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Setting, story, and plot

A video slideshow about setting, story, and plot.
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Beyond consideration for archetypes and stereotypes, there’s a need to consider how the broader narrative has an impact on how we can see, evolve, develop, and interpret video game characters. Three narrative elements we might consider when creating and analysing a video game character are the setting of the game, the backstory of the character, and the structure of the plot. Firstly, we should address briefly the importance of understanding setting and its relation to the development of a character. It’s easy to overlook this as an environmental consideration, but it really is important because of the specific features of setting and how they can impact on who a character is, how they look, how they act, and even how they think.
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The setting, we can consider three key elements. Firstly, period. Understanding and defining precisely the period is essential to understanding who the character is. Generally, there will be some need for specificity, narrowing this done to a fairly concise time period. When dealing with the past, historical research is important for informing design process. Even setting a game in the future requires research into technologies and other science-fiction media. Next, there is location . Taking the period further, it’s important to locate where exactly the character’s story takes place. This isn’t something about a country or even a city, but actual precise environments that they find the character.
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A school in an impoverished city suburb will lead to different decisions on a character’s design than say, an advanced science research centre in a rich city centre. Lastly, you should take into account issues of culture and identity. National and religious identities, for instance, can combine location and period to really shape the backstory, or divisions, or even journey of the character. For video games in particular, it is important that we consider how best we can explore a rich diversity of settings across time, location, and culture to advance the stories that video game characters tell. Setting gives us a blueprint that many writers will advise taking the backstory further.
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You might go onto define specific subculturals or associations that your character is member of, which in turn might tell us something of their motivations and personality. You may also want to identify very basic profile information, such as age, sex, and sexuality. The full identity of video game characters should be explored to establish our cartoon form in a video game. To achieve this backstory, I recommend asking three different sets of questions. Physical questions are age, sex, ethnicity, height, abilities, and disabilities, for instance. Social and ethical questions are education, work, hobbies, class, et cetera. And psychological and emotional questions about gender, sexuality, abilities, motivation, et cetera.
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All this will help to generate a character backstory that will enable you to define who the character is, and how they fit not only into the story, but also in the gameplay. So we know that setting, backstory, and archetypes are all important the definition of a video game character. However, it’s also true that these attributes alone don’t make for compelling characters. To make characters interesting, we need to consider what it is they actually do and how these actions relate to other characters and events. In essence, we are concerned with the plot. Typically, we can simplify interactive plot structure into three types. First, nodal plots, a linear plot structure that has one beginning, one narrative path, and typically one ending.
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Then, modulated plots, a more fluid plot that typically has one starting point that can lead to one or a series of endings, along paths that can be chosen or accessed. And finally open plots. This is a plot that does not emphasise set beginnings and ends, and it is more concerned with clear freedom to encounter events in any or no order.
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These three plot structures are visualised in abstract form here. However, note that these are not blueprints. These are best considered architectural forms of plot structure. Indeed, many videogames expand it with much more complex plot structures, and they mix and match plot can be controlled by player action at different points in the game nodules. When it comes to current design, consideration of these archetypal structures can help us to establish to what extent the character’s stories fixed by designer are open for control by the player. As designers, we can look them up for any given character’s story according to the key events that they can experience.
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A hypothetical ideal would be an open structure granting a player lots of freedom to act within the world. This would create limitless plots generally by player actions. Players would therefore experience a different plot every time we access the game. But in reality, there are not an infinite number of good or effective plots. Not every sequence of events is a compelling story. Most of the events that occur in the real world as a series events do not make for interesting narratives. Ways of managing an open plot structure would likely be needed to help control how interesting and logical stories might be told. Well, tentatively, this often true in massively multiplayer online games.
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An emphasis would be placed less on authored plots and more on player exploration and environmental adventure. Lots of games utilise a variation of the modulated structures to provide what is in effect an illusion of agency. Games such as The Grand Theft Auto series, for instance, allow for some open mode exploration and invite the player the ability to access events in different orders, or indeed to ignore events altogether, before culminating in one or a limited number of conclusions. Games that strongly emphasise narrative, such as The Walking series by Telltale Games, provide a limited choice using this kind of structure.
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However, many single player games still tend to favour a linear nodal plot. Even when a very tightly controlled nodal structure is used, it is still important to provide some illusion of meaningful player choice. You may, for instance, allow the player to make what appears to be a key choice in relation to the story at the beginning, in the middle, or even at the end Fundamentally, that choice may not alter the events of the plot in any way, instead slightly changing the manner in which a story is told. This technique allows for much more authorial control over video games, making for richer and deeper narratives more fully fleshed characterisation, but providing some false sense of agency to act on the narratives.
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In summary, when designing original or setting out to analyse existing game characters, we need to take into account the wider context of the character, again, not only from the setting, which encompasses period, location, and culture, but also details of a character’s backstory. Beyond this, we should also be conscious of the overall structure of a game’s narrative in terms of the types of agency the player will have to affect events. The plot is, in effect, the essence of a character. It is a sequence of actions that a character performs, and the events that they are presented with.

Beyond consideration for archetypes and stereotypes, there is a need to consider how the broader narrative has an impact on how we conceive of, develop, and interpret video game characters. Three narrative elements we might consider when creating or analysing a video game character are the setting of the game, the backstory of the character, and the structure of the plot.

All of these elements combine to create the broader narrative context a character fits within. What game settings do you feel have added depth to a player character? Can you think of any characters that have interesting backstories? Or can you instead identify games that provided interesting plot structures that added interest to the player character’s journey?

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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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