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How Vital are Compelling Characters in the Modern Game?

How Vital are Compelling Characters in the Modern Game?

Oct 3, 2013

Whether you’re a movie or literature fan, the importance of a lovable character has always been integral to an emotionally involving and compelling plot. As the divide between cinema and gaming closes, it seems character development is more vital than ever.

Production values are so high in modern gaming now, that so much more is expected from the industry than it was a decade ago. This includes the graphics, the music, the scale, and the game-play. But the story is key to creating a memorable and engrossing gaming experience. The root of creating a good story, is having a character you care about.

A recent example

The Grand Theft Auto series evolution has proven how important character development is in modern video gaming. Prior to GTA III, the characters were entirely silent. But from Vice City onwards, the characters gained their own voice, and a solid storyline. Many people look back at GTA IV as the weakest in the series, mainly for two reasons. One of these was the scale was too small, as the vast land of San Andreas was limited to a city, with no planes. The other issue was the character, Niko, was someone gamers did not connect with. His repetitive nature of stating he liked money was something I got bored with after the fifth cut-scene. A great, revolutionary sandbox game; but the character was just no good.

So Rockstar have gone back to the drawing board for GTA V, and developed not one, but three interesting characters for the newest installment. Although in their own right, each character could not probably carry their own game, their differences collide and prove to create an interesting story-driven campaign. Michael is an aging bank robber, Franklin the newbie from the hood, and Trevor is the crazed-hillbilly. They all have distinct personalities, with the internet currently loving Franklin’s sidekick, Lamar. It is this passion for characters that proves they are important for a game to create a decent story. Another change is the nationality. Personally, I think many people side with the current characters due to their American background, as it is common ground. Yet with Niko, the Western audience could not get on board with Eastern European mentality as well. The motives of each character are clear, all having their own sense of humour. And Trevor seems to fit the ideology of how GTA is played by many; with little regard for others and impulsive actions. Take the Rampage missions; it’s clear Rockstar aimed to merge a killer story-line, with three interesting characters, but not forget to implement mindless fun in the process. Which is something very few games can do these days.


No Roman, I do not want to go bowling


Dead Space is another notable example. The first installment did not give the protagonist, Isaac, a voice. Instead, it relied upon supporting cast, and the environment to provide the eerie feel. Despite the game being very good, it was not very popular on release, but gained momentum a while afterwards. With the second one, they decided to give him a personality, and a voice. The love story that was so important within the plot itself, seemed very one sided and odd without Isaac being able to respond whatsoever. And the series has moved forward, albeit in different vein to the first game. When it comes to the third game, you genuinely care what happens to Isaac and his team.

Ubisoft also achieved great success with the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but in order for it to evolve, Altair had to go. They really improved on this by creating the character of Ezio in the second game, as he managed to mix humour, personality, and serious-assassin themes into the story. However, this took a turn for the worse in Assassin’s Creed 3, as the character Connor seemed rather shallow, and uninteresting. Plus, without mentioning any spoilers, the counter-arguments the people he assassinates give, are often much more poignant than his reasons for killing him. And how are you meant to empathise with a character you don’t agree with? He was driven by revenge, and often it seemed quite dramatic. Connor was simply too bland to care about. And why would you go through this quests if you don’t care about the character’s venture? This is why the developers have chosen a different protagonist for the fourth game, instead of creating extra games with Connor, as AC2 did with Brotherhood and Revelations. Ubisoft have shown they can learn from past mistakes, and it will be interesting to see how the new character differs from previous figures.

What about immersion?

RPG’s are an important genre within the gaming industry, yet their approach of lacking personality that story-driven games now offer appears to be showing. The silence of your character however, does mean you fit into the game, and are part of the story itself. But the difference between this kind of game and linear games is becoming more apparent as the years pass, and how long will it be until voiceless characters will just seem odd? Whether this will ever happen is debatable, but it is at least food for thought. Mass Effect is a game that proves you can evolve from this model. It allows fluid conversation, with multiple choices, whilst giving you your own identity. Your character is not simply silent like most RPG’s, and it doesn’t rely on clicking lines of text which prompt a response. The result is a franchise that provides a much more substantial story line that the traditional RPG, whilst retaining all the role-playing elements that allows the genre to be so popular. It is these kind of characters they create a brand for the game, as a figurehead for the entire game. And that is why it is important for the company to create a character people care about. 


Great plot, and still offers the benefits of an RPG.


God of War also offers a character, Kratos, who is genuinely quite hateful. He simply hunts people (or Gods) down, and kills them. It is very difficult to side with such a horrible character, despite it being a stunning game. Although this doesn’t really harm the game’s success, it does seem to hinder the story-line somewhat.

The point stands that gaming is set to rival the likes of movies, and are becoming one and the same. Real actors are now used within video games, and cut scenes are all-important. Some of the best rated games of the year have relied heavily on the back-story of their main characters, alongside their supporting character. Bioshock Infinite is one such example, whereby feeling sympathy for Elizabeth, and truly wanting to save her from her captors, is the main drive to encourage the player to continue with your quest. And the story behind Booker, why he has to save her, and what he is escaping, keeps you wondering who he truly is, and leaves you wanting to find out. Similarly, The Last Of Us has also been recently praised, and proves to set out a fantastic plot for the two main characters. Joel’s flashbacks of his daughter is all-important to shaping why he must save Ellie. These are just two examples of recent games whereby the plot is everything, as the game would really suffer if it lacked the storyline. These games show even further progress, in that you not only align yourself with thew character’s pursuits, but also come to feel sympathy for their counter-parts.


Joel always looks out for Ellie. And you’ll find, so do you.


Not always a necessity

Despite all this, games such as Call of Duty continue to be popular. Online FPS games require little-to-no character development whatsoever, and are purely for drop-in shooting action. And so it boils down to what kind of game you are creating. If it is a linear, story-driven game, then in this day and age, a deep, compelling character is key to engaging your audience. If the game is purely about fun, or adrenaline, then this perhaps isn’t as important. Now that we have the technology for reality-matching graphics, and physics which are very close to life, games replicate the movies that influenced them very well.

It seems that game developers are learning that characters need some depth to create an emotional connection with the audience, which is necessary if you are to respond to the story whatsoever. Yet there is a time and a place for this, as simple can remain to be fun. I can imagine that if a Call of Duty character attempted to establish a complex, deep history, then people wouldn’t care too much, as the aim is pure adrenaline. For instance, Bungie have revealed very little about their protagonist Master Chief from the Halo franchise, as Joseph Staten stated, “”the less players knew about the Chief, we believed, the more they would feel like the Chief”. This aligns itself with the qualities of RPG’s, as the journey of your character is yours alone, and you are not merely following someone elses.

The question is, what is it you want from a video game? If you want a narrative-driven epic adventure into a virtual universe, then there are games out there. However, gaming is still about kicking back and chilling after a long day, and so casual, pick-up-and-play games are still prevalent within the industry. For a game world to be immersive, it is best to start with the character, as if they are truly believable, then it makes creating a realistic universe a lot easier. If the story is entirely uninspiring, then you do not wish to explore the fantasy world. If the character can become more than a lump of pixels, but a living, breathing being in the player’s eyes, then the story is a lot more natural. They will get on board with the goals and virtues of the protagonist, and produce a better overarching plot, that immerses the audience effectively. There is room for both forms of games, whether it revolves around character progression or is purely about fun and action; but it seems where the story is concerned, great character development is a must.


Adam Barsby is a writer for Gaming IQ, alongside running Social Media. If you are partial to stalking, you can follow him on Twitter @barsby3, or read his articles here. 


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