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Player Character Concepts

November 8, 1999 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

The term "character" is a summation of the attributes that make one person different from another. As much as this is a list of traits included in an identity, it is also a list of traits that are excluded from an identity. A character is a fictional identity, a mock entity. More specifically, a game character is a vehicle for playing the game; the means through which the game shows the player the game-world's responses to his presence.

This article explores the concept of character as it relates to a computer game, focusing on characters that represent the player (player-characters), rather than characters driven by AI or scripts (non-player-characters). As a result of this focus, much of what is written here comes from a game-centric, rather than dramatic, standpoint.

Mechanical Vs. Fictional Character Differentiation

In a computer role-playing game (CRPG), player-characters are often composed of elements external to the game and its systems. For instance, my character may "hail from the snowy mountain villages of Kerbash" while yours might have "journeyed up from the depths of the under-mountain caves of Gnil." Often, these types of characteristics are not expressed mechanically within the game; they exist solely as extra fictional material for the player's imagination - back story. Elements like these are useful in that they help the player suspend disbelief and facilitate immersion into the game - they can further advance the design goals of a given game. It could be argued that these types of details are more relevant for specific types of games, but in many cases, having some fictional context for what the player represents in a game and what he is trying to accomplish will help him understand and enjoy the game (which is an alien, abstract thing to begin with). Back story can enhance the player's experience by engaging his imagination. These fictional elements provide motivational context and often an imperative that drive the player's actions.

Some role-playing game characters have highly
detailed back stories.

For instance, the game Lunar Lander was all about firing thrusters for just long enough, allowing for drift and gravity, to land a spacecraft. Except that Lunar Lander wasn't really about landing a spacecraft - it was actually all about pushing a couple of buttons and watching a glowing spot. But the latter doesn't sound like much fun, especially when compared to the former - the "I'm a spaceman!" version. The player - staring into a monitor, pushing buttons with two fingers - is of course not really a spaceman, but where would we be, as human beings, without our artful illusions? (Trapped in a dull world, I think.) The context helps the player immerse himself in the game more fully, to make the game a more personal, subjective experience.

Other games rely on character traits that are weighted more toward game mechanics. For instance, a character may have a speed of 15, which allows him to move at a particular rate. In many cases, of course, a game allows the player to make decisions about the character's speed-the player can decide how heavily to invest in this mechanical trait. This too is characterization, in the context of the computer game medium, and in some ways it has a stronger impact on the player than fiction (the back story). Establishing fictionally that a character is an orphan has less impact on game play than establishing that the character has a high speed. (Though making the character an orphan might have more impact ultimately on the player's experience, depending upon how compelling the player finds the game's fiction.)

In Doom, the game's fictional background is merely a thin skeleton of a structure, meant to do essentially two things. First, Doom's back story enhances the game's horror elements, thus increasing the player's sense fear and peril, making the experience more gripping. Second, the game's background gives the player some starting context for his location, his identity, and the relationship between the two. The fact that the player was a space marine and that someone had opened a portal to hell was in many ways less relevant than the game's excellent game-play elements. For instance:

  • The speed at which the player could move was directly tied to how much time he had to note an imp's incoming fireball and dodge it.
  • The player could take a specific amount of damage before being kicked from the game, and his weapons refired at a particular rate.
  • Finding certain game power-up objects altered these mechanical traits.
In Myst, the game's fictional context outweighs the game's mechanics.

These mechanics are in-game character traits, and they are probably more relevant to the Doom experience than the fictional identity of the player-character. This is not to say that mechanics are always more relevant than fictional context-in Myst, the opposite is true. (Though I believe that the more relevant the game mechanics and rules are to an entertainment software application, the more purely it can be categorized as a "game" in the true sense of the word.)

Most games, once you look at them, use character traits related to both fictional context and game play, since that gives the game developer two powerful sets of tools with which to (hopefully) achieve fun. These two tool sets are game interactivity and suspension of disbelief. In many cases, the seams between the two tools are faint.

In the computer version of the game Bureau 13, the player had to choose two agents from a set of eight or so. Each of these had different "game powers." One character could assume an ethereal form and thus enter otherwise inaccessible spots and elude enemies. But this character was also defined by his history: He was a vampire with a personal back story. The character's mechanical abilities and his fictional background were both relevant to the player's enjoyment of the game - the former to game play and puzzles, the latter to imagination and story immersion. The line between the two might seem gray here-that is, you might think that the mechanics were implied by the fictional context - but the character could have just as easily been a genie with the power to become ethereal, or an alien or whatever. The ethereal game power is directly tied to game-play, while the vampiric history is a decision tied to fiction context. While using the vampire identity might have made the character's mechanical powers more accessible - assuming the player knows what "vampires" are traditionally capable of doing - it also sets up player expectations. If, for instance, the player is someone who also thinks vampires should take triple damage from silver, yet the game's silver weapons do not take this into account, the player might be disappointed, since his expectations have been thwarted.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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