Game Philosophy: Character Establishment

Responsibilities: “Come on, write up the blog already.”
Me: “But I was going to Tosche Station to pick up some Power Converters…” :(
Responsibilities: “You can waste time with your imaginary friends when you’re chores are done, now get to it! Time for another…”

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Today’s topic:
Character Establishment

For those who don’t know, Character Establishment is the moment when audiences witness for the first time who the character is.

This is NOT the same as an introduction, as an introduction can either be hiding the character’s true self, or is still part of the lead-up to the actual moment that shows the character as you’re supposed to experience them.

As an example, I’ll use a character that I talked about in my last blog, Hibana from Nightshade (or as it’s called in Japan; Kunoichi):

I purposefully chose Japanese footage so that most people would not look at the dialogue, but instead look at the visual story telling. You only need to look at the first cutscene.

It’s not even that much of a story at all, the first cutscene introduces Hibana as she gets a mission to fight some bad guys and she sighs, saying it’s not her day.

But in the end, one thing is for sure, you’re NOT going to forget her after she flies in the air, stabs an invisible jet, kicks an incoming missile and poses as another jet gets hit by said missile and EXPLODES right behind her.

There’s no doubt about it, she’s a FRIGGIN BADASS!

Her introduction is her talking, which adds some background, but that’s not the Character Establishment. The Character Establishment, the moment you will remember her and get introduced to the main attraction to the character, is that awesome action sequence after the short talk she has with her informer.

This moment is very important, because without these moments, your character would be easily forgotten in the sea of other characters.

Of course, I’m using a Main Character right now, so most of you would probably say “come on, why would I ever forget the Main Character of the game? I’ll be playing her the whole time, right?”

Indeed, you’re right, I just used her as an example because I just thought it was a great Character Establishment moment in and of itself. The real problem is if supporting characters lack those Character Establishment moments.

Human beings are visual beings, we need to SEE an action to believe the claim of who a character is.

Take for example, the introduction of Zero, the mentor character of Megaman X:

Zero isn’t the main character (yet, Megaman X4 on seems to disagree with that…) but you WILL remember him after he single-handedly saved you from an enemy that was impossible for you to defeat.

Imagine if this moment was never in the game. You instead are told in the cutscenes afterward that X and Zero are the best of friends and that X looks up to Zero and wants to be like him.

It wouldn’t work, because you’ve never SEEN Zero do something of significance to earn that respect in the eyes of the audience.

Now of course, this post now sounds more like a showcase of “Show, Don’t Tell”, but that’s the thing, these two things are very closely connected. It’s just that it’s also important that the “Showing” should happen as early as possible after a character is introduced, as otherwise you’ll quickly forget the character and will have trouble remembering them later on when they suddenly are important again.

This also isn’t limited to heroic characters, you can use it for villains as well:

This is the introduction to Vergil, the misguided Twin Brother of Dante, the main character of Devil May Cry 3.

You get introduced to him as he exposites how he doesn’t care about taking over the world like Arkham does. Then, an enemy appears, who seems to be threatening Vergil while he barely reacts to it’s presence. He then kills it with one hit of his sword.

Mind you, that enemy right there is the Boss of the second level. A Boss that many first-time players had trouble beating, and Vergil just kills it with one sword stab. It immediately shows how he’s a very powerful enemy and you should watch out for him.

Of course, for all the “showing” that I’ve referenced in this post, it’s not like you can’t establish a character via talking either.

Take for example, Sam Fisher’s introduction in Splinter Cell Conviction:

There’s barely any action going on, but every piece of dialogue they say is important in establishing both the character of Sam Fisher, Grim and Third Echelon.

The music immediately tenses up the moment Sam asks “How did you find me?”, immediately establishing that he’s NOT supposed to be easily found, either he has experience in being invisible or has connections to make him “disappear” from people’s radar.

Grim reminds Sam who she is simply by telling him he should remember her voice, immediately setting up that the two characters have a history, most likely with her as Mission Control.

Then Grim explains she found Sam because “We’re Third Echelon, we’ve got an eye on everyone.” which yet again immediately sets up the power Third Echelon has over the country.

It makes sense that a stealth game like Splinter Cell Conviction would not do some kind of spectacular showcase of power. Instead it builds up the characters by showing the interactions, which in itself is a more subtle version of “showing”.

Not only that, the scene ends with Grim asking Sam if he has a gun. He says he does, but he doesn’t want to risk having a shootout while civilians are around. Grim responds that her first priority is getting him out alive, and the lives of civilians are secondary. Besides introducing the characters, it also immediately brings up conflict between Sam and Grim.

Not every Character Establishment should be some huge overglorified action setpiece if they don’t fit the genre, especially when Action is not it’s focus.

On the other hand, even if it IS an Action game, you don’t even need to do THAT much:

In short, if an important character is introduced, give them a great first impression.

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.

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