GDC Rewind: How to Create Great Characters: Depth, Emotion and Player Agency
If there’s a class I wish I paid more attention in, it would definitely be my creative writing classes. When I discovered I not only loved to consume narrative games and content, but also create them, I realized that the fundamentals of story-telling, character arcs, pace and whatnot, were all becoming very relevant from these writing classes. This Game Narrative Summit session goes over character development in film, television, and games.
What was it about?
Led by “Heavy Rain” Lead Game Designer Caroline Marchal and BBC Drama Producer John Yorke, this session goes over the thought process and observations for creating characters that empower players for maximum emotional impact.
What did I learn?
What allowed me to get the most from this session were the speakers bringing in references to dissect and discuss. I find that a lot of times, some GDC talks bring up these conclusions and ideas that can be hard to follow without concrete examples. For this talk, some of the characters they brought up were Walter White from “Breaking Bad”, Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” and Joel from “The Last of Us”. Some of the ideas they discussed included how all characters have a desire, or a simple specified goal. And from my understanding, the simpler the goal, the easier it is for the audience to understand and empathize with. This desire however, is actually two desires occurring simultaneously: internal and external. With these two desires there can arise conflict. Characters who experience internal change thus have both a want and a need. These two are not always the same.
Desire = Want + Need
BUT WAIT, there’s also one thing that brings the character to more human dimension, adding more depth…FLAW.
“The Last of Us”
Want: to stay with Ellie to get rid of her
Need: to become human and father again
Flaw: disillusioned with human raced and distrustful
Joel saves Ellie despite having to lie to Ellie.
He gets what he’d wants but not what he needs.
He changes for the worse.
So continuing along, here’s more of what I learned.
- Have a flaw
- Have a want, to survive, kill, etc.
- Unadventurous characterization
- Customization over characterization
- Flaw is cliche
- Need is often overlooked
- Turns them into 1 dimensional characters
Note: too many changes happen in cutscene, they are not interactive
Another interesting finding from this talk was the idea of branching narrative and multi-arch protagonists. In traditional storytelling, there is only one arc possible per character. The problem. If player’s can influence the character’s arc, they’ll create inconsistencies and mess up the story. Players can only influence superficial changes, not deeper changes thus agency is essential in truly profound interactive games. Because games are a series of meaningful choices.
BIG QUESTION: how can you use players’ agency to deepen the story instead of destroying it?
In any story there are key turning points that affect character change.
Note: Usually happens in Act 2 or the midpoint, aka turning point.
Turning point asks the question: will the protagonist overcome their flaw?
Effect on the protagonist?
- Change for the best
- Change for the worse
- Refuse/fail to change
Okay, so I got kind of sloppy as I started dissecting my notes and barfing out my findings into this blog post, but I hope there’s some useful information to be learned. I’ll end with one quote from this session.
“In striving for the want, the protagonist realizes the need, and overcomes the flaw. They change to achieve their external goals.”