What makes for engaging characters in linear, narrative-driven games?
Derek L. Manns
May 4, 2015
What makes for an engaging character in linear, narrative-driven digital games? The answer can be found in protagonists, antagonists, and supporting cast members designed to leave lasting impressions on players seeking immersive experiences and compelling narratives. Digital games allow players to be the hero, save the day, or rob a bank if they wish. We all have pretended to be a superhero of some kind in their childhood. Running around with a cape on or some sort of costume pretending to save the world. Game design scholar Greg Costikyan agrees as he points out (2013),
“It isn’t long before children themselves begin to elaborate their play— to imagine settings, to pretend that toys are characters, to negotiate rules and roles with other children. The classic example, of course, is Cops and Robbers, a form of imaginative play in which two opposing teams have some sort of play fight. “Bang bang, you’re dead.” “No I’m not!” “
Video games can serve as more sophisticated versions of the props a child used when pretending, as capes were used and the extension of one’s arms in helping give the sense of flying, committing crimes, or performing elaborate martial arts moves. Doing the fantastical things engaging characters are able to do is what many players want to experience. According to game designer and researcher McGonigal (2011), “…computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not.” (p.147). There are narrative-driven storylines that allow a player to set the tone of their character, from the heroic to the evil doer wanting to be feared opposed to respected. As T.L. Taylor points out when she builds characters in the Massively Multiplayer Online Game EverQuest (2006), “character-building choices require an alignment with forces of evil (as in the Necromancer, whose specialty is commanding the undead or wielding plague and disease) or good (as in High Elf Cleric, whose main job is the healing of other players or bestowing protections).” (p. 212). Potentially engaging elements surrounding the main character are gameplay, game mechanics, narrative storyline, sound effects, musical scores, voice acting, NPCs, and the environment. Each of these contributes to the player’s experience in certain digital games.
Gameplay can be defined as player interaction with the game’s world in a manner that pertains to game mechanics. Game mechanics are the tools defined by methods constructed for interaction within a game state. When a game mechanic is referenced, it pertains to gameplay design used in digital games. The game Half-Life 2, for example, gravity gun puzzles, the recharging of hazardous environmental suits, or listening to an NPC speak during cool down period of the game. I agree with Mike Stout when he refers to Game Mechanic and the Challenge aspect of any game (2010),
“Game Mechanic: When I say "game mechanic" I'm referring to any major chunk of gameplay in a video game. Using the classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as an example, here are a batch of game mechanics: sword combat, block pushing, boomerang throwing, swimming, button-based puzzles, hazard-avoidance, use of specific weapons, etc...
Challenge: A challenge is any in-game scenario that tests the player's skill at a specific game mechanic. An example of this would be an individual room in a Zelda dungeon, a grindrail segment in Ratchet & Clank, or a combat encounter in Halo.”
(Evaluating Game Mechanics For Depth, para. 10).
Narrative-driven storylines in digital games are connected sequences of events, actual or imaginary, presented through means such as dialogue, text, and imagery. Narrative elements tie directly into game mechanics and associate the progress of the story with completing objectives through gameplay. The emotions of a story and the characters within affect many players by including the interactive element.
In addition to the story, accomplishments and cut scenes contribute to the riveting purpose of the game and the associated characters. In the case of the Halo series, professor and researcher Jesper Juul would define this particular narrative (2005), “as a fixed and predetermined sequence of events (story).” (Kindle location 1450). In many games, such as Fallout 3 and the Mass Effect series, narratives are bolstered through the incorporation of complex dialogue systems that allow for player-selected responses.
Professor Noah Wardrip-Fruin and writer Pat Harrigan provide a point to dialogue interaction (2004),
“One can imagine a system in which the characters can engage in complex dialogue but the player can only select actions from menus or click on hotspots on the screen; this is, in fact, the strategy employed by character-based multimedia artwork and contemporary adventure games.”
Sound Design is a crucial and complex part of what makes a game immersive, not only with sound effects, environment and weapons, but also voice acting. Weapons being fired in particular environments resonate differently and makes for a more compelling scene. For example, in Half-Life 2, Gordon Freeman firing a shotgun in a prison echoes with more intensity than in the back alley of City 17. The musical score associated with the game ties into the game mechanics by way of mood, feeling, and pace of the game. This can make playing the character more engaging. Voice acting is important because in most of the example games discussed, characters speak during NPC interaction and cut scenes. According to writer Brian Crecente (2014), “Music and sound are as important an element of gaming as the filmic visuals of video games and the mechanics that drive play.” (Why video game sound is so powerfully bonding, para. 4).
Non-Player Characters (NPCs) play an important role because some characters assist you in gameplay objectives, offer you clues and inventory items important to the progression of the game. In another example, during Halo 3, Master Chief’s AI companion informs him that it will take some time to unlock a door. During the time it takes for the door to unlock, Master Chief periodically needs to defend himself as part of the gameplay progression.
According to professor and researcher Erik Henry Vick (2006),
“Research has shown that believable, engaging characters have the ability to capture our attention and leave a lasting impression and that a sense of story (i.e., the elements of plot and characterization) is crucial in the creation of engagement and immersion, This sense of story can be augmented in games by good character AI –that ism by characters that offer believable and occasionally surprising performances, just as good fictional characters do.” (p. 2)
And lastly, the environments or levels, tie in with the character’s ability to traverse, explore, and discover insight on the story, characters, and alternative ways to complete gameplay objectives. For example, during elevator rides in Mass Effect players receive important information, based on his or her progress, in the game. In Portal, the walls reflect the writings from test subjects who have come before you attempting to escape Aperture Labs. The aforementioned elements are what make engaging characters meaningful to players.
Compelling and engaging characters span genres from action to RPGs. One such character is the Master Chief, the protagonist of the first-person shooter (FPS) series Halo, who offers a narrative vehicle through which players can participate in heroic feats against overwhelming odds. Companion to Master Chief, Cortana is an AI program who is a vital part of the progression and immersion throughout the series.
The linear narrative of Halo takes place in a futuristic science-fiction setting in which humanity is threatened by a coalition of alien races known as the Covenant. As the last surviving member of an elite group of super-soldiers, the Master Chief has already played a crucial role in the conflict even before the start of the first game and is frequently described as humanity’s last hope. The Master Chief rarely speaks and is never shown without his helmet, allowing players to identify and associate themselves with the character, projecting their own identity onto him.
During combat, the series features context-sensitive vibration feedback, allowing the controller to contribute to the player’s immersion and engagement with his or her character. For instance, when a grenade goes off near the player, the tactile stimulation caused by the controller’s vibration provides an extra dimension of feedback beyond the traditional visual and auditory cues. Different forms of sensory feedback can be combined to further enhance player engagement, such as when Master Chief fires the Covenant plasma rifle to the point of overheating. Visually, he fans the weapon in an attempt to cool it down, while tactilely the controller vibrates to underscore the instability of the weapon.
The sound design and musical score of the Bungie-developed Halo games were produced by Marty O’Donnell. According to O’Donnell during the development of Halo: Combat Evolved (2002), “the level designer would tell me what he hoped a player would feel at certain points or after accomplishing certain tasks. I would go back and develop appropriate music cues”
(The use and effectiveness of audio in Halo: Combat Evolved, para. 12).
The implementation of level controlled music is not the only meaningful auditory addition to the core gameplay. The atmospheric sounds of Halo, from that of the Warthog jeep speeding up a beach to static-filled radio communications playing during combat, bring an immersive feel to level progression. To provide the icing on the cake, the resonating, smooth, yet commanding voice acting by Steve Downes gives the Master Chief a monotone delivery that was inspired by Clint Eastwood. But the completion of the Master Chief’s persona came from the NPC Cortana the AI (Artificially Intelligent) companion. Cortana brought most of the gameplay cues to the player as part of the immersive story. The voice acting provided by Jen Taylor left an indwelling mark on the Cortana character and the series. These are the specific design aspects within the gameplay space, where players become emotionally invested in the character and the story of the one man army that is the Master Chief.
Another character with engaging qualities is Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series. Shepard’s character offers an emotional connection through her personal narrative and digital likeness at the discretion of the player. Mass Effect’s character creation system gives the player the option of using the predetermined Commander Shepard model or a customizable model based on the player’s preference; the latter option includes the choice of gender. In addition, the player chooses a personal background, psychological profile, and class. The choice of class determines the gameplay style throughout the game. This special ability dictates how your characters progresses through the game against enemy NPCs during combative challenges. The story of Mass Effect is set on a future earth and expands throughout the Universe. Mass Effect is set in a futuristic galaxy and depicts Shepard’s efforts to prevent its destruction at the hands of an armada of sentient starships known as the Reapers. But this massive storyline is not the only important component; the protagonist and supporting cast are key. Falstein exemplifies this point with this (2013), “Games thrive on narrative, not story -- it's all about the player's story of what happened to her while playing the game; the rest is just backstory”
(When tales wag the dog: How narrative can help or hurt your game, para. 1).
The driving force behind the narrative is the decision making, from morality and romance to the challenges of the NPC cooperative missions. This coincides with the writings of professor and researcher Janet H. Murray, who states (1997), “We need to find substitutes for shooting off a gun that will offer the same immediacy of effect but allow for more complex and engaging story content.” (p. 147). The way a character chooses to speak during a dialogue exchange can determine the path in which the game will proceed. Commander Shepard can be forceful in his approach in getting answers from someone or be respectful and nice and experience a different outcome. In a similar example from Deus Ex, professor and researcher Miguel Sicart points out (2009) “for the first time, a game made me consider the nature of my actions by means of game mechanics and game world design.” (p.30). Providing the player with a choice in dialogue and alternative paths such as side missions gives the player a sense of free will in Mass Effect’s complex storyline.
Some digital games feature engaging antagonists, such as GlaDOS from the Portal series. Portal is set in the Half-Life universe and based on Black Mesa’s rival company Aperture Science Laboratories. GlaDOS is an AI system running the test chamber at Aperture Labs. The AI persona has an insincere and evil way of speaking and treating the test subject played by protagonist Chell. GlaDOS has no disregard for the test subjects’ lives; this is a motivating factor for Chell and engaging to the player. Game designer and professor Jesper Juul points out the following (2013),
“Nicole Lazzaro shows how we can be angry and frustrated while playing a game, but that this frustration and anger binds us to the game. We are motivated to play when something is at stake. It seems that the more time we invest into overcoming a challenge (be it completing a game, or simply overcoming a small subtask), the bigger the sense of loss we experience when failing, and the bigger the sense of triumph we feel when succeeding.”
The test subject Chell is promised cake and counseling if all test chamber puzzles are completed successfully using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. The story is reminiscent of scientists testing rats or mice in mazes with the promised of chess. GlaDOS’ AI persona became popular due to her sarcastic commentary and song about the deaths of test subjects, entitled Still Alive. But the overall evil intentions of GlaDOS are what make this Portal series antagonist so engaging.
Gordon Freeman, the unexpected hero from the Half-Life series, is engaging due to his average guy appeal and clever intellect. Though a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology earning his Ph.D in theoretical physics, Freeman is otherwise an average guy, one lacking the military training and experience of characters such as Shepard and the Master Chief. Dr. Isaac Kleiner, Freeman’s MIT mentor, offers him a job at the Black Mesa Research Facility where secret government experiments are conducted. During a botched experiment, the space-time continuum is ruptured, allowing alien invaders to enter the Black Mesa Facility. Freeman is forced to fight both the alien invaders and the military unit sent in to clean up the mess. After a harrowing trip through the aliens’ dimension, Freeman is offered the chance to fight another day or die trying by a mysterious individual known as the G-Man. Half-Life 2 resumes with the assumption of Freeman making the choice of working with the G-Man. Freeman is a man of few words, none to be exact, but the gameplay challenges substitute for this. The character’s clever yet simple solutions to problems, give a comedic feel to his educational accomplishments as a Theoretical Physicist. Behind all of the danger and violence is a regular guy in a HEV (Hazardous Environmental) suit used to protect the Black Mesa scientists from radiation exposure. The HEV suit allows the protagonist to run faster, jump further, and protect him from what would normally fatally wound him. The HEV suit displays the suit’s power level, Freeman’s health level, and radiation levels if applicable. The HEV suit warns the player when health is extremely low administering adrenaline as needed. During combat challenges, when the suit and freeman takes damage an urgency to recover health and suit power. This suit is the cape we wore as kids making us the hero that saves the day. The NPCs in the story wrap up this linear narrative with great supportive roles, from Barney Calhoun, who reminisces about the days at Black Mesa and gives Gordon his iconic crowbar, to Alyx Vance, who gives Gordon Freeman the famous gravity gun. The gravity gun helps Gordon progress through levels by using its gravitational technology to pull, lift, and propel objects based on the gameplay scenario. The iconic items that are the HEV suit, crowbar, and gravity gun represent the engaging character that is Gordon Freeman. In-game interactive scripted conversations with Alyx Vance progress the story and equally engage the player into collaborative efforts with Gordon Freeman. His silence throughout Half-Life 2 exemplifies the character engagement players are meant to experience.
Known as Lone Wanderer throughout the game, Fallout 3’s protagonist is born to two scientists, James and Catherine, who you encounter at birth. The birth sequence is part of the process in which the player chooses his or her gender, name, race and introduction of intelligence, charisma, and strength points. The points are based on an RPG (Role-Playing Game) system of structured decision-making for character development. According to Freed (2014), the rules and guidelines of Fallout 3’s RPG system combine the complex storyline “by focusing the player’s attention and putting the player in charge of learning about the setting and interrogating NPCs, a branching system supports complex, detail-driven plotlines”
(Branching Conversation Systems and the Working Writer, Part 1, para. 25).
Based on how players build his or her character, the outcome of objectives are not always obvious. Acquiring information in order to progress through the story could require charm, combative skills, or an item the player might not possess. This complex system leaves the player with some uncertainty, which is a good thing. According to Costikyan (2013), “games require uncertainty to hold our interest, and that the struggle to master uncertainty is central to the appeal of games.” (p. 1).
Comparing the characters and their compelling traits and engaging qualities reveals a difference in gameplay and how a player can relate to each. What they all have in common are rich narrative elements that drive the story and inspire players through the character’s persona. Mark J. P. Wolf emphasizes (2003), “Some games emphasize visually salient and/or association-rich audiovisual worlds and emotionally engaging characters, while others are highly abstract, some employ cognitively or emotionally intriguing challenges, while others prioritize physical action; some games are strongly goal-oriented and telic—others are paratelic, process-oriented, and so on.” (Kindle location 1848).
Halo’s Master Chief stands at a whopping 7 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 995 pounds in armor. This makes him the largest out of the group and is part of what makes his character engaging. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard’s dimensions are not specified and may be due to the open ended options of creating your own character. This could be intentional in order to engage a larger audience. By contrast, Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman stands a mere 5 feet, 9 inches tall, making him average and relatable to some players, the David to the aliens’ Goliath. GlaDOS is a robot with Artificial Intelligence but speaks with a tone that rivals a human personality. Her voice is dominant in Portal, driving and engaging the player throughout the game. The Lone Wanderer in Fallout 3 gets her engaging elements from the RPG elements, character creation, and complex dialogue systems. These great elements bring out the featured character’s engaging qualities conveying an immersive relationship with the player.
The aforementioned examples, from the protagonists and antagonists to the supporting NPCs, showcase features that can be utilized by developers to make characters more engaging, in turn allowing for game experiences that are more immersive and meaningful to the player.
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 Non-Player Character (NPC) is the supporting character in the game’s storyline.
 Game State is a programming term describing the state of the game in relation to a computer programming technique.