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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 Page 1 of 3 Next

Why character development in games?

As games continue to mature and become more sophisticated, the expectations for production values become higher. These production values include graphics, music, and story. Story is the result of character development: what happens to the characters as events transpire around them.

Character development in and of itself isn't going to make your gameplay any better, but it will create a more satisfying experience because you're furnishing a more well-developed context, a more immersive world for the player to explore.

You can't read a review of an adventure game or shooter without seeing some kind of reference to the storytelling, the dialogue, the characters. Can you relate to the characters? Are they well-developed? Are they interesting? It's become an expectation, an industry norm. Cliches and stereotypes are unacceptable.

So these well-developed characters will engage the audience and immerse the player in a well-developed fantasy world. I'm not just talking about heroic fantasy, either. These techniques are applicable to a wide variety of games. In all cases, we are creating a fantasy world that the player can discover and explore. That illusion can be shattered by uninspired writing and character development.

The final reason to consider character development during the development of games is that these characters can become iconic represenations of a brand. There are numerous characters whose very names are synonymous with their respective franchises, such as Master Chief and Samus Aran.

In this article, we'll cover a number of methods that can be implemented during preproduction to help you answer questions about the characters in your game.

What are these techniques?

These techniques are a means to an end, and can be used by the writer or designer who is responsible for the storytelling elements. In and of themselves, these techniques aren't going to create strong characters for you. That's the work of the writer on your project. But they are stepping stones, guideposts on the way. They are going to help the writer on your project to create more believable, three-dimensional characters.

Consider these exercises during preproduction, as part of the process of creating your characters. Using these techniques will open doors and start conversations; it's a form of brainstorming. If you're starting from square one, you'll wind up with a stronger set of ideas afterwards.

These techniques pose specific questions about your characters. But by characters, I don't mean all one hundred of them. We're talking about the highlights, the primary characters, the ones that the audience is supposed to relate to or have an emotional response to (admiration, hate, amusement). These techniques pertain to characters who are supposed to be fully-developed actors within your game's world. They're intended to answer questions about personality traits that will later shape your game's dialogue or cut-scenes.

These methods include the tarot deck, the quandary, the conversation, and the character web.

Tarot Deck

The Tarot may prove a surprising source of character development.

The tarot is a card deck imprinted with symbolic images. There are numerous variants on the deck, some of which date back to the 15th century. Traditionally, the cards are used by fortune-tellers to divine the future by laying cards out in different patterns. Some believe that the cards allow psychics to exercise precognitive abilities, while others hold that the cards' symbols merely jog subconscious beliefs, or that meaning arises from the random juxtaposition of images, triggering sudden ephipanies. Some people think it's all nonsense.

If used during preproduction, the tarot deck can help you create more fully-realized characters. The tarot deck is a free-association tool. Think of it as a starting point, a Rorschach blot that you can draw inspiration from. You'll need a deck of cards, which you can buy or make. Tarot decks are sold at game and hobby stores. If you'd rather make your own deck, you can find numerous breakdowns of the deck online.

Before shuffling the deck and dealing the cards, you want to familiarize yourself with the symbols and their various meanings. For example, according to some, the Tower symbolizes the fall of pride, or impending doom. The Magician indicates a divine motive of some kind, the Star suggests hope or immortality, and so forth.

After preparing a list of symbols and their various meanings, deal two or three of the cards for each of the major characters in your game. Consider the symbols and the order in which they appear.

For example, let's say that you're working on a science-fiction game. One of your characters is a scientist named Lennix. We deal three cards for him, and come up with Star (hope/immortality), Magician (divine motive), and Tower (fall of pride/doom). So if we consider the symbolic meaning for these cards, we could come up with hope, divine motive, and a fall of pride.

Perhaps Lennix sees technology as humanity's last hope, a way for humans to transcend their pettiness and bigotry. Through science, he hopes to accelerate the evolution of humans, advancing us to a stage of elevated consciousness. This quest ends in failure, resulting in a fall of grace because of his pride. Possibly his experiments result in death (or worse), or possibly he is discovered and expelled. So Lennix is driven by guilt. He knows what he wanted to achieve, and he may feel that he was wrong, and that he has learned a lesson. Or he may feel that he was thwarted, and he may be continuing his experiments in secret.

Reading the cards in another order produces different results. Let's say that we've dealt Tower, Magician, and Star. In this light, perhaps Lennix underwent some personal tragedy, a catastrophe that caused him great pain. He lost his faith in science, but has recently found a different kind of faith - religion, or magic, or communion with Nature, or whatever - and now, he believes that there is hope after all. Silly fool, there's no hope.

Ask yourself what the cards stand for, and whether that interpretation really fits with the kind of game you're developing. As patterns emerge, think about the personalities of the characters that you're visualizing, and ask yourself whether they really fit. If you like the icons, but aren't sure of the order, rearrange them, as in the above example, and see if that works better for you.

The alternative method is to create your own tarot deck, based loosely on the iconography of the deck. This is not uncommnon - T. S. Eliot played fast and loose with the tarot in his poem "The Waste Land", as did Stephen King in his Dark Tower novels. You may want to create your own tarot deck of archetypes, each with its own set of symbolic significance.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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