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PART TWO: CHARACTERS AND MECHANICS
This is the second installment in a series on Storytelling in Games. ICYMI, check out Part One, Meet the Players
Great stories are made from great characters. We care about characters more than we do events or plot points. So, how do we create engaging characters for a video game?
One place to start with a character is with the traditional “hero” questions. Who is our hero, and what’s the quest they are called to? What makes them unique?
Let’s make up an example. We’ll name our main character “Pip."
Pip is a child who lives in a village at the base of a dormant volcano. She has a prophetic dream about the volcano coming back to life, and destroying her home in a fiery eruption.
As the hero of this story, what makes her unique? Maybe her “superpower” is a growing, magical ability to “speak” to the spirit of the volcano. What is Pip’s quest? To follow the voice into the volcano, and find out how to stop the eruption.
That can get us started, but we can go deeper than just “I must save my village!”
What important relationships does Pip have? Of course, she is very young and no one in the town believes her warnings, except for an older brother, who will help her on her journey. Let’s also say there's a pair of shady villagers who will follow her into the volcano, because they’ve heard there’s treasure to be found in its depths. And then there is the character of the volcano itself- what does it want?
We can ask these questions about all our characters until we have a web of relationships and motivations to drive the plot and ultimately help us reach the resolution of the story. Here are a few (excerpted from the Bloxels Workbook):
What makes your character different from everyone else? What’s their power or ability?
What is your hero’s flaw or other quirk?
What does your character want to change- in the world, or themselves? What’s their quest?
What relationships- with people, places, things, and ideas- are most important to your hero?
What characters want to stop the hero? Why?
Who or what helps your hero? How?
What important things happen between the characters and the hero in the story?
What are some of the things these characters say to each other and the hero?
We know that Pip will grow into her abilities over the course of the story. The story’s climax in the bottom of the volcano will be followed by her return to the village, where balance has been restored.
That’s a quick sketch of a story that could exist as a folktale or an animated film. But what if Pip’s story is a video game? What changes?
Bringing a Story into a Game
Putting the story down for a moment, we must focus on the gameplay. Let’s say this is a platformer game and that traversing the volcano requires solving spatial puzzles. The character’s abilities — “the verbs of the game” — should be fun to do over and over, and they should combine in interesting ways.
These abilities should make sense with the story and the game world. For example, giving Pip a laser sword or a jetpack might not make sense. But what if she could learn some new magic along the way? What if she learns how to harness the power of the volcano, and can use a fireball or two to open a blocked path?
Thinking about what’s possible for Pip in her world can bring us back to the story. Where did these powers come from? Why do they exist? Why did Pip get to receive this new magic and no one else? These are all things that the player can discover throughout their journey as Pip. It might be learned from dialogue with other characters, or through images and notes in the environment.
Change is core to stories and games. Just as characters change throughout a story, so it is in games. Players discover and learn the abilities of their characters, and as these change and grow over time, the story moves forward as well. A game’s designer looks for opportunities to forge this link between a game’s mechanics and story.
Chicken, Meet Egg: Gameplay and Story's Relationship
This back-and-forth between character and abilities can lead to a game that feels satisfying for both the gameplay and the story. While it’s more common to start with the basics of gameplay or a game genre and shape a character from that, we don’t always choose where ideas come from. Things can change.
For instance, during the development of Donkey Kong, the main character “Mr. Video” was a carpenter at the construction site and sometimes referred to as “Jumpman”. It wasn’t until he appeared in another game full of underground pipes — that he would become officially known as a plumber named Mario. The story came after the gameplay. From that simple starting place, new games and new characters added depth to the stories and lore of the Mario Universe that now feel so familiar.
Sometimes, a little character goes a long way. A good way to practice is to take a simple game (classic arcade games work best) and brainstorm a backstory for it. For example: Who is Pac-Man anyway? “Is he the sole survivor of a space mission gone awry? Does he need power-pellets to chase away the ghosts of his departed crew mates?”
Other games have started as a narrative first, and the game was made to fit. The wildly successful Final Fantasy series of games started as a last-ditch effort to save a studio on the verge of bankruptcy. Its designer, Hironobu Sakaguchi, saw it as a personal challenge to create something that stood out against a sea of forgettable action games. So he wrote the game’s story in its entirety first, and then gameplay was made to suit it.
No matter how a game begins, there will always be a relationship between its mechanics and its story. When the mechanics of the game help tell the story, it feels more coherent and immersive. Likewise, when a story supports gameplay, players are more likely to feel engaged and care about what they’re doing.
We’ll take a closer look at how a game can tell its story, without any words at all, in next week’s installment: Environmental Narrative.