Do you want to be this character, in these situations, doing these things?
Do you feel like you and your character are “in this together”? Does he or she or it respond the same way as you do as a player?
If we were watching a film, would we like the protagonist? Is he funny, does he think and do interesting things, etc.
Has this character gotten worse then they deserve? Have they gotten better then they deserve?
In my post, what makes games good, I mentioned that one of the things that make games good is the Fantasy or Vicariousness of the game. In Tom Francis’s original post he used the term Fantasy, which I think is appropriate, although I think Vicariousness gets more to the point. Basically, the more that you want to be the character or thing that you play as, doing the things that you do in the game, the better the game. As a quick example, one of the reasons that I like the franchise mode in Madden is because I like taking control of the Rams and leading them to success so much. That game doesn’t have a player character, but most games do, and the fantasy of the game can almost completely be thought of as whether or not you want to live through this character while in this game world.
It frustrates me when games have a player character, which is the character that the player plays as, and then proceed to write them the way they would a film character, and poorly at that. This is even more frustrating because the things that make a character good in a film are exactly the same things that make the character good in a game, but the importance of them has changed drastically.
In a film we want our characters to have personality first and foremost. All characters in a film should have personality, the ones we’re supposed to hate should have hateable personalities, the ones we’re supposed to like have likeable personalities. This is because personality is entertaining. Joffrey Lannister from “Game of Thrones” is a great example. We don’t like him, but he’s a great character because he has such a hateable personality. Han Solo, Heath Ledger’s Joker, Tyler Durden, Hannibal Lecter, Indiana Jones, The Dude, Captain Jack Sparrow, John McClane, we love, or love to hate, these characters because they have so much personality.
Next most importantly, we have audience empathy. If a character has gotten worse then they deserve we empathize with them, and we start to dislike a character that has gotten better then they deserve. This is why so many movies, often clumsily, start the movie with something bad happen to the main character. This is because, unless they deserve it, when someone gets fired, or dumped, or has their daughter murdered, or something like that, we start to root for them. The best characters have lots of personality as well as are very easy to empathize with, such as John McClane from “Die Hard”. For an example of a character that we hate in part because he’s gotten so much better than he deserves, look no further than Joffrey Baratheon. He’s hateable, and everything’s going his way.
Finally, least importantly, we have solidarity. Basically this just means, are you “with” this character or not. I first thought about this when I was watching cops and an illiterate guy with a St. Louis Rams jersey was being arrested for possession. I remember thinking that he probably wasn’t so bad, and then realizing that the only reason at all that I liked the guy was because he was a fan of the Rams. In fact, he might not even have been a fan. Although that’s a small thing, most of the time I’m referring to agreeing or disagreeing with a characters actions, and usually in a negative sense. It’s frustrating watching a character do something that you don’t want him to do. We’ve all seen movies where the character does something that we know is going to screw him over, such as every horror movie ever. When a character that you like suggests splitting up and you know that this is a stupid thing to do, you like that character just a little bit less. On the other hand, if that same character barricaded the room, called the cops, and fashioned a makeshift club, you would like that character more.
In games we like characters for the same broad three reasons. However, in games, solidarity is absolutely the most important thing. In fact, solidarity is so important, that it’s almost the only thing that matters. I mentioned earlier the Madden franchise, where you take control of a team as the owner/GM, and don’t play as a character at all. That works perfectly because there is no personality getting in my way, I just do what I want and don’t feel like I’m role-playing improperly. On the other hand, there are plenty of games that try to motivate the player by making them empathize with the character.When I play a game I barely care that the character I’m playing as has relationship problems, or “lost somebody in the war” or anything like that. What’s more, I really don’t want to think that what I’m doing in the game in inconsistent with what the character I’m playing as would do in the game, which often happens when games try to get the player to empathize with
It’s very important to understand the mentality of the player when they play a game. In a game like Max Payne 3, the player is having fun indiscriminately murdering everyone in their path while flying around in bullet-time and having fun with the ragdoll physics. So of course Rockstar decided that they would make Max Payne a moody recovering alcoholic trying to rescue a little girl who’s been kidnapped. I really could have picked any Rockstar game I’ve ever played, along with a massive amount of other games. In fact, it’s actually more rare for me to come across a character that I feel any solidarity with then it is to have a character that I actually don’t want to play as. I’m saying that I would prefer to not play as a character at all, just like Madden, in the majority of games that I play.
There are a few games that really get this right. Blood, way back in 1998, had the player play as a crazy living dead guy who absolutely loved killing enemies in the most outrageous way possible and hated taking damage. Check and Mate. They managed to create a character full of personality, who you empathized with, and who you absolutely, 100% of the time, soliderized with. The Witcher’s Geralt is exactly the kind of intelligent yet sleazy, enjoys hunting monsters but respects them, likes getting into barroom fist fights, type of guy that players are when they play the game. Finally, although there are more examples, Gears of War has probably the best, most functionally written player character ever, Marcus Fenix. No I’m not kidding. The player is Marcus Fenix, and Marcus Fenix is the player. If you think that just because he’s a meatstick that he can’t be a good character then you don’t know how to create good video game characters. Or you just didn’t play the game. For the record, I can’t vouch for GOW2 or 3.
Long story short: In a video game, find out what the gamers think when they play, how they act, what they do, etcetera. Really get into the mind of the player. Then, when you create the character, make them the most interesting version of the player you can. Not the most interesting character period, the most interesting version OF THE PLAYER.
All this and I’ve barely even touched on what actually makes for interesting situations or actions for the player to do. Why is it that being a scared little girl abandoned in a haunted house trying to survive, or a “badass” space marine gunning down hordes of aliens on a spaceship are compelling fantasies for people? The only thing I can think of is that there are stakes involved, although that seems like little more than restating that you care. Why then would I like running an NFL team in madden so much? I guess I could say that it’s because I want to eventually win the superbowl as that team and rebuild them, and along the way there are plenty of stakes involved, but that wouldn’t explain why some people wouldn’t enjoy running an NFL team other than “well you would enjoy it”, which isn’t very useful. This is definitely a topic I’ll revisit.