Each semester, for my “Writing For Video Games” class at UT, we bring in guest speakers from the industry. Usually we invite audio guys, or animators, or game designers - other members of the game-dev team. We do this because as writers and narrative designers, we collaborate with these other departments. It helps if students can get an idea of how other departments work.
Last year, our guest was a level designer. He had worked on a AAA franchise which featured a famous main character. I had worked on the same franchise, so I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say.
The designer showed a playthrough video of the designer’s level. We watched the player character solve puzzles, face monsters, and fight enemy soldiers. It was fun to watch, especially with expert commentary from the guy who built the level.
At one point, the player slowed down to activate some help text. “See what she’s doing?” the designer said. “She is trying to figure out how to play the game here.”
I was suddenly very confused. The character isn’t figuring out how to play the game. She doesn’t even know she’s in a game! She's trying to save her friend! What the heck was he talking about?
I had a bad feeling. I raised my hand and asked, “When you say ‘She,’ do you mean the character? Or the player?”
Now it was the designer’s turn to look confused. “The player, of course!” he said. “I never think about the character.”
He never thinks about the character.
For years, I had assumed that designers kept the character in mind when they were developing levels or mechanics.I thought they designed actions based on what they thought the character would or wouldn’t do.
But here a designer was, telling me, Nope!
The designer was putting the player first. His goal was to design a great experience for the player - not the character.
This is a BIG DEAL. Let’s break this down:
When player agency smashes into character development
The writing team spends a lot of time developing characters. They drive the narrative, so we spend most of our time thinking about them and writing for them. “What would this character think? Say? Feel?”
But if the designer is designing for the player, instead of the character, then the player can BREAK character. And that can undermine the narrative.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Let’s say we’ve created an assassin. She’s ruthless, deadly, a killer. But, for gameplay reasons, the designer and animator create lots of different movement cycles. The player figures out that thanks to these animations, he can make his avatar dance around like a fool. And the player thinks this is hilarious. It is! - but at that point, the player has definitely broken character.
No self-respecting assassin is out here in these streets doing the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
So here’s the problem in a nutshell:
As a rule, the writer thinks of the character as a person.
And as a rule, the designer thinks of the character as an object or a tool for the player to use.
So: when the writer and designer get in a room to talk about a player character, they may have two very different things in mind.
And that can cause a major disconnect between the game and the story.
So what’s the solution?
How to bring player and character together
First of all, this is a feature, not a bug.
Designers are not going to stop putting the player first.
And writers are not going to stop obsessing over their characters.
So the first step is to realize that the writers and designers have different goals in mind.
With that in mind, both the writer and designer can look at the project and ask, “How much freedom do we have here? What can we actually DO with this character?”
It all depends on how well the player already knows the character.
Here's what I mean.
Imagine a slider, from Fully Realized Characters to Blank-Slate Characters.
On one end, you’ve got Fully-Realized Characters. A perfect example of this is Batman.
We know Batman doesn't kill. Game developers KNOW we know that. So when we play a game in the Arkham series, we accept that we can’t kill anyone in the game. It makes sense. If Batman COULD kill, he wouldn’t be Batman any more.
That’s a good example of player expectation constraining game design. In that situation, the designers HAVE to keep the character in mind, and only design mechanics that are right for him.
On the other end, we have Blank-Slate Characters. For these types, anything goes. The designers have TONS of freedom (and the writers often struggle to make these types of characters interesting).
Most characters fall somewhere between these two extremes. Our job is to know WHERE they land.
And that brings us back to our designer, and our famous videogame character.
Yes, the character was iconic.
But it was a videogame character.
That means she was always there to serve the gameplay first.
And so the best way to write for a character like that is to just ask “What does the player want to do in this game?” and then make sure that’s what the character wants to do, too.
(And when in doubt, ask your designer basic questions. The answers might surprise you!)
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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.