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Moe

What makes a likeable character?

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I have been doing a bit of thinking lately about a game design that has been bouncing around in my head for some time. The more I think about it, the more I wonder what makes a likeable character. For the game design that I am thinking about, having believable and likeable characters would be quite critical (an role playing game, of sorts). From what I have seen in other games, there are a few things that are critical to making a believable/likeable character. They are:
  • The character must have some personable characteristics. By this, I mean the character has to have some likeable characteristics. If the character in the game is nothing but an evil, heartless monster with no sense of humour, the player won't be pulled into the game as much. If the character has a sense of humour and has human-like qualities such as fear, love, hate and anger, the player feels that the character is more like a real person rather than just a 3D model.
  • The character must show characteristics of the player. If the character in the game is a lot like the player playing the game, the more the player becomes enthralled with the game character, story and world. If the player doesn't have anything in common with the character, there is a break in the player-character relationship.
  • The in game character must fit with the game world. In lieu of the recent contest here at GameDev, I was thinking that a pirate in Half Life 2 probably wouldn't go over too well, simply because it doesn't match with the game world. The same could be said about throwing a Final Fantasy Character into a game like Half Life.
  • The characters must fit with the story, and the story must fit with the characters. A story that provides knowledge about the character, or the character's character (ie: what kind of person the character is) adds to the realism that the player feels.
  • Personal growth of the character can add greatly to the player's sense of accomplishment when playing the game. I haven't really played the sims, but from what I have seen, people feel like they have accomplished something when their character learns a new skill or gains friendships with other in-game characters.
What I am really looking for is a way to pull the player into the role of the in-game character so that the player feels the most "emotional pull" when something happens to the characters in the game. An example of this would be (again, not having played the game but talking to enough people that have) when Tifa in Final Fantasy 7 dies. From what I heard, a lot of players felt a significant amount of "emotional pull" when the character died. Am I on the right track to creating a believable character? What do you think I am missing?

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To add onto this, how would one actually go about implementing this? I have been debating on what would work best for a given situation - first person perspective only, a mix of first and third, or third person perspective. Depending on the type of game, I am thinking that the third person perspective works the best. It would allow the player to see events beyond just those of the character, and be able to see those events that help to change or affect the character. Any other thoughts on implementing the previously stated points?

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I think any emotional "pull" the characters exert on the player in a game with an ensemble of player avatars is directly proportional to their fit in the overall game mechanics that the player is interacting with. If a character I have been relying on to get past obstacles, spending in-game resources on (spending real-world time on), is suddenly removed from my control, I am going to feel quite frustrated-----


-----unless, of course, the game's story/narrative/world gives that character a reason to go away (die, change sides, leave player's party). The writer can then guide my perception and thus emotions regarding the event, through calculated forshadowing/storyline/dialogue.

This is precisely the sort of point where the writing of a game can make a larger difference in the experience of the player than can the game mechanics. In my humble opinion, this is what writing for games is all about.

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In a game where the player is one character, or switches between members of a group (only playing/interacting with on character at a time), the player becomes the character in at least a limited sense. If the view is predominantly third person (or iconic), the player feels as if they have a chance to control a being whose powers are different than their own. There is a tenuous deliniation between character and player, and thus story can still be forced on the player (they aren't the avatar, after all), and they will sit back and accept it. If investment in the player's resources does not develop the character at all, then in this case or the ensemble case the player will become fundamentally detached from the fate of the character unless it has something to do with what is going on in the game. Metal Gear Solid is a particularly egregious example of this.

In a first person game, the player effectively is the avatar- thus players take offence to the game taking their agency away, whether by "saying" things they wouldn't, or by "killing" the player's avatar outside of gameplay. Some games get away with taking some agency away from the first-person player, notably No One Lives Forever, usually by never letting the player forget that "they are <insert character>. This is typically achieved via a strong license, and dialogue choice. I think its worth noting, however, that argueably the most critically acclaimed FPS is HL2, and it keeps the protagonist mute (and even toys with the idea, marginally breaking the "Fourth Wall").

Point being, in first person games it is difficult to make the character feel anything but frustrated if you take away their agency, no matter how good the writing is. You can still make them feel for other characters (see HL2 for excellent examples), but it hard to make narrative involving the avatar succeed.

Whereas in third person titles, or games where the player's identity is dispersed, it is possible to manipulate those elements which the player has some degree of control over, and effectively use this method for narrative purposes.

Two ideas, two posts.

BTW, Aeris dies in FF7, not Tifa.

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Ah, my bad.

I have been thinking how (less) effective it would be to mix first and third person perspectives. I would think that it could be good to get the story across, but still have the player feel that they are the main character. Has there been any games that have succesfully done this? The only one that I can think of was Doom 3, and I wouldn't exactly call it a poster child for having a wonderful story and wonderful imersion.

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I would say that one reason Doom3 failed as a game/story was the absolute lack of interaction between either component of the product. Either you are playing a shooter/survival horror title, or you are watching a (short) movie. The disconnect makes you care less and less about each component of the title every time there is a switch.

At the very least, they could have done multiple-results at different points, play the game a different way, get a different cinematic. I got the feeling that they were uncomfortable telling the story through in-game means (character conversation, audio logs, what you hear through the com radio, etc.), so they tacked the cinematic sequences on. Whether they were uncomfortable because "every game has cinematics" or they were afraid that their story would suck without them, I don't know.

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So do you think it would be possible to mix first and third perspectives and still have a strong story with a character (or characters) that people will like?

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The original Ghost Recon for the PC is an outdoor FPS. What sets it apart in terms of gameplay is the ability to jump between the 7 soldiers in your squad (the sequel and I believe the XBox version of the original removed this ability). Whilst controlling any one of them, you may give orders to the rest. This leads to the player having a "distributed" identity, or at least a more tenuous connection to each soldier.

Like an RPG, at the end of every mission you get points to distribute amongst the surviving soldiers to upgrade their stats- so the player is invested in not losing his avatars. Morover, some soldiers can only be used on a mission if you completed a secondary objective in some previous mission; these soldiers have access to weapons that you cannot choose for any other soldier. Thus, yet more player investment in their well being.

This is not to say that Ghost Recon had a well told story, or well defined characters- certainly the storyline and situations were masterfully constructed, meeting Tom Clancy's exacting standards. The story reaches the player only through the mission briefings, and of course the occasional "complication" during gameplay ("No one said anything about armor!"). The characters, aside from short bios displayed next to their stats on the "choose team members" screen, are completely undeveloped and mute (it is somewhat arguable that this might be the real world situation with an elite team of US Army Scouts).

This game is the only one I can think of that blends first-person perspective with some measure of ensemble cast and/or 3rd person (map view when giving orders) view, that could allow effective storytelling. As far as character that players like... who doesn't love an elite team of kickass soldiers "getting it done"?

To generalize your last question... ever since I read Chris Crawford on Game Design, I have trying to think of techniques to make games in the canonical genres "about people, not things". These ruminations are where I got my opinion that narrative without connection to gameplay is meaningless- for the game to make sense in the context of the story or vice versa they must be entertwined at the mechanical level (nitty gritty of storytelling and interactive environments) and at the emotional level (emotional language of the player).

To answer your last question, yes. I don't think anyone has a rigorous enough theory to do it repeatably; we need an accident that shows us the way. For that accident to happen, more people need to be experimenting with things, turning sideways and pulling them inside out, until they explode.

[Edited by - SteevR on November 5, 2005 12:41:02 PM]

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