OK, writer: It’s time to work on that script. You’ve got a deadline. The audio department is waiting on you.
So you sit down and crack your knuckles and…stare.
You know what you need to write. The outline is right there. You just need to bring it to life with some brilliant, sparkling dialog.
You try a few lines.
They don’t work.
You try a rewrite.
These new lines are somehow even worse.
You close your eyes and try to hear the character’s voice in your head. You try to imagine how they would react, how they would feel in the situation you’ve put them in.
And you realize that you have absolutely no idea who this person is.
Does anybody know?
Does this character even exist?
Maybe they don’t. Not yet, anyway.
As a writer, you may have more work to do.
If they only had a brain
Before we jump in, a big caveat here: not all video games need complex, fully-developed characters. In fact, for some games that would make the player experience worse, not better. Plenty of characters work perfectly as shells or masks or puppets. (Does anybody really want Link or Mario to have a big character arc?)
But if your studio’s goal is to create a story-driven game, you’ll need good characters. And characters aren’t good until they’re bad - which is to say, messy and complicated and human.
It’s weird. Games are all about creating incredible experiences, so why don’t we see more incredible characters in our games, sharing those experiences with us?
Maybe part of the reason we have a hard time delivering great characters is that it takes a long time for characters to feel real to anyone on the team. I remember one year at GDC, watching a programmer demo some ragdoll physics. As I watched them tossing the character model all over the place - yes, just like a ragdoll - I realized that this is how most devs interact with these characters during development. They’re more like stuffed animals than humans. And it would be weird to take a stuffed animal seriously, I guess!
And yet somebody has to take those characters seriously.
That somebody is the writer.
The power of internal conflicts
Conflicted characters are relatable characters.
People in real life are messy, complicated - and endlessly interesting.
Why do we do the things we do? Sometimes we don’t even know. Why did we get into an argument in the breakroom? Were we triggered by something from our childhood? Was it something from our subconscious? Or was it just something we ate for breakfast? Who knows! We’re complicated creatures.
It’s great for game characters to be aspirational. But they can be aspirational AND flawed. That doesn’t make them weak; it makes them compelling. It’s hard for us to relate to perfection. Perfection is literally alien to us.
And if we feel connected to our characters, that is powerful, because we are literally going through the gameplay experience with them. We’re more likely to bond with them if they feel real to us.
A character that needs therapy is a good character
So how do we create those internal conflicts in our characters?
Here are a couple of techniques that will help you get the job done. These are inspired by Marianne Krawczyk’s excellent book, Game Development Essentials: Game Story & Character Development. Marianne is one of the best writers I know. Let’s learn from her!
Technique #1: Worst Day At Work
We spend a lot of time at work. Our identity can get wrapped up in our jobs. And when we have an awful day at work, it shakes us. It challenges how we see ourselves and how we see the world.
We can see it in this trailer for Boiling Point, which the RTE describes as "a great film about the worst day at work."
Workplace disasters put us under major stress - and when we are stressed, our true colors tend to show. We have to make tough choices that reveal what really matters to us.
Let’s get back to games. Do your characters have a job in the game? I bet they do. Games are all about action, after all. They must be doing SOMETHING. If your character is a soldier, or a secret agent, or an assassin, guess what - on some metaphorical level, they’re pulling a paycheck.
So take a minute to imagine what the worst day at work would look like for them. What would be a TOTAL DISASTER?
And - more importantly - how would they deal with it? How would they respond to that level of stress?
This thought exercise will tell you a LOT about who your character really is.
Technique #2: Worst Fear Realized
If you really want to know what a character is made of, force them to face their worst fear.
Remember this moment from Kill Bill?
That’s not just The Bride’s worst fear - most of us would not like to be buried alive, thank you very much. But this moment in the movie revealed a new level of her character to the audience.
So here’s another writing exercise for you. Brainstorm your character’s worst fear. Ask why that frightens them so much. And then force them to face that fear, and see what they do.
Technique #3: No Good Options
Breaking Bad is considered one of the best television shows of all time - for good reason. The writing and acting are brilliant. The show is one long look at what one man is really made of.
What would you do, if you learned that you have inoperable lung cancer?
What if you had a family that relied on you?
If you could get rich quick, for them, would you do it? Even if it meant doing something morally wrong?
How far would you be willing to go?
Breaking Bad is one “no good options” scenario after another.
So for your final writing exercise, put your character in a terrible, no-win situation - and see what they do.
As Robert McKee writes in Story:
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.”
You may never use these scenarios in your game. But these exercises will help you get to know your characters on a whole other level - and that will make your scripts stronger.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.