Characterization through Action

I’m going to go on a rant here, and discuss a feature that is central to a lot of games today, but is used egregiously out of place in far too many cases: Character Customization.

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Now let me be clear: I have nothing against character customization. I think it’s a wonderful mechanic that sets up a unique canvass for the player to express themselves in game. But that’s just it.

It works well ONLY in games that serve as a projection of self for the player. And that means that ALL games, that deliver narrative specific to the character and not to the player have no real use for customization.

In these cases, it is at its best, an extraneous and unnecessary feature that adds NOTHING to the game.

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And at its worst, it does an extraordinary disservice to the game by compromising on the quintessential narrative that the game could have been delivering instead through characterization.

Allow me to explain.

Character customization in online MMORPGs like World of Warcraft empower the player to craft themselves and how they wish to be perceived in a way that reflects a little bit of who they are, and a lot of what they aspire to be. This is a POWERFUL thing.

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Anyone who has played this sort of game can relate to how attached they grow to be to their avatars, and how it adds to the immersion in a way that transcends the screen and the hardware separating the real world and the virtual.

“That isn’t just a bunch of meshes and tessellated polygons moving around on the screen. That’s me! And I could kick you and your pussy little dragon’s ass.”

But…

When a game attempts to tell a story, then the character’s choices, their appearance, and their relationships with other non-playable characters in the game are all coloured and informed by the narrative as a whole, and are emergent from well rooted understanding of who the protagonist is, and what is important to them.

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I will argue that giving the players the ability to craft their own characters in  a game that attempts to tell a story to which the character is central, actually DETRACTS from the experience as a whole.

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Let’s first take a good look at some of the games that tried to tell a story AND give us the freedom to craft our own characters. We’ll look at what worked for them, and where they were lacking. Then we will contrast them to games that KNEW who their characters were and used that information to great effect in colouring the narrative of the experience.

First, let’s look at “South Park- The Stick of Truth”.

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I won’t lie, I really enjoyed this game. It was clearly designed with the intention of making me feel like I was my own special little character in South Park. And it succeeded spectacularly.

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But as you would expect, this kind of design came with a trade-off. Throughout the game, with the exception of one line at the very end, our character remains moot. Completely blank and expressionless. The characters around him infer what they want to hear from him based on his reticence, and then proceed to tell him what to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. The characters and the world of South Park is colourful and engaging enough in and of itself that it did not need any new input from our extraneous new character. But that is the ONLY reason that it worked.

In the vibrant and pre-established world of South Park, we take on a more passive role than most protagonists typically do in games. From a narrative standpoint, we are actually just reacting to events that occur in game, rather than calling them into action. And while this worked out pretty well for the specific case of South Park, it is not so easily extrapolatable to games that try to deliver on narrative in general.

Almost all attempts at adopting this kind of design in games that try to tell a story have left us with a hollow shell of a character that the writers have absolutely no idea what to do with. And then the player is left with the task of filling in that void of a character with little more than cosmetic changes and largely meaningless binary choices that lack depth and have little or no bearing on the narrative as a whole.

Worse still, this doesn’t just affect the dialogue on our end of the conversation, but also fractures and fragments any semblance of meaningful conversation or interaction with other non-playable characters.

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The writers need to know who they are talking to in order to craft meaningful dialogue with palpable depth. And the same holds true for the voice actors who are tasked with delivering these lines without any point of reference or anybody to riff off of.

There is one franchise that made a bold attempt at tackling this design challenge, and did an astounding job it.

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Yes, I am talking about the “Mass Effect” series. They did an extremely good job, but in the context of delivery of narrative through character, despite their best efforts to create dialogue rich with meaningful choice and interaction, little slices of authenticity just couldn’t help but slip through the cracks.

First, commander Sheppard’s face is almost always entirely stoic and devoid of expression. To do real justice to the animation of facial expressions, the writers and designers need to clearly be able to convey to the artists and animators EXACTLY what the character is going through and where they are coming from. But with such a large branching narrative and a character so personalized that their personality itself is carried forward and informed by choices previously made, can you imagine how much work it will be to animate the nuances of every single branching conversational interaction?

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And second, as I alluded to before, the voice actors despite their laudable talent, are left a little confused about how they really feel about the conversation they are having with the protagonist, and it shows through in the artificial delivery of some of the dialogue.

But despite these faults, the Mass Effect series is a STAGGERING accomplishment to the delivery of personalized narrative in our industry. But not all game studios have the production scope or the budget to manage such a huge branching tree of possible content and dialogue without significantly diluting the richness and depth of their game.

Now, let’s shift gears and talk a little bit about games that embraced the concept of characterization in service of narrative, and made the best use of it in the delivery of the experience.

Take “God of War” for instance. God of war is a monument to characterization through gameplay. Kratos is instantly recognizable because he’s one of the most fully realized characters in gaming today.

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Everything about him just screams violence, bordering on madness. His design, his combat, finishers, weapons; even the way he deals with encountering Gods and monsters just demonstrates his reckless disregard for living.

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Look at the way Kratos moves, and behaves in game. Without any backstory, cutscenes, or even a single word of dialogue, you can see that Kratos is a creature of instability and pride.

(Okay, I’ll admit I lifted the last few lines from an Extra Credits episode, but that does nothing to hurt the validity of my point)

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Everything about Kratos’ carefully crafted appearance, including his pale skin-tone, his scars, the weapons seared into his arms with chains; ALL OF IT bears meaning and carries with it a valuable insight into the troubled past of this spartan hero.

Let’s take look at yet another excellent example of characterization done right.

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“The Last of Us”. Ah, The Last of Us.

Just little things like the wrinkles around Joel’s eyes that stand out in contrast to his very evident physical fitness, and the bruises on Trish’s face and the unyielding severity in her eyes do so much to tell the story of the world they live in.

And most important of all:

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These characters KNOW the nature of their relationship. They have an unspoken understanding of what they really MEAN to each other, and how much they can trust and bank on each other. And it shows through in their delivery of dialogue.

These games have an element of authenticity in the way their narrative is delivered that games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age lose, despite their staggering budgets and production values.

It is something that we as designers need to bear in mind and seriously consider when thinking about the kind of experience we are trying to deliver. Self-expression and choice is a wonderful and empowering thing to include in games. But often, it comes at the expense of meaningful choice and narrative depth.

And if you can’t tell as yet, I have a very strong preference in the matter.

Characterization through Action

4 thoughts on “Characterization through Action

  1. grrosegr says:

    Great article. Personally, I prefer an existing character over a customizable one. Partially for the reasons you’ve listed, but also because I find it interesting to see the world through another person’s eyes, to see how someone thinks differently. Because, I’m pretty used to how I think. I’ve been hearing myself think for 21 years. That being said, now that I think about it, I might have an easier time relating to most game characters, since they are typically white and male, and so am I. In that sense, I think it’s great that Mass Effect lets you choose either a male or female Shepard. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

    Side note: Your blog title currently says “GAMENARRATIVEDESIGN” with no spaces, but I think it might look better with spaces.

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  2. Daniel Hua says:

    I’m curious about what you think of character customization and story in MMORPGs. One of the main reasons for character customization in MMORPGs is the feeling of being unique that it provides. However, many MMORPGs also try to fit in a story, and most of those stories are uninteresting. So many MMORPGs make you the “main character” and have you fight these epic monsters, only to have thousands of other players doing the exact same things, in the exact same world. This obviously decreases the feeling of being unique and breaks immersion. (How do so many copies of the same antagonist exist even…)

    How would you design a good story for an MMORPG that truly makes people feel unique? Do you think it is sufficient if NPCs were programmed to speak differently to you and give you different tasks/quests based on your choice of ethnicity, height, hair style, eye color, etc. during character customization? Or do you think MMORPGs should try to focus on the players’ interactions with each other and have stories emerge from gameplay?

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  3. Mmm. That was really interesting. This article made me think about the times I had to customize for my character. I liked how you used various examples to prove your point. I never really thought about the character customization in regards to story telling narrative. But I do agree that in order for the character customization to add to the experience, you need to design it so that any possible combination can flow naturally through the narrative.

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