Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

8 October, 2007

Weekend Design Challenge: Characterization
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:50 AM

In the previous post, I talked about how to characterize the NPCs in your game. The specific example was how to avoid the stereotype of “all evil things are ugly.” For this week’s challenge, let’s focus on how to characterize without stereotypes.

There are a lot of tools available for characterization. The problem is that many inexperienced writers tend to fall into stereotypes. It’s the sign of a growing designer/writer that tries to avoid obvious clichés. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use visual identification, though. Watching the special features on the DVD of the TV Series “Heroes” is interesting, because it talked about how much thought goes into costumes and color selections. You can also see a good use of color to convey mood in WoW, where the different areas have different colored glows. Arid places have a warmer colors (like yellow or orange), whereas the colder areas are cooler (greens and blues).

The other main thing I talked about in the previous post was by using actions. Think about what the NPCs are doing, and try to reason out why the behavior is evil. Show the effects, and don’t rely on the “well, it’s obviously evil because it is!” type of circular logic.

What other ways can you show characterization? This can be for characters, locations, items, or anything else in the game. What are your thoughts, or what has your research shown you?

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  1. Nobody seems particularly interested in sharing, so I’ll post my thoughts.

    You want to show something about your character. The two main ways are appearance and actions.

    Since games are a very visual medium, appearance is easy to do. However, it’s also easy to fall into stereotypes, as my previous post discusses. But, giving a character a scar can be a great way to show that they are battle-hardened, that they are aggressive, or have a number of other traits. Usually you want to support the characterization with other signs. A character with a scar that always carries his weapon at the ready is probably the aggressive sort. The character with a scar that stands apart from other characters probably had a nasty experience in the past.

    Actions are a bit harder, because you usually need time to show a character’s actions. If your characters are mobs in an online game, the players might jump them and kill them before they can start clear-cutting the forest. Also, it’s sometimes not very clear what a character is “doing” in the game unless you invest in a lot of custom animations.

    The big thing for characterization is that you need to think about the character as a whole when you want to add aspects to describe the character more. Adding a bunch of unrelated aspects will tend to make the character confusing instead of well-defined. Think about the character’s background. How did the character get the scar? What was he doing at the time? How did that affect him? How do other characters react to him now that he’s scarred? The example of the scarred character above that always keeps his weapon at the ready might be aggressive because he vowed never to be scarred again, and now starts fights instead of waiting to have to finish them. Or, maybe he shows the scar off as a badge of honor, showing that he is courageous in battle, even in the face of vicious attacks.

    One problem for online games, however, is that most of our characters are rather disposable. The mobs that players fight usually don’t stick around long enough for appearance or actions to make a big difference. I think this is the core of the problem Matt had with his evil beasts, because they are basically there to give players something to do, not to tell a story. Any characterization he wanted to do would have to be done quickly before the players set upon the beasts and killed them; therefore, it was easier to rely on stereotypes than to come up with deeper characterization to flesh them out.

    On the other hand, it’s still possible to do characterization and to have interesting appearances and meaningful non-combat actions for the beasts. Players just have to sit and watch (from hiding) to see more. Some games already do this, but it’s hard to rely on this behavior to establish actions.

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 October, 2007 @ 11:43 AM

  2. “basically there to give players something to do, not to tell a story.”

    That’s one aspect of the overall challenge, isn’t it? How do we get away from gameplay reminiscent of a first-timer D+D campaign (4 hours, time for another wandering monster check… hmm, 1-3 trolls) and more toward elite stage campaign style (your constant nemesis, Duke Le Monte, chuckles evilly from behind the two troll warriors advancing on you cautiously, wearing his livery.)

    Comment by Craig Huber — 12 October, 2007 @ 4:51 AM

  3. CoH-style non-combat animations are a good characterization tool. Those actions were relatively simple, like a street thug standing on a box and preaching to his followers, or necromancers circled around a hovering victim and chanting. The reason players could get an impression of those characters from only a moment’s glance is that the actions were non-sequential. The animations may have multiple parts which loop after a full 5 seconds or more, but every individual part of the animation represents the essential story by itself. Whether the street preacher is looking down at his followers or he’s looking up and shaking his fists in the air as his followers watch, the same message is communicated to the player.

    Another element of characterization is how a character is portrayed by other characters (rather than the player) and objects. If the local wolves are only mentioned once or twice by some quest NPCs for going after sheep, then they don’t have much characterization that way. If many NPCs exhibit great anger toward or fear of the wolves, then the wolves are highlighted as more meaningful and potentially formidable. If one NPC is afraid to wander at night because of the wolves, one hates them for killing his dog, one just wants their pelts, and one speaks fondly of the cute cubs scampering around at the edge of her garden, then that adds depth to the wolves. If you see an ugly wolf’s head staked on a farmer’s fence in hatred, or you see a beautiful wolf’s head carved and painted on the sign above a tavern entrance, then that also adds depth. A lot of characterization can occur explicitly or subliminally before the player even encounters the character.

    Comment by Aaron — 12 October, 2007 @ 11:41 AM

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