Characters are the driving force behind almost any form of media, and there’s no reason that video games should be any different. The characters are the part of a game that we remember best after the game has ended, they are what advertisers use to attract new players, and are what brings us back to a franchise for sequels.
The reasoning and thought process behind the character designs for a game are not all that different from –for example - those of a film, but at the same time designers have to take into account how those characters will be implemented within the game mechanics. Most of the same character devices that work for film or even literature carry through well when converted into games, maybe because characters are an aspect of gaming that is more closely tied to storytelling than to game mechanics.
The most common format for both games to follow a single character as the protagonist, and usually the point of a game is to guide you through their experiences first hand, with the player adopting that character’s role in the game world. The game has to guide the player into making the actions that are necessary to progress, without making it feel too forced. This is where strong characterization can make a big impact to the overall enjoyment and immersion of a game, as it’s a characters’ responsibility to guide the player into their role, whether that character is the protagonist, a mentor, a villain, or even the main character’s romantic interest.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it the same formula that is used throughout films and literature. The important difference with games, is that you can’t just assume a passive role watching over the protagonist’s shoulder, you have to become them to some degree. It’s no coincidence that the most often seen protagonist is young and male, since that also describes the demographic of the main target audience, and the similarities make it easier to relate to the main character.
It’s worth acknowledging that not all video games follow this format. There are plenty strategy games, such as Age of Empires or rollercoaster tycoon, which don’t have characters in the typical sense, but that doesn’t mean lessons about character design don’t apply, since game devices are often personified.
If supporting characters don’t play a purpose, they can easily feel superfluous, although in stories where the player can make choices that affect the story there are sometimes several potential characters for each role, giving the illusion of choice without taking away necessary components to the story. That’s another difference between watching the main character and putting the audience in the man character’s shoes: in the former, the character’s personality in defined be their actions, whereas in games; at least ones where you have choices, the character’s personality (or at least the personality that the player projects into the character) defines their actions.
If the game forces you to take actions that don’t fit with how you interpret the character – actions which you would not choose given circumstances, were you in their shoes – it can be jarring if not handled convincingly enough. At the same time, to establish a character as being an individual they have to make some choices individual to the player, unless the game if giving you a blank slate, as often see in open world RPGs. Generally games stick rigidly to one or the other: either you are entirely free to mould your character, or you are playing as an established character with no real control over their choices except on the most basic gameplay level.
Although better development tools can help populate a world, and improvements in AI can make organic beings more convincing, actually giving those creations character remains a very organic process. After all, you can’t procedurally generate voce acting or stories – Bethesda may have has managed to produce randomly generated fetch quests that aren’t too intrusive, but they only make up a small proportion of Skyrim’s quests, and they don’t contribute anything to characterization that hasn’t already by predetermined my the game designers.
The other aspects of games, such as game mechanics or puzzles can, if used correctly, allow characters that would otherwise seem excessively stereotyped. A small cast of well developed characters are often enough to make players overlook one dimensional enemies and minor characters.
It should be fairly obvious that the technical capabilities of graphics have little to do with creating lovable, wee known characters; many of the long running characters we are familiar with predate even 3D graphics, and have their origins in low resolution sprites. In some ways this was an advantage, as the limitations forced them to design characters who were recognisable and readable at such a low resolution. Take Mario, for example the basic character design is the same whether it’s rendered as an 8-bit sprite of a fully 3D one, but the colourful, simple design works. Video games thrive on IP and memorable characters, and therefore it’s important that characters are distinctive and memorable. There’s a whole list of characters from games I’ve never played, who I would nonetheless recognise instantly.
Certainly some characters have evolved visually from their original appearance, but I suspect that in many cases the designers wanted the characters to be more detailed originally, but were limited by what the technology at the time allowed to be displayed on screen, and that changes are simply the original idea being fully realised.
That’s not to say realistic graphics don’t have their place. While the qualities of realtime graphics are not quite to the point of having characters who are indistinguishable for real people, we’re getting closer and closer. There’s a lot more than the character models themselves that go into making a character look real, and character animation, collision and physics engines are all things that help create a convincing imitation of life, but to reiterate: creating convincing characters is all about how these tools are used, they won’t be any help if game artist don’t make full use of the tools available. If games can include characters so realistic, we can effortlessly forget that they’re not real, imagine what that could do for immersion.
Bringing in well-known actors to voice characters in games is often used to pull in buyers in the same way of casting for films. I’ve never actually recognised a character’s voice actor while playing, but I suspect it could break the immersion a bit. That said, quality of voice acting is another one of those key things that you seldom notice unless it’s done badly, but when it is done badly it can undermine any other depth a character has because an annoying voice is hard to ignore. Bringing in people who know what they’re doing can only be a step in the right direction.
As with any media there is compromise. Apart from the technical limitations of real time there are also practicalities. A character who is being stealthy would logically be wearing something that lets them blend into the environment, but having a character that can’t be seen doesn’t make good gameplay. The compromise is to give them some sort of tell – a distinctive silhouette maybe, or perhaps conspicuously reflective goggles.
As the quality of visuals starts to reach its peak, and graphical fidelity ceases to be the main selling point behind new titles, hopefully in the next few years we will see other aspects of game design come into the spotlight. I personally hope to see a larger emphasis on quality of animation, and interaction between characters and the environment. Seeing characters sliding around or hovering off the edge of steps is, at the moment, the biggest immersion breaker to me after bugs. Maybe better tools for character/environment interaction will come be built into game engines, so that more can be done in the time allocated. We’re starting to see a larger variety of character animations for gesturing and idling, but there’s still a long way to go.
It would also be nice to see even more depth in terms of dialogue, but that’s something that is very much dependant on time. However, if characterisation becomes a larger part of what makes games sell, maybe there’ll be more focus on it in future. Is it is, improvement is only a matter of polishing what’s already there: there have already been many great characters in games. Hopefully there will be many more, but only time will tell.