A matter of character.

A cast from all walks of life: young and old; rich and poor; the law abiding, the lawless, and those somewhere in between; prostitutes, thieves, murderers and lawyers. Characters that are exaggerations yet still human and all the more memorable for it. Crime, violence and a think vein of social satire, not to mention racial controversy.

I’m not actually talking about Grand Theft Auto IV, rather the works of Charles Dickens. Even a century after his death Dickens philosophy and style is alive throughout contemporary western media, either via straight adaptations of his work, or through his clear influence on the extensive ensemble cast and interconnecting stories and motivations of shows like The Wire.

Amongst his numerous skills as an author Dickens is probably most remember for his vast wealth of imaginative, memorable and ultimately believable characters. The majority of his stories hang on the actions and motivations of the characters within them, a philosophy game writers would do well to consider.

Most game stories are still about things, objects, the magical plot “MacGuffins”. How often is your primary motivation in a game to locate an object, usually in several pieces each one in a different “corner of the world”?  What memorable stories in other medium have depended as heavily on an object as most game stories do? There are some but the most memorable stories are those about characters. Objects exist in all stories often as symbols or tokens. But those symbols have no power of their own, they mean something to, or are a representation of an aspect of, a particular character.

Steven Gaynor recently wrote an essay where he concluded that: “The greatest aspiration of a game designer is merely to set the stage.” That’s a very solid definition of the goal game designers should be striving for, to create a context in which player actions have meaning. But in a play the stage is a composite entity. There is the physical stage itself, there are the props, and there are the characters.

Games are about action and interaction, and the current technology for interacting with characters is still far from the fluid natural responsivness such a character focus really calls for. Often interactions between players and characters are limited to a set number of choices picked from a dialogue tree or similar. Maybe this is a case of thinking about things the wrong way round?

What I say is important, but what I do is really what people will remember. I can say I’m a friend as much as I like but unless I show that to be true it’s just words. Maybe a player’s actions should take a higher priority in terms of character interaction than a player’s dialogue choices?

Consider a game world full of interesting characters with differing allegiances and motivations. The Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto IV, or the Coketown of Hard Times. Into this world you, the player, are thrust. You have agency within the contextual confines of the world; you can act as you feel is appropriate. Your relationship with the characters in the world is then defined by your actions. If you act in opposition to the goals of one character then they and those aligned with them will grow to resent you. Work in support of the goals of another and they will grow to like you, possibly even help you. The choices you make aren’t limited to those predefined by the story, but by the verbs most appropriate to the situation you are in, your actions are contextualised by the other characters in the world and their perception of you; we are defined by our enemies.

The characters themselves would make decisions on which actions to take next based on the state of the world and their own motivations, potentially using a form of Goal Orientated Action Planning to determine their future plans. Trust, friendship, and betrayal, might potentially be emergent behaviours from such a system. Working in alignment with one character for a long time and then doing something in opposition might make sense to you but be treated as a betrayal by them.

In such a situation your actions would be limited by the boundaries of the simulated world and not by the means of direct character interaction available to you. It might even be better to create such a system without dialogue, a world where actions really do speak louder than words. Imagine being a photo journalist in a war zone where you don’t speak the language, your only interactions with those around you would be through the pictures your take and their reaction to, and interpretation of, them.

It might even be more interesting if the players role in the world was not that of protagonist, or antagonist, and in fact they were simply a supporting character. Then a narrative puppet master could adjust the thematic elements of the world to fit the protagonist’s impressions of the character. Becoming more light and warm if you are friendly towards them, or darker and more oppressive, if you are in conflict.

Characters are what make good stories, not objects. Dickens understood this, as did Agatha Christie, as does Francis Ford Coppola. Believable characters in games are hard, actions are easier, so why not define character through actions?

2 thoughts on “A matter of character.

  1. Hi,

    I though this post was very interesting, I also wrote about Gaynor’s post on my blog. I think your suggestion of shaping character though actions was very interesting, I wanted to know if there are any games you think do this very well. Personally, I think GTAIV does some very interesting things in this direction.

    I like your idea, but I wonder how you would go about the gameplay hurdles involved in the program you suggest. Talking might not be the best form of interacting with the world for a game, but it allows a lot of narrative depth. Other types of interaction are more difficult to implement, because for every tool you give the player to define their character you have to account for the different consequences that tool allows. the kind of complicated and detailed interactions that make for believable character are also really complex and thus difficult to implement.

  2. I don’t think any of Grand Theft Auto games are the best things to look at for this type of system, the characters a well defined but heavily scripted. All non scripted interactions essentially boil down to: “Did I kill a particular character or not?” The only really meaningful action (In terms of garnering a response from specific characters, as opposed to the Police) is murder.

    Consider instead something like The Sims, but with the player recast as one of the Sims, instead of a god like entity. Of course the range of interacts would need to be increased to those dramatically appropriate and there are already techniques for handling complex inter-object relationships. In their GDC 04 presentation Practical Techniques for Implementing Emergent Gameplay) Randy Smith and Harvey Smith talk about using a Stimulus System to define relationships between objects and properties; such as a Fire Stimulus causing certain objects to ignite.

    Consider extending that stimulus system to more character centric elements, such as having a Fear or Envy stimulus (In fact does the Sims do this? It’s been a while since I played it). Certain actions or characters would broadcast these stimuli under certain circumstances. Much like how objects in The Sims broadcast “I can satisfy your need for food” to nearby Sims. If a particular character bought or stole something, they could broadcast a stimulus causing the Envy to increase in those around them. If that object was then stolen it could broadcast a Fear stimulus that its original owner would react to, as well as a “negative” Envy stimulus to the thief.

    Each character in the world would be dynamically adjusting their plans based on the state of the world, again much like The Sims, or the GOAP system I mentioned. They would still be trying to achieve the same goals but because of the actions of the player they would have to change their plans, they’d be seen to adapt. Ideally this would lead to emergent behaviour, as the individual characters would act in consistent yet unpredictable ways. If the player had stolen something another character wanted their response would always be in line with promoting their overall goals but the exact nature of that response would be based on the current state of the world as a whole and therefore not predictable at start-up.

    The world would be defined by the designers in terms of objects (Props and Characters) with properties, and stimuli. Wooden doors, with the “Burnable” property would react to a “Fire” or “Explosion” stimuli. Characters with a “Fear of Fire” would react to the “Fire” stimuli in a different manner to other characters. Player tools would be in the form of dramatically appropriate verbs each of which would broadcast a different range of stimuli on use that other objects in the environment would react to; the Steal tool causing Fear and Depression stimuli to be broadcast to the original owner.

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