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Opinion: Characters, The Building Blocks Of Your Reality

Opinion: Characters, The Building Blocks Of Your Reality Exclusive

May 13, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

[In this opinion piece, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt analyzes why so few games have characters "you can even imagine having... a meaningful inner life", and highlights what gives game worlds emotional realism.]

Recently, I had a brief Twitter conversation -- is there any other kind? -- with @33mhz, another gay guy and gamer. He'd been playing through Rockstar's The Ballad of Gay Tony and live-tweeting his reactions to, essentially, the game's portrayal of the reality of being gay.

What makes this interesting is that he's not being a watchdog for political correctness; he's critiquing what the GTA series, in its continued quest for gritty realism, gets right, and what it gets wrong. When he pointed out a badly written bit of dialogue from a gay character, I replied, "Is it a bit sad that this is the only mainstream game we could have this conversation about?"

His response: "I know, right? Partly because so few games are set in a recognizable present." I don't think that's the problem, precisely, though it certainly doesn't help.

My response was, "So few have characters that you can even imagine having any sort of meaningful inner life."

That's it. While it would be nice to have more believable gay characters in games, it would be even nicer to have more believable characters in games -- period.

But I think there's an important, rarely-considered reason for this. Believable characters make what they inhabit believable. In fact, I'd argue that having believable characters would strengthen games on every front: it would not just make their stories more enjoyable, which is obvious; it would make games more engaging to play, and make their worlds more meaningful and more exciting to explore.

I Smolder With Generic Rage

The line above comes from Penny Arcade, of course. It was written about the frequently-derided second entry in Ubisoft's reboot of the Prince of Persia series: Warrior Within.

The game quickly became the butt of jokes not because it was bad; it became a punchline because it took the appealing characters from Sands of Time and put them through the Hot Topic wringer, turning them into tedious caricatures designed to appeal to unhappy teenagers, accompanied by music from nu-metal band Godsmack, which apparently was added to the same effect. But I don't have much interest in discussing Warrior Within. The Prince of Persia series seems to have outgrown its awkward adolescence -- or at least moved into a new stage of it, anyway.

No, the guy I want to talk about is Kratos, from God of War. Maybe it's moot since he's dead now, but what I'm struck by is how he's frequently been held up as not just an appealing character, but as an example of effective characterization. I'm struck by this because, frankly, I find him to be one of the biggest ciphers in gaming.

In the original game, it's revealed that his generic rage smolders for a good reason: he killed his family. This reveal doesn't come until near the end of the game, though, and having finally played it recently, thanks to the PlayStation 3 port, I found him to be a blank; the calm eye at the center of a vortex of blades. Nothing happened to Kratos -- just around him.

He has a motivation, of course, and it's well-established in the game's narrative. What he doesn't have is a personality. He growls and gnashes his teeth.

It doesn't bother me so much because his behavior is provocative; it bothers me because he's so boring. I've never been so perplexed by the popularity of a character as I have with Kratos. Sure, sure, it's subjective, and his badassery is not in question. But he's just so... vacant.

The Blades of Chaos Are The Problem

I'm hardly the first to point out that one of the biggest obstacles to more meaningful storytelling in games is that this is not what games are designed to do. But let's chew on that a bit.

Certainly, God of War does exploration tolerably well, does puzzles okay, and does combat very effectively. It's difficult to characterize someone who spends the majority of his time dashing around swinging blades on chains as anything other than violence made flesh.

That's one of the successes of Heavy Rain which I haven't seen really discussed much. For all that some people were eager to dismiss the game as "just Dragon's Lair", the modular way in which its characters interact with the game world allows for a tremendous range of behavior beyond combat. And the consistency of its button input system makes all interactions instantly accessible to its audience no matter how late into the game they're introduced.

The much talked about scene early on in the game in which Ethan Mars has to take care of his son Shaun -- feed him dinner, make him do his homework, tuck him in to bed -- is not just remarkable because it's a deft example of characterization, nor because, counter to expectation, it's not dull. It is also because you can do varied things in Heavy Rain, like bake a pizza or tuck in a child, with the interface Quantic Dream developed.

Typically, interactions like this in games, when attempted, are jury-rigged, and you can tell.

No, Heavy Rain can't deliver combat or driving in a way that is satisfying like God of War or Gran Turismo -- though it does do both, in its own way . Its strength is that it can deliver anything. It's more versatile precisely because it's more limited. And thus the story can more tightly intertwine with the gameplay, and the characterizations invite nuance.

In contrast, I was struck, at Activision's E3 2008 presentation, by the demonstration of its first James Bond game, the Treyarch-developed Quantum of Solace. Though it's named for the latest Bond film, it takes in the story of Casino Royale as well, because they're essentially inextricable.

I've never actually played the game, despite loving the film because I suspect, for me, it's not additive. During the presentation, the developers showed off some of the Casino Royale content: a lengthy gunfight in a corridor in the Hotel Splendide that had nothing to do with anything that actually happened in the film. At the time I simply rolled my eyes at this departure from the movie, but it's worth pulling apart.

This is not because I want to dwell on what I see as a mismatch with the source material. No, I just want to point out that it's instructive: when you make your only interaction with the world violence, you have no choice but to fill your game with violence. It's just so much more noticeable in a film adaptation. Casino Royale is a film about a lot of things. And yes, Bond does drop some fools in the Hotel Splendide.

But Casino Royale is also a story of his relationship with Vesper Lynd -- a complicated, fascinating, believable one.

It's a film with a lot of texture, tonal shifts, and different settings -- highs and lows aplenty. I can't say for sure how much of that Treyarch was able to get into the game, since I have never played it, and I certainly don't want to disparage the team's work without doing so. But when your only meaningful interaction with the world is down the barrel of a gun... It's limiting. Quantum of Solace puts that in perspective.

A World I Can Believe

A character like Kratos implies a world that makes little sense. To believe in him, we have to make allowances and accept vague conceptions as truths. The Ancient Greek setting gives him cover: there were warriors in the past, we know vaguely, and yet they had societies. But those exceptions, once made, don't do anything to enrich the believability of the game as anything more than an arena to experience combat in.

To my mind, the concepts of a believable world and believable characters are inextricably intertwined. This is why skeptics should be paying attention to whether or not their characters are more than empty shells with strong arms and good aim.

Regardless what type of game you're making -- linear action or open world; action or RPG -- you're trying to build a world that players must believe in. Whether you call it a world, or you call it zones, or you call it levels, this is your goal: because one thing we do well, as a medium, is build worlds. But we must recognize that this not just down to the talent of the art team and the quality of their research and imagination.

The enduring popularity of Final Fantasy VII owes a great debt to both the character building and world creation that the team engaged in for that 1997 release. It's able to endure as a property -- and be spun off into films and more games without up-front plans to do so -- because of the believability of its world.

Recall exploring Midgar. There was a sense of a way of life there: shit ran downhill from Shinra to the characters in the slums, who mostly had ordinary lives. Barrett had his daughter Marlene, Tifa ran the bar, Aerith grew flowers in the abandoned church and lived with her mom. Even Cloud, the amnesiac soldier, joined the Shinra Company for personal reasons.

The 2008 PSP release Crisis Core was able to show the Shinra corporation from the inside -- from the perspective of Zack Fair, that game's lead -- specifically because it was an organization that made sense. It slotted into its world well.

And Zack and Aerith and Cloud and even Sephiroth all fit into the world, too: all had logical, if fantastic, back stories. The game explored these with a deftness and believability that eluded the more carefully planned Final Fantasy XIII, which ironically had been devised as part of a scheme to span multiple games in the first place.

A Recognizable Present?

As I said before, it's not so much about setting games in the real world -- you don't have to make GTA to make a game with believable characters, though it probably helps, if for no other reason than to keep you grounded.

One of my favorite authors, and one I feel is perpetually underrated -- or at least overlooked -- is Diana Wynne Jones. Jones rarely writes books set in the real-world present, though she has. Usually, she writes fantasy, building worlds and situations that aren't real.

Many might be fleetingly familiar with her work thanks to the Studio Ghibli film adaptation of her book Howl's Moving Castle. While it's a flawed translation to the screen, if you know it, it'll give you an idea of the currency she usually works in, in terms of both setting and character.

I'm pointing this out because one thing that the film retains is the idiosyncratic characters and complicated relationships between them that the book had. This is what makes her fantasy worlds believable -- why we don't question that the wizard Howl has a castle that journeys haphazardly across the countryside. It's an expression of his personality as a character, and only from there becomes indicative of the kind of world we're dealing with.

Jones is frequently asked where she gets her characters from, and in this essay, she writes, "They come partly from life... Those that I do draw from life, I use sparingly, one per book usually, to ensure that the other people, who come from my head, will behave as real people would."

She later writes that one of her most meaningfully formative exercises as a young writer was to write about characters and explore their group dynamics -- to tease out the way they'd really act. These groups "surprised and fascinated me by developing a group dynamic I had not expected. The one I expected to make the decisions did not always do so." Build realistic characters, you get realistic groups. Build groups, get a society. Build societies, and you get a world.

When author R.A. Salvatore was asked to devise the Drow Elf society for Forgotten Realms, he realized that their role as silent antagonists in role-playing scenarios wouldn't fly. Said Salvatore in his GDC 2010 talk, "You can't have a society that's just a bunch of vicious, maniacal killers. It wouldn't survive. So I had to come up with a structure... This is the most important thing in world building. You have to understand that you are asking the player or the reader to suspend disbelief. You are asking them to take a bunch of things for granted. The less that you're asking them to pretend this happens, the more you're making it make sense, the more immersed they will be in your world."

"Great games are rarely about graphics"

The interaction of character and believability brings us to an interesting case: Nier. Recently released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by Square Enix, it was developed by an outfit called Cavia -- one that's notorious, inasmuch as anybody has actually heard of it, for making mediocre games, to be blunt.

I've played it for a little over an hour. Initial impressions are that it's far behind the curve graphically -- I can easily name a PlayStation 2 game (Valkyrie Profile 2, for the record) that does some of what it attempts and looks better doing it.

And if I based my criticism of the game on my initial impressions of the gameplay, I wouldn't have anything nice to say, either. So far, it's bog-standard fetch quests, behind-the-times static storytelling, and a world with limited interaction. Yet somehow the game has generated a lot of buzz, and it's not just because of the Square Enix logo on the case. Most shockingly, the game got a review in the print edition of the New York Times, which is also published on its website, which is where the above quote comes from.

Critic Seth Schiesel spends a great deal of time talking about the game's story, and the emotional truth of it -- tying it even to the U.S. Supreme Court's forthcoming decision on how games can be treated under the constitution: whether they're deserving of the protections afforded to film, literature, and other art. While that may be a reach -- though I can't say for sure -- it's clear to me that Nier is able to draw in players, despite its last-generation visuals and a protagonist who, based on looks, could comfortably stand alongside Marcus Fenix or Kratos.

What sets Nier, the eponymous protagonist, apart? As Schiesel points out, he's a father. There it is: that small, poignant, and profoundly meaningful detail. It's a launchpad, Schiesel writes: "From the simple, elemental motivation of helping [Nier's daughter] unfolds a tale that reveals the fate of the world and which throws into question the nature of humanity itself."

That's the crucial difference. That link is what elevates a game which is otherwise undistinguished. After all, Schiesel himself says the graphics "fall short", the combat mechanics are "basic", and its world is "small". Somehow, though, he finds it worth writing about, and writing about passionately.

Though he admits its faults, he also writes that "Nier succeeds at fostering an emotional investment in its characters and in its world that gives all of its hacking and slashing and jumping and exploring and puzzle-solving and even its virtual fishing and farming a sense of value and meaning."

If Nier is behind the times at creating a "believable" game world, at least in the sense the term is usually applied, the relationships it creates serve in place of a budget increase or more talented art and design staff. Though it may not always work out, this drive towards emotionally resonant characters may be the one place Japanese game development is consistently ahead of the West.

Gamers are getting older. Their lives are getting more complicated. One thing you must confront when your life gets complicated is the nature of interpersonal interaction -- whether you want to or not. If there's something we need to do -- and Gears of War 2 attempted it, as well, with its treatment of Dom Santiago's wife -- it is to lend these worlds the emotional heft of meaningful characterization.

How we do that can be approached via cutscenes, via text dialogue, via mise-en-scene, as in Heavy Rain and BioShock. There are doubtless other narrative tools that I didn't list -- even ones that haven't yet been invented.

The point I am making is that imbuing a game's cast with meaningful characterization does not relate solely to the quality of a game's story; it relates directly to the quality of the game's world. In terms of storytelling, Schiesel clearly belives Nier does a fantastic job; I personally believe that Gears of War 2 missed the mark. But in either case, these details help make the world more a world and less a string of environments. Relationships imply context; relationships imply a world.

Final Fantasy XIII, to take a recent example, jumps on and off of this track schizophrenically. This is what makes it a particularly frustrating case. At times the game's story works beautifully to create and support its world, and at times things make no sense and meaningful context is elusive.

Though all are flawed attempts, each game I've discussed throughout this editorial proves in its own way that visuals are only a fraction of what it takes to make a world come to life.

A lot of critics and developers think we should be pushing narrative in games because narrative helps bring us closer to a vaguely defined goal -- of making games art. Schiesel argues that this is, in fact, the outcome with Nier. But my argument is simpler: pursuing meaningful characterization will simply help bring us closer to the goal of making our worlds -- our games. And if it happens that we accidentally make art in the process, well, it's serendipity.

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