Devs weigh in on the best ways to write and design characters
As games have evolved, so too have their characters, from simple 2D sprites who were little more than placeholders to fully realized simulacrums of real people with their own needs, motivations and agendas.
Crafting these characters is an art form, especially in a medium that requires you to fully construct and model them from scratch, clothe them in believability, and imbue them with human characteristics that make us empathize with or loathe them. The tremendous amount of effort that goes into Dr. Frankenstein-ing a modern game character to life is rarely a solo effort, particularly on triple-A projects, and usually requires the cooperation of multiple artists, writers, and designers.
According to Chris Avellone, a veteran designer and writer who’s contributed to a huge number of heavily narrative- and character-driven RPGs, from Planescape: Torment and Fallout: New Vegas to Divinity: Original Sin 2, building characters is often a democratic process with a lot of input from multiple sources.
Collaboration is key
“It depends on the team, although it’s usually very collaborative, which I prefer,” Avellone told me. “The way I prefer to do it is get the game’s core pillars and systems first, get any parameters for the game and game story (for example, Fallout: New Vegas has a lot of the same pillars and constraints as Fallout 3, which is important to know), script out the basic story, add to it, then use characters to reinforce the gameplay, the theme, a faction, or [they can] even be designed specifically to solve a story issue.
I don’t believe Yes Man’s concept originated from this, but the fact he couldn’t be destroyed and kept coming back since he was robot, made him a perfect quest giver if you’d alienated everyone else – which is an important design choice and an important design role.”
From there, he prefers to begin by building the systems that will support a character, scaffolding like their class or race or abilities, and then flesh out a brief biography with those elements in mind.
“I then present the bio and reference art to a concept artist and see what they come up with. Note that concept artists have a lot of work to do if they’re designing someone representative of a faction – they need to know how that faction lives, how they survive, their philosophy, where they live etc., so it can be a very involved process.”
Of course, the cooperative nature of designing with a large team means sometimes compromising your normal creative flow. Different projects have different standards and processes, and some of those might have already been established if you jump in midstream.
“In Into the Breach, Justin and Matthew started with a sentence or two (like ‘hotshot’),” Avellone says, “and Polina Hristova did the portraits. Then I came on and with those in place, Matthew and I set up the points of reactivity for how and when the characters would respond, and I did writing based on both their look, scripting calls, and the summary, also taking into account what their powers were.
Character system traits I think should be a strong factor in the design – Isaac’s temporal reset ability in Into the Breach definitely affected his character design, since his nervous system was always slightly out of sync. But the reason for creating a character can be anything, really. ‘Hey, I think a genuinely nice, wise, celibate succubus would be fun to write,’ became Fall-From-Grace in Torment.”
Dan Calvert, the character art director for Guerrilla Games, agrees that creating believable characters needs to be a collaborative process.
“At Guerrilla we rarely design anything in isolation and characters are no exception,” Calvert says. “Given that a lot of our art design work is in support of some other aspect of the game – the writing, the quest or combat design – a single character normally has a lot of stakeholders, and so feedback to them is pretty critical to making the design a success.”
That said, there is a sense of ownership of some characters for individual designers, though even those characters tend to grow and become fully realized in a cooperative environment.
“Characters who are central to the narrative – like Avad or Varl – normally emerge from a writer’s brain fully realized, and it’s our task to use art design to support that intent and communicate it to the player. Our concept artists are pretty awesome so they’ve rightly earned a lot of trust from the rest of the studio to own the process. Normally a single artist will be responsible for a given character, but as the team is open and collaborative it’s common for other artists to contribute through feedback and idea generation. But the approach to feedback is to raise issues rather than propose solutions, and the character designer is trusted to solve those issues on their own initiative.”
For Carrie Patel, the narrative co-lead on Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, the ideal recipe for character design is a similar, hybrid approach, where objectives are established at a high level but meeting those objectives is left to individual writers and designers.
“You can definitely end up with too many cooks in the kitchen,” Patel points out, “especially when it comes to writing a character. What generally works best is when the writer and the leads establish high-level goals together, generally about the content the NPC needs to point the player to and the high-level storytelling the team wants to accomplish with the NPC. Once those goals are established, the writer generally takes ownership of establishing the characterization and writing the dialogue. From there, they'll iterate based on feedback from the leads and team, especially if some aspect of the character interaction isn't clear or isn't coming across as intended.”
Not unlike Avellone, Patel likes to being with a sense of the role a character is going to play in the larger narrative, and what the requirements of that character are, some of the mechanical framework that then leads to more organic components like personality and backstory.
“I usually start with an understanding of what role the character is going to fill in the game,” she explains. “Most characters begin with a design goal. Is this a companion who's going to assist the player character over the course of the game, and if so, what's their class? Is it a quest giver, and if so, what's the gist of their quest? Or is it a flavor character who's highlighting a particular detail about the level or setting?”
Patel says that from a basic premise like a wounded space marine in mortal peril or a merchant recruiting the player to sabotage the competition, an archetype develops and then is populated by the little details that make characters feel real and unique.
“We'll build a characterization that makes sense with the basic premise—as well as the overall setting and tone—and that also gives the player character something interesting to play off of. Maybe the wounded marine doesn't think she needs to be rescued - which you can play up for either comedy or poignancy, depending on the tone - or maybe the conniving merchant frames his proposed sabotage in more virtuous terms, giving the player an opportunity to either engage or disagree with his perspective. Whatever we decide, that's the usual starting point for characters, and from there, we'll write the dialogue and develop any unique art assets we may require.”
With a character almost fully drawn, Patel looks to integrate them as smoothly as possible into the larger flow of the game.
“From there, I try to find an intersection point between the NPC's function and some detail of the larger narrative. When it's done right, that lets me tie characters into the narrative and setting of the game, and it allows me to feed the game's story to the player in an organic, gradual fashion.”
Avellone also talks about the importance of characters can slot into the larger narrative in a way that supports it, rather than challenges or undermines it. “Sometimes the character is designed to reinforce the theme of the game, be the figurehead of a faction’s beliefs, or be the representative of a certain character class or race, or highlight a certain unique element of the game (Hey, I’m a psychic and my dialogue…er telepathy…will showcase what being a psychic means in this world!).” For instance, Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic 2 Kreia “was a mouthpiece for the theme and underlying conflict in the game – but was visually designed to incorporate elements of (old) Obi-Wan Kenobi purposely to exploit that cliché in order to subvert it later.”
For Calvert, instead of designing characters and molding them to slip into the larger world or integrate with the narrative, the setting and narrative have a much more direct relationship with character development.
“Before we even start thinking about individuals we’ll design the cultures from which they originate. We’ll consider things like location, available materials, social structure, and their level of technology and from there explore their material culture, crafting processes, tastes and fashions, as well as iconography. Because we’re making these ordered design decisions that build on each other logically we can create a unified visual identity that feels much more natural than if we made these kind of decisions arbitrarily – like ‘these are the spiky blue guys.’”
In Horizon: Zero Dawn, hundreds of characters populate a setting so far beyond a post-apocalypse that fully formed new societies and cultures already exist, ones foreign to real world sensibilities but nonetheless grounded in them. Committing to a full understanding of these cultures and working through the lens of that design hierarchy means these characters and communities feel as though they’ve existed for generations.
“Besides making for a more believable and consistent art design this helps us do better design for individuals,” Calvert says. “As an example, Rost – Aloy’s adoptive father -- identifies very strongly with his tribe yet is outcast from that tribe. Because we fully understood his tribe before we designed him, we could communicate this through his character design – something that would have not been possible had he been designed in a vacuum.”
It can be easy to fall in love with your own creation and become enamored with the characters your writing, but in projects on the scale of modern scale its important to be able to make hard decisions about how much time and how many resources to commit any any single character. All three of the designers I spoke to pointed to some loosely established hierarchies that helped make those decisions easier, though it’s clearly not an exact science.
“This is very much a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question,” Calvert says. “The time spent on an individual character varies wildly. The importance of any character is a factor – but not as much as you might think, as we try and make sure every character is excellent and contributes to the world building. When we’re using art design to communicate identity or game play mechanics, some concepts are more esoteric and difficult to explain visually. Those are normally the characters who take the longest to get right.”
For Patel, it’s slightly more cut and dry.
“The main factor here is the significance of the character's role. The most expensive characters are often companions - NPCs that join the player's party and may be present for most of the game. Companions are generally going to get the most time and resources across the board, including custom art and animation assets (unique models, portraits, idle animations, clothing, etc.), additional design work (to build tie-in quests, develop unique skills and abilities, and balance their skill tree), and, of course, lots of extra writing.”
In Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, companions are huge troves of story and lore and often drive the action nearly as much as the primary questline. They’re unique, fully realized characters with backstories as rich as, or even more complex than, the player character.
“Aloth, one of our companions in Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, has over 1200 nodes of dialogue and text spread over the course of the game and took a few weeks to fully write and polish. Many other NPCs in the game are closer to 100 or so nodes and may be written and polished in a few days (or even a few hours, in some cases).”
“Simplest answer is it depends on screen time and their importance to the plot/experience. Companions and Antagonists get a lot of work, especially since you can go deeply into their backstories and if they have arcs for their character progression (for example, turning the companions light or dark side in KOTOR2).”
While the work for a writer may be finished in a comparatively short time frame, Avellone acknowledges that’s only phase of creation.
“I can usually do a bio for a major character in a day or two, but the concepting, modeling, animating and further design on a character can be a lot longer – including selecting the voice actor and choosing the right tone for the character. Character design can be sparked or altered by a voice actor – in the past, if we heard an audition we liked a lot, we’d rewrite the character and modify the design b/c we think it would make the character better (ex: James Urbaniak as Dr. O in Old World Blues in Fallout: New Vegas).”
Characters designed to work against type or were modeled on wildly original concepts might require even more effort, or further refinement passes, like Avellone’s The Nameless One from Planescape: Torment, the player character, who “was designed to look like someone who had died a thousand times, could regenerate, and had no name because it made it difficult for enemies to scry for him. The regeneration factor also meant he could find his old body parts in the game, so that specific factor had additional gameplay consequences.”
These characters can grow to be nearly as bespoke, nearly as human, as real people, and each one requires different levels of engagement and care and craftsmanship; Avellone mentions a handful and the challenges of breathing life into them, and admits that “there are countless more examples, all different. It’s a complicated process.”