Design characters, not motives (part 1)

Playful Narrative is a series of short weekly articles each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games.

Design characters, not motives

Most game antagonists have character traits bordering on the psychotic. (Still from 'The People's Mario'

Most game protagonists have character traits bordering on the psychotic. (Still from ‘The People’s Mario’)

Character design is one of the bigger problems in game writing. If there was a country filled with game protagonists, the rest of the world would build a big wall around it and dub it a mental institution. Game characters are often so flawed, one dimensional or without even the simplest of human character traits that they can most often be seen as fleshly motives. From a game design point of view, this makes sense. As a game designer you often are in a situation where you want the players to do, understand or desire a certain thing, so you put forth an incarnated version of that motive1.

From a writing perspective though, it sucks. If the character is there to say three lines never to return after that, then there is no problem. But as soon as main characters get the same designing treatment, something goes wrong. Characters become implausible, one dimensional, or simply boring. It’s the easy way out; the game designer needs someone to save the world, the writer delivers just that and nothing more. The challenges in a game are usually of such a nature that not just anybody could face them. The writer could go and design a plausible character to fit this role, which would be hard. Or he could “design” a tough looking badass with a mysterious past that has ‘saves worlds, kicks ass and throws one-liners’ as their character description. Though a set of motives is a very easy and workable starting point for creating a game character, stopping after defining these motives means never getting to actually design the character.

The problem here is that you cannot write a good story without good characters2. As soon as characters become implausible or boring, the story falls apart. The nature and magnitude of the problems they are facing does not matter. If a player doesn’t care about the characters, he doesn’t care about their problems. Think about any good book you’ve ever read, any good movie you’ve ever seen, and it will have characters you cared for3. So if we want game writing to be good, we need to start designing characters, instead of giving motives a body and a name4. Now that you know that motives don’t replace character design, read next week’s Playful Narrative and learn how to go from having a set of motives to making a well designed character.

This week’s point to remember

A set of motives does not make a good character design but rather is a starting point to begin with that design. Well-rounded characters need more than just a motivation to act like they do.

Next week in Playful Narrative: Design characters, not motives (part 2).

Whether you totally agree with me or feel like I completely miss the point, let me know in the comments or get in touch! See you next week.

  1. Save the world, save the princess, kill the enemy, complete the mission and so on []
  2. Not every good character is multidimensional as described above. As a rule of thumb though, a good character for regular fiction, is more often multidimensional than not. []
  3. Note that caring for in this sense is not the same as liking, but more generally means ‘to have feelings about the character’. This can also be hate or jealousy for example. []
  4. This is not to say that every game needs a well designed and rounded character (or even a story for that matter). I still like Mario, for example. But I don’t play it for the story. []

One thought on “Design characters, not motives (part 1)

  1. Pingback: » Perpetual Musings Player-2

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