Game Philosophy: Characters

So yeah I’ve ignored this blog enough due to playing a certain game all the time, but here we go.

Welcome to yet another:


Today’s topic:

Now usually with video games, the story isn’t that important compared to gameplay.
And with good reason, I mean you play a game to PLAY, not to have an oscar winning story.
However, there are quite a few video game stories which are actually really good, and become even the reason for some gamers to play the game at all.
Naturally, people would try to replicate it, and fail miserably.

What some people don’t seem to realize though when it comes to story writing for a game is that there’s a difference to how you write a story for a game than how you write a story for a movie.

It might sound logical, but there are lots of games where the story and gameplay just don’t fit together.

This is the big reason why most games based on movies aren’t good. It’s because they follow the movie’s story and then put the gameplay in as an afterthought.

That is not how you write a good videogame story.

If Story and Gameplay were two different persons on an adventure, the Story should lead the way, while Gameplay makes stuff interesting by either kicking ass or making witty remarks.
Instead we usually get a case where Story and Gameplay seem to have split up after the intro and decided to keep contact by phone.

I’ll just take a random game out of my game closet and see if I can find some examples.

Let me first say that I don’t consider any of these games BAD. I’m just using them as examples.
With Fable III, it would be in terms of connecting to characters.

You can choose to either play as a guy or a girl, and you would have a partner which would obviously be the opposite sex (though I would’ve found it hilarious if that wasn’t the case).
The first big major moral choice you do in this game is whether the leaders of a rebellion or something would be executed, or your partner.

Now seriously, for something that was supposed to be a moral choice, I honestly couldn’t choose the partner any quicker…
Hell the partner even begs me to choose her (it’s of course a “her” in my case) during the moral choice. So I didn’t even feel guilty.

The problem here is a certain 4 word sentence: Why should I care?

See I don’t connect to a game character through what the game SAYS the character is, I connect to a game character to how the character is in the GAME.
And in the GAME, all my partner did was a bit of small talk and say typical “good girl” stuff.
I didn’t exactly feel connected to you because all I did with you was hold your hand, woman.
In contrast I’ll pick up a game here which did it right in that regard:

Yeah yeah, this game had so much praise already, like the fans think it’s the second coming of Christ or something.
To be honest I think this game is overrated, but that’s not what we’re covering here.
Even if I think the game is overrated, even I would have to admit they really did it right with a certain character’s death.

I didn’t really cry like many other people did, but I did feel something.

See it’s not just the fact that the character is innocent and a saint in the story, but also how the character is in the GAME.
You grow attached to the character due to how the character PLAYS and you’re dependant on the character thanks to the GAMEPLAY.

I hope you see what I mean with this, but if not, let me be blatant about it:
A Game character is interesting through his gameplay. The plot only makes it clear.

See in a movie you connect to a character due to the narrative of the story, and a movie is able to show it throughout the movie.
When you do that in a game however, you just get more and more cutscenes. Which cuts down the amount of gameplay in the game (points to Metal Gear Solid 4).

So instead of using cutscenes or biographies to show character, you instead have to use the GAME to show the character.

As an example, I’m gonna show a character who’s kinda ruined due to not holding to that thought:

Marcus Fenix

Now hold on, Gears of War fanboys, I don’t intend to say the games are bad or that story is important in the game or anything, because it isn’t, but it seriously shows everything wrong about the tactic they use.

See, when you play the game, Marcus Fenix is a pretty simple character, he kills people with his Chainsaw Gun and scowls every time.
Well okay there’s more than that, but the point is, if you would write a character out of that gameplay, you’d write a character that’s pretty antisocial and to the point, like how he is in the gameplay.

Then Gears of War 3 comes out and a certain friend character (which I didn’t connect to at all by the way) sacrifices himself and Marcus would go whining about it throughout the game, apparently trying to humanize his character and all that.

They did that in the other games too, but in Gears of War 3 is where it just go annoying to me.

There is quite a bunch of moments after that certain death where he keeps screaming “MY BROTHER’S DEAD” and all that as if that would make us feel sorry for him.


The certain character that died is just one of many identical co-op characters in terms of gameplay, and when he died, another identical co-op character simply takes his place, so it might sound heartless, but in gameplay it doesn’t affect me at all.
If they were all just a bunch of companion cubes, I wouldn’t friggin care.

So the fact that the character died and how Marcus yells about it just gives me tears of a headache instead of tears of sadness (then again I might as well be sad for having to listen to it).

See it’s not being heartless, it’s just how the mind works when you play a game.
You play a game to be challenged and have interesting levels/missions or whatever. Story is simply making it clear WHY you do it.

Why should I feel sad that a game character has died? Is it because the character is SAID to be a compassionate guy and donates blood? Well that won’t work, considering people have the option to skip cutscenes for a reason.
Instead you feel sad that a game character has died because of how the character PLAYS.

For example, maybe there are different levels which has hidden rooms in the high buildings which have VERY useful weapons, and you get it because a certain character has the ability to climb up the buildings with his suction cups hands or something.
Then suddenly the character dies, and oh dear, you can’t get those useful weapons anymore. And THAT makes you feel bad.
See, game characters unlike movie characters are simply functions within a game. His identity and look is simply there to give that function a face to relate to. And you’re sad if one dies because of the fact that you lost that function in the game, represented by a guy with suction cups for hands.

Actually, speaking of which, here’s a good example of a character being loved through gameplay:

Companion Cube

Yup, a friggin lifeless cube is a great example of a game character written right.
Ever wonder why you’re connected to a cube which isn’t even alive?
You usually just accepted it due to the story, but why does it WORK?

It’s because the gameplay MADE you dependant on it.

You were playing the game regularly, and everything around you is your enemy.
Suddenly you get a cube with a heart on it, and the big computer says it’s going to be your friend during the level.

You then realize in gameplay what kinds of useful things you can do with the Companion Cube.
Puzzles suddenly have a different thought to it, and you like it.
You consider the Companion Cube to be your friend, not through backstories telling how it saved people or something (or how it won’t stab you) but thanks to the gameplay.

Suddenly the game forces you to incinerate the Companion Cube. And then you feel something.
You actually have the feeling that you don’t want to do that.
Why is that?
It’s because without it, every subsequent levels just gives you that feeling that something is missing. This was intentional.
So many puzzles, you now realize how much easier they would’ve been if the Companion Cube was there.

THAT is how a video game character should be written.

It doesn’t matter that the game character is the world’s biggest hero, if there’s nothing in the gameplay to make you feel that, there’s no point to care.

See, movies have the luxury of having people EXPECT a good story, and thus people would actually care enough to be invested in the characters.
Games on the other hand are foremost about gameplay, for good reason, and thus if you want to write a good Game Story, the story would have to work together with the gameplay.
Gameplay is not supposed to be a distraction from the Story.

Now if you excuse me, I’m going to continue playing a certain game again.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

2 thoughts on “Game Philosophy: Characters

  1. Well, as you may or may not know, characters in games are one of the big things to me. They rate highly, and are one of the most important pieces when making a game.

    In my opinion, the Sonic series has always done this so beautifully, and as such, is another reason it’s better than Mario. :P


    1. Haha, while I do agree with you, there are quite a bunch of people there who’d disagree with both of those notions :P

      Then again, we’ve been kinda known for having different opinions against the world it seems :P


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