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Core and shell

An outline of the core and shell model, unifying gameplay and narrative.
To begin our discussion of character design, it is a good idea to start with a conceptual model of the structure of a video game. How a video game is designed, constructed, and delivered to the player has a knock-on effect on how game characters are developed, performed, and played. The model I’d like to focus on is the core and shell model. To grapple with this model, we need to consider the early history of the field of Game Studies, around the turn of the millenium. At this time, one of the core debates centred on narratology and ludology.
Put simply, these two areas of thought concerned understanding games as digital and interactive narratives where the emphasis on storytelling, or understanding games as formal systems where the emphasis is on rules and play. Those who identified as ludologists contended that games are fundamentally rule-based systems, whereas narratologists approached games as interactive stories. Today, game criticism incorporates the study of both narrative and play in games, but In the early 2000’s, a lot of thinking around games centred on this duality.
In media such as film and TV, the narrative is typically rigid, following a set sequence of events. Nevertheless, film and TV have clearly influenced how narratives incorporate into video games, for example, the application of cutscenes, chapters, or episodes. At the same time, video games are related to board games, card games, toys, and even sports. In this case, influential form is much more about rules than storytelling. While very different, these two areas of influence on video game design can be understood within a single model, what we might call the dual structure of video games. We can infer that games can be used to tell stories, as well as provide interactive systems for play.
This combination of narrative and gameplay is the topic of week one of the course. And we can see this dual structure of narrative and gameplay unified into a single model for understanding how game design works at a high level. The core is shell model, as discussed by Frans Mayra in his book, An Introduction to Game Studies, is a simple model for conceptualising how games are designed and, in turn, how video game characters are designed. In this model, the core is the gameplay, while the shell is the narrative.
We can expand this out and consider the core to encapsulate the system of rules that governs everything about how the game works, from simple character interactions, to world-scale weather systems, from menus and player controls, to save states and online networking. The shell as narrative then accounts for all aspects of visual and audio storytelling, from that visual art shown in game, to the soundtrack, voice acting, and of course, the story content. As we’re discussing character design, at this stage we should reflect that the core and shell model can be used to account for the complete context in which a video game character exists. Both the core and shell are essential to the design of characters for video games.
Without the shell, we would have no means of representing virtual characters. With no core, our characters would not be interactive. This one seems fairly clear and simple. But in practise and in research, the core and shell model is useful when what we want to do is describe the totality of a video game character. For example, we might decide to approach the design of a video game character by firstly considering their priority in the game world. Is the character they principally used as a game piece was in gameplay, or is the character principally used to tell or embody the story of the game? This could inform whether we design a character as shell first then core, or core first the shell.
Consider Pac-Man. Pac-Man is arguably one of the earliest distinguishable characters, and a character that was represented across multiple media forms, merchandise, and consumer products. But within the original arcade game, how was Pac-Man depicted in terms of narrative shell? The visual representation is minimal, and there is very little additional context. Fundamentally, we understand the character of Pac-Man in terms of gameplay. The actions that Pac-Man can perform based on player input, movement around a maze, they both collect dots to clear a game level, the rule that an enemy ghost results in the loss of a life, and that Power Pellets grant Pac-Man the temporary ability to eliminate ghosts .
If we compare Pac-Man to another playable character in a narrative-heavy game, for example, the character of Max in Dontnod’s Life is Strange, you begin to see the breadth of opportunities that are open to us when approaching video game character design. Both are clearly video game characters, and both can be described in terms of core and shell. But while Pac-man is predominantly defined through gameplay, Max is a character best understood in terms of her narrative shell. Her story, her personality, her relationships with other characters, and her development over the course of the game episodes. Max is evidently an interactive character with interesting gameplay options and clear consequences to those actions within the game world. This cannot be ignored.
But arguably, the impact of Max on gamers is one predominately felt in terms of the narrative shell, whereas Pac-Man’s impact on gamers has much more to do with the joy of the game’e challenge, and the redwards within the gameplay design. The core and shell model, where only one example of how we might conceptualise the structure of a video game, is a model we will find actually useful as we progress through not only this first week of the course, but also all of our learning and practise around video character design.
In the following steps this week, we will begin to unpack both the shell and the core in order to consider how we can develop both the narrative and gameplay design of video game characters.

How are video game characters different from characters in other media?

There are clearly similarities between game characters and characters that exist in animation, film, comics, or literature. However, representation within an interactive system means that game characters have additional properties we must consider. As we begin our discussion of video game character design, it is important that we firstly consider the dual structure of video games, and how this in turn impacts on how characters are presented to (and controlled by) gamers.

After watching this video, what do you think matters most to you when it comes to game characters: the quality and joy of gameplay, or the depth and quality of their story? Or do you feel there needs to be a strong balance between the two?

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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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