guyth come up with that wacky voith for the duck?!"

True Character

Now we're going to move from characterization to true character. People have been telling stories in one form or another for thousands of years, and certain principles about the role of characters in a story are well documented. Here's what Robert McKee says about true character, in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting:

"True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature."

I took McKee's three day course on Story Structure a couple of years ago, by the way, and I recommend it strongly to anyone interested in story-oriented games. Even though the course is oriented toward traditional linear screenwriting, and not game design, there were many rules that translate very well to our medium, and many thought-provoking moments that made me look at game design from some very fresh perspectives.

So, if true character is revealed by the choices a character makes, under increasing pressure, what does this mean for characters in games? In books or movies, a character makes decisions and we follow along with those decisions and learn about the character as layer upon layer of his facade is stripped away.

However, in a game, the character doesn't make his or her decisions — we, the player, make the decisions for that character. So, characters can never be observed to react to circumstances and through those reactions, reveal their inner selves. Sure, NPC characters, under the games control, can make decisions, and thus the potential is there for some classic character development. And you can have some limited story-telling by halting the game to play non-interactive cut scenes in which the main character's decision-making is taken out of the player's hands, allowing you to perform sporadic revelation of true character. However, it is pretty universally agreed that all but the most sparing use of such non-interactive sequences is terrible game design.

Furthermore, the spine of a story is often driven by a tension between the main character's conscious and unconscious desires. However, where a character's desires are the desires of the player-manipulator, how can such a tension exist?

So, are games hopeless as a medium for character development, and therefore destined to always be a weak medium for storytelling? Perhaps, in saying so, we're failing to acknowledge the power of interactivity, the power of putting decisions into the player's hands. Because, even if player-characters cannot make decisions under pressure to reveal their true character, players can make decisions under pressure, and perhaps by doing so reveal aspects of their own character to themselves. Alternatively, perhaps, even more excitingly, by making discoveries about themselves, players could even be a changed person by playing a game.

I don't think this has been done, I'm not sure anyone has ever even attempted this, but I think it's possible. I know it's something that I've never tried to do. I once did a game called Stationfall, which was a sequel to my first game, Planetfall. In both games, your sidekick is an affectionate robot named Floyd.

In Stationfall, you're on a space station, which has been taken over by an alien doomsday device.

In Stationfall, you're on a space station, which has been taken over by an alien doomsday device, a small machine that takes over all the machines in its vicinity and turns them into people-killers, and turns them into a factory for manufacturing new copies of itself, which are then sent off to spread like a mechanical plaque. After a few days on board the station, Floyd disappears, and you don't see him again until the last scene of the game, where you discover him, in complete thrall to the alien device. He is the only thing standing between you and the device, and you have only seconds before it launches its deadly copies and spells an end to all human civilization. You have a choice — kill your friend Floyd to get at the alien device, or condemn all of humanity to death. It sounds like a classic choice under pressure that would reveal true character — except that it was really no choice at all. You could kill Floyd, and win the game, or launch the alien copies and lose the game. I, as the game designer, made the choice, not the player.

However, I think there is one arena where we might be seeing a glimmer of what I'm describing. All the games I've been talking about so far today are single-player experiences. When you make decisions for your character, you know that you are not affecting anything besides your own private, personal game universe, and only computer-controlled NPCs will be affected by your choices. Therefore, as a player, you make choices, which, like in Stationfall, the dictator/author has mandated are the decisions you should make to succeed.

However, what about multi-player games such as the huge persistent worlds of Ultima Online or Everquest? Here, players know that what they do may impact another human being, perhaps profoundly. Here, for the first time, players have to weigh moral issues as well as gameplay issues. Just a week or so ago, I was dining with a friend of mine who is a lead designer at Turbine, and she was relating her experience with Asheron's Call. She quickly reached a point in the game where she became less interested in advancing her character, and more interested in helping newer players to succeed. She said that she was surprised to discover how nice she was as a character in the world of Asheron's Call...and, upon reflection, this made her realize that she was a nicer person than she'd realized.

It's nothing earth-shattering...yet. But it's a beginning. Characterization is good; it's important. Do it well. But think about character too, because that just might be the key to the future of interactive storytelling.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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