Characters that Count


Note: This article contains story spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus.

There are many memorable characters in games, but what makes a truly great character, and how are they a more integral part of storytelling than a simple avatar? To understand what makes a character exceptional, it’s essential to understand the nature of “true character” versus “characterization,” and how it relates to the stories we experience in games.

A good story often requires its audience to engage the title on its terms rather than their own, but in order for this to be effective the characters must be well-defined. Depending on the player, Nier’s lead character can prefer an axe to a sword, or prefer running errands for townspeople to killing monsters for loot, but these are purely anecdotes. He is ultimately defined by his values, actions and motivations – all of which are defined by his creators. They don’t change from player-to-player.

A good character influences his or her story as much as they are influenced by forces in the story beyond their control. An entirely plot-driven story is trite, revealing to us nothing about the human condition; a character-driven story is inherently stronger, reflecting aspects of our lives through the personal struggles of its cast. Final Fantasy XIII’s Lightning, for instance, begins as a victim of circumstance, and only comes into her own once she experiences a fundamental shift in values that redefine her as an individual.

However, the design of some games conflict with the intended nature of a character. Grand Theft Auto IV’s Niko Bellic is a character loaded with potential – a former soldier who moves to America for an apparent attempt at a fresh start and soon gets swept up in a life of crime and revenge. Unfortunately, Niko’s thoughts and values are at direct odds with the game itself; he speaks of his troubled military past and shows a desire to stop engaging in violence, but he is placed in a world where the player can walk outside and slaughter dozens of people on the way to the next mission, where he’ll continue to express regret. His values become largely irrelevant in the hands of a player who chooses to ignore them.

The conflicting nature of Niko’s character and the game itself reduce his presence to that of a “personality,” or in writer Robert McKee’s terms, simply a characterization. This is of course under the assumption that what happens during the “play” part of a game counts toward its story (it does). McKee writes in his book, Story, about character design and its two components, “Characterization” and “True Character”:

“Characterization is the sum of all the observable qualities, a sum that makes the character unique: physical appearance coupled with mannerisms, style of speech and gesture, sexuality, age, IQ, occupation, personality, attitudes…

True Character lies behind this mask. Despite his characterization, at heart who is this person? Loyal or disloyal? Honest or a liar? Loving or cruel? Courageous or cowardly? Generous or selfish? Willful or weak?”

So what is the most integral part of a strong character? What makes them fascinating, relatable, horrifying, relevant? Motivation. What a character wants is what makes them real. Shadow of the Colossus’ Wander enters a forbidden land with the intention of reviving his love, and is tasked with slaying several colossi despite a warning that he would pay dearly. The strength of his desire to revive her is made apparent in the physical deterioration he suffers each time he slays a colossus. Before long, the player knows that reviving Wander’s love will cost him his life. This desire is what makes Wander a compelling character.

Sadly, games are loaded with half-baked protagonists with flaky motivations, or secondary characters that exist simply to prod the player along or elicit certain feelings; Half-Life 2’s popular Alyx Vance is a prime suspect in the latter category. Alyx is a personality that exists solely to make the player feel important. Though her characterization is memorable, she doesn’t stand as a strong character in her own right.

She lacks the emotional baggage of someone living under inhumane conditions; conditions which should push her to the brink of despair and desperation. Instead, she constantly pats the main character on the back and coyly flirts with him during life-or-death situations. Alyx’s true character lies in her optimism, but her motivation is weak-handed, limiting her role to that of protagonist Gordan Freeman’s moral support instead of a real player in the resistance against Combine rule. It’s difficult to imagine what she would be doing if not making sure the player feels appreciated.

A character’s will is also an vital aspect of bringing them to life. In addition to what a character wants, what are they willing to do to get it? What are they willing to sacrifice? What lines are they willing to cross? What limitations do they place on themselves? One of the greatest characters in American filmmaking, Scarface’s Tony Montana, isn’t a likable human being. What makes him captivating is his desire. The audiences glimpse his desire during a conversation with his partner, Manny.

Tony: “Me, I want what’s coming to me.”
Manny: “Oh, well… what’s coming to you?”
Tony: “The world, Chico. And everything in it.”

We watch as Tony ascends to power as a drug lord, chasing his version of the “American Dream.” We see what he is willing to do, and what lines he is willing to cross. We are surprised when he finally draws a line, refusing to execute a hit that would benefit him because it would involve killing the innocent wife and child of his mark. Scarface is extraordinary even in the film world because it doesn’t feature a “relatable” or inherently “good” main character, yet the audience is drawn into Tony’s journey. Few games have such a rich character. There’s absolutely no reason for this.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that avatars also have a valuable place in videogame storytelling. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a title hinging on how each player approaches it, would be a different experience with a developer-designed character. It’s an open-world game where being a goody-two shoes is as possible as slaughtering every villager you come across, or where running errands for people is as viable an option as wandering around in the mountains for hours on end killing rabbits in your underwear; the player’s motivation is internal, and a pre-defined character would not only limit this experience, but could potentially be a cause of dissonance (as was Niko in GTA IV).

Avatars are of limited use in storytelling, however. Better suited to open-world games or experiences that aren’t necessarily attempting to tell a traditional story, they rely on the player to define their true character (if any) and are limited to vessels through which the player exercises their will – not inherently a bad thing by any means, but certainly not effective as “a metaphor for human nature,” as McKee succinctly states is a necessary part of a character.

I suspect I’m in a growing minority with such “traditional” views on characters and storytelling in games. It may be inevitable that avatars become the de facto protagonists in games as developers further attempt to create more player-driven experiences, and that’s fine. But it’d definitely be a waste for character-based storytelling to fall to the wayside. When games start truly presenting fully realized, more human characters, our stories will be more relevant, and our experiences will be infinitely more rewarding.



  1. i feel like you missed some charcdters

  2. Tally

    Regarding your concerns in the last paragraph, I think there is, not merely there ought to be, equally a place for character-based storytelling in games. Much discussion (since Joshua Wise, as best I can remember) has focused on videogames being pieces of collaborative art. That is, they require artful play as much as strong design. I think many players, I and some of my friends at least, are happy and willing to treat games in such a way. While games are clearly much more than just games to be won, it is difficult for them to prevent players from approaching them as such. Nonetheless, I strongly believe games’ culture and those who play them are increasingly comfortable with the idea of truly role-playing within games’ narratives and behaving as actors of a character with “true character.” So long as the characters are written well enough, I will, and would suspect others would also, empathize with them and their motives and play their role truly.

  3. ToshiChan

    tl;dr all I’ve got is my word and my balls

  4. I think part of the reason we don’t have a ton of good character-driven stories is how difficult it is to make a player identify with a fully-formed character in games. In film we can identify with the desire to see what happens to a character, but that’s less motivating when you’re playing as that character. Good writing and maybe better dialogue systems might be one way to solve this problem.

    • Robert (Author)

      Could be. I don’t necessarily think it’s harder to identify with a character in a game simply because we are in control of that character. I just think a character’s motivation has to gel with the game that we’re playing so that we can’t just brush it off as “the story” part of the game and “the game” part.

      • But if the character wants to save his or her family and we think the family is insufferable, wouldn’t that be difficult? “The Fighter” is an example of a movie where I liked/appreciated a character without liking/appreciating his motivations, but if that were a game I wouldn’t necessarily want to put the time and effort into what the character wants, if I don’t think it’s worth it.

        • Maybe that just means the character wasn’t strong enough to support a truly great game.

        • Robert (Author)

          That’s a fair point, but if a character is well-defined and believes in their goals (regardless of what I think of that goal), I don’t think I’d have a hard time wanting to follow their story as long as the writing is strong. One example is Spec Ops: The Line. I spent the majority of the game not appreciating Walker’s goals, but the story remained compelling.

  5. I think part of the reason we don’t have a ton of good character-driven stories is how difficult it is to make a player identify with a fully-formed character in games. In film we can identify with the desire to see what happens to a character, but that’s less motivating when you’re playing as that character. Good writing and maybe better dialogue systems might be one way to solve this problem.

  6. R99A

    I would venture a guess here that you have not played Dragon Age II. The focus of the game is on the very flawed characters in the party, PC include, and how they stand up against choices that have no clear answer. Almost all of the characters are fiercely likable or admirably loathable, voice-acted and modelled with incredibly loving care, and none of them can be fully supported even by waffling between the personality you’ve chosen for the PC and what seems ‘right’ at the time; someone is always upset. Even the PC cannot escape unscathed. Sometimes the ‘good’ option, as identified by the little angel halo next to the selection, is the one most likely to cause longterm harm. To start one memorable quest, the PC can agree to kill a dangerous assassin; when the assassin is encountered, there is clear reason not to kill them, and yet the good option is ‘I’m sorry, I have to respect the promises I’ve made.’ If you make sarcastic remarks, the PC will be sarcastic when choices are not available; kind ones, and they will apologize when another character bumps into them. Most of the party loathes each other, and yet there are snippets of conversation thrown in as you wander about the world about activities they are doing in their free-time, like visiting the bar and playing cards, that the PC does not get to attend. I found myself getting increasingly jealous as the game went on of conversations I would never hear but through later references, and in-jokes lovingly recounted that I hadn’t been witness to. I am not often affected by characters in games, but there was one scene in which the current romantic interest was kidnapped right before I had to shut down for the night. The next day at work I was almost physically sick, knowing how much that particular character hates being bound, how upset he would be, and I had simply left him kidnapped to go to work. Subsequent play-throughs have not been as affecting, but it was quite an experience.

  7. Xardin

    I don’t enjoy avatar based games such as Skyrim either. I’d rather prefer well defined characters and storyline, like in FIre Emblem, The World Ends With You, etc.