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?