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The Goal:

I am currently working on a video game project and I need some help with character development techniques. It is a character driven ensemble cast jRPG/cRPG. Therefore I want the characters to be important to the player.

The Problem:

Storytelling elements in a video game, even one that is partially story driven, need to be brief. Partly because the players want to get on with playing the game, and partly because they become monotonous drags that ruin replay value (which can ruin even an initial playthrough when a player gets 'stuck' and has to watch the same cutscene over and over again).

Skippable Dialogue:

One solution to this has been to add the skippable dialogue or cutscene feature. Of course the majority of people use it from the start. I don't really want to painstakingly develop my characters just so people can never get around to getting to know them. The more serious consequence to this is that most people skip through important plot/quest information too. This can make completing the game more difficult, even if you add a log system to track important details. This does help with replayability.

Characters make choices:

Another method that I see used is the 'choice'. Where the character makes choices throughout the game that begin to define them. I do intend to use this but to a limited degree. I don't want my characters to be defined simply by a series of choices. I also don't want the game to be linear and plot driven, which limits how often I can use this. If I want to give the player the power to make decisions that effect the story then I can't have the characters making all the decisions.

The Player makes the Character:

Lastly, there is the blank canvas technique. Where the playing character is whatever the player makes of them. Their decisions, thoughts, actions all are driven solely by how the player wants to play them. This is a great technique for many successful games. It is not the technique I want to use. I don't have the time or skill to write the countless stories and to make that blank character that people project themselves onto. What I do have are characters that I want people to meet. I am going to write them. I just don't know how to best do that.

Given these limitations inherent in videogame mechanics, how do I still manage to write strong characters?

  • This might be more of a question for gamedev stack exchange. – Philipp Feb 25 at 9:29
  • @Philipp you may be right. Although it was my intention to ask about writing with containers here, and game mechanics there. Thank you for your answer nonetheless. – bruglesco Feb 25 at 13:04
  • Constraints (*) – bruglesco Feb 25 at 13:42
  • I would reccomend having cut scenes that are a little slower to help develop the story. – The Mattbat999 Feb 25 at 16:16
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    To be perfectly blunt, if people are playing your JRPG and skipping every single cutscene, those people shouldn't be playing JRPGs, because the in-depth stories and character arcs are half of the appeal of that genre. – F1Krazy Feb 25 at 18:41
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Games offer you several ways to "add character to your characters" which are not readily apparent and not part of what is usually considered "writing".

  • Mechanics. How do the characters play? Their playstyle and game mechanics should be a part of their character. There is a reason why the shy girl is usually a healer, the bold hero a melee damage dealer and the arrogant know-it-all a wizard. Some games even give some characters quirky special attacks which are a direct manifestation of their personality traits. Sometimes they gain new abilities after forming events of the game's plot - mechanics reflect their development as characters. This is especially popular in JRPGs. There are quite a lot of games where the "ultimate attack" of various characters get unlocked after the player completed their personal story arc.
  • Voice samples during the game. What does the character say when they get hit? What do they say when it's their turn? How do they announce their special attacks? How do they comment on enemy actions? How do they react when the player tells them to do something they can't do? What do they say when they are defeated? There is a lot of personality you can put into these small one-liners. And contrary to cutscenes they do not affect the pacing of the game at all. They even transport information which is relevant to the gameplay.
  • Animation and look. Video game characters need to look distinct, so the player can identify and tell them apart even in hectic situations. This gives the graphic artists great opportunities to exaggerate their personality traits in their look. My favorite example in this regard is team fortress 2. Just the poses and facial expressions of the characters already tell you what kind of person they are.
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The limitations in video game mechanics can become strengths if used carefully.

Character development in video games, as with all writing-related aspects of games, is communicated through more than written dialog and cutscenes. Work with other members of your team (if you are working with others) to communicate your characters to them, so that the characters themselves can be shown through mechanics, art, and music. Dialogue is not enough.

Speak to the player using all of the tools at your disposal. For example, you could communicate the character through fighting mechanics.

  • Did this character just suffer a great loss? If this character responds with anger, perhaps they should have a "rage" status.
  • How does this character deal with rage? Do they use more of their strength when attacking and get worn out faster? Do they make more mistakes? Is their anger directed at a particular enemy, such that they will only attack them?
  • Is this character so emotionally distracted that they have a hard time focusing on what's going on? How might that make them susceptible before a fight begins? Can another one of the characters help them by saying something?

I recommend taking a look at Mark Brown's video on the Last Guardian, where he discusses the idea of using gameplay mechanics for storytelling. There are a lot of other good resources out there on the topic and surrounding topics too:

Best wishes with your game development!

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