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Characters, play, and stories

Insights from Darshana Jayemanne and Sonia Fizek of Abertay University
I think the most important idea to examine, with regards to characters as gameplay objects, is to think about, first of all, what are they capable of? And that feeds into the question of narrative because it’s like those capabilities then allow you to build a story out of that. So I think when you’re doing character design, there’s also the question of resources. So like, how many resources can you devote to a particular character? Not every character is some of the marquee player characters that we see. There are like incidental characters, and you don’t want to put as much energy into those. But it also leads to character design in games being very much about the external appearance of the character.
So character is never a lonely entity. It is always embedded within a larger context, a game world. And the character is surrounded by non-player characters– so NPCs, props or objects, scripted events, and so on and so forth. And those can act almost as extensions of the character. So if we think about the design of the character, the character is always also indirectly designed through the space that they are embedded within. So it is really important to keep that consistency and believability. It’s important to ask ourselves, as designers, the question of what is or who is the character, and what can the character do within the game space?
One of the probably most interesting recent games is a game called Life is Strange. And two of the main characters in that, they are two teenage girls, Max and Chloe. So a bit of a departure from the usual space marines and kind of like basketball stars that a lot of games utilise. And what I think is particularly interesting about them is that the character models are very kind of like everyday, ordinary, human teenage girls. So the question becomes, how do you express the interiority of these characters?
The game kind of like he uses quite established techniques, like diaries, epistolary letters and stuff like that, but they also have this kind of like weird gameplay mechanic where Max gets the power to rewind time. So she actually sees all these different characters responding in different ways to the same scenario. So they express the interiority of these characters through this kind of like sci-fi trope, but in a very everyday kind of a way. And I think that’s a really interesting game. Obviously, a video game is, in many respects, different to a novel, or a theatre piece, or film. And that difference is manifested in the fact that the player takes control over the character. It’s called player character, after all.
And so the question is, how much agency and how much control him in the concept design of the character will that player have? So again, to illustrate the point, in games such as Heavy Rain for instance, which is a movie game, or in games such as Firewatch, which is– I hate the name– but it’s an example of a walking simulator. The player is witnessing the narrative through the character– not really influencing it that much, as opposed to games like Fallout, for instance.
Game design and character is so interesting because of the ways that the empowerment of the player and the empowerment of the characters kind of like cause all these problems that are quite new in the history of media and art. So at the moment, games are tackling some very themes. They’re expanding beyond where they’ve been in the ’90s and early 2000s. And characters are some of the areas where the most interesting work is being done. And I also think that characters kind of teach us about the society that gives rise to them, and the values and ideas of the people who are responding to those characters. I think what is really important is the diversity of stories, the diversity of characters.
And we don’t see yet that much of that diversity, and diversity in terms of ethnicity, political diversity, diversity in terms of life stories, gender roles, and a lot of other important aspects. So by learning to design characters and concept design characters, I think one can really have, hopefully, an impact on designing or reflecting that real life diversity in an art medium. And we need more of that.
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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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