People are defined by what they do. Games, unlike any other media, allow you to project your choices onto your character and actions almost always speak louder than words. While dialogue is important, this article will focus on characters defined through their actions and their world.
A popular example of excellent characterization through action and gameplay is the popular pale angry man, Kratos from God of War. Kratos is a violent, overpowered warrior. His weapons, his attacks, his finishers, all of them identify him as a mad ball of rage and destruction. And this was clear from the beginning, even before the player has force-fed his sword to a Minotaur for the first time.
Some things like this easily impress me, because I’m only now starting to learn all the ways to look for them. So, when it falls to me to try to think of different ways to create a character’s identity through gameplay, I generally find it hard. And why? Well, because you have to look at what the majority of gameplay these days is made up of, or at least focused on: Combat.
There are plenty of ways to characterize someone through how they fight, but perhaps less ways to be wholly original, or feel original even. Regardless, it can still be subtle and well done. An assassin may have a small clip for his rifle, because he’s a precise and professional individual who shuns taking risks in lieu of a calculated and assured kill. A beat cop may only use her nightstick and taser because she doesn’t ever want to be responsible for a death, and it makes her job more comfortable to worry less about the damage she inflicts. Both of these are examples of characterization through just weapons alone, not even necessarily how they fight. That same assassin may be useless in close combat, only effective at long range, unseen. The beat cop may have taken a multitude of martial arts classes, and wields that same nightstick so deftly that is catches her enemies off-guard.
But what about pacifists? Weak characters? Characters who have no business being in combat? Well, we can look at the first four Silent Hill games, the popular standard for oppressive and difficult melee combat. These games reinforced the weakness of their characters by making them lousy at melee combat. But let’s try another situation, where the character does not come across combat. Not to say they don’t come across conflict, because conflict makes for interesting stories. By combat we’ll say we mean trying to hit the opponent until they can no longer hit back (with fists, bullets, knives, psychic powers, a squirt gun, or whatever).
What about a game where the player can only communicate by sending out invitations to parties? Don’t laugh, it could happen. There’s a lot that could be said about the person sending out these invitations.
Here’s the scenario:
You play a wealthy billionaire, and since you’ve got such an exorbitant amount of money, you’ve decided to retire early and host a series of parties with some of the shareholders for your company.
You meet each one in turn, and decide whom you’ll invite. You then design the invitations, which detail what the party’s attractions will be (open bar, genre of live music, lighting, appropriate dancing, dress code, etc.), and will have a very specific design.
Does your party featuring Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (not exactly dance material) have an invitation covered in pink swirls or gold leaf trim? Is and open bar too cheap for some of your snootier attendants who also fault you for the Comic Sans font you chose?
Choose carefully, because if you lose these people and they pull their support, your company could lose precious stock value and collapse entirely.
The invitations, in describing the party, describe the character. In the specific example above, you see how it would describe what you make the character to be, but even using something so innocuous as party invitations, you see what can be learned about a character.
But alright, that’s way too out there for your game. You want a 2D sidescroller. You want platforming, old school platforming with great characterization. You don’t want to make Braid, or Limbo, you want something different. Not to encase your meanings in symbolism, but to just have the character have a distinct personality, and you want to tell it through gameplay. Fair enough. Here are some questions to ask.
How high can your character jump? How freely can they change direction in mid-air? Assuming they wall-jump, do they flip of the wall in an elaborate somersault, or push off with both arms and a leg? A character who runs with both of their arms trailing behind may be a free spirit, enjoying the wind in their hair, or they may have watched too much anime, who knows? A character that runs bent forward, hunched over and as close to the ground as they can get, may be paranoid and always wary of their surroundings. After you answer these questions, and probably with any design choice you make, always ask yourself “Why?”
The key is to watch how your character treats the world. How they move, how they interact with it, will tell us a lot about who they are. This need not always coincide with their manner of speaking and extent of their vocabulary (to which another article will be dedicated), and in fact the glaring inconsistencies can help create a full realized, three-dimensional character. Maybe that beat cop from before is outspoken about her views on justice being about the bigger picture, but skulks around back alleys at night to catch some unfortunate souls enjoying a back-alley toke.
Try looking at the people in your everyday life, the ones you know and the ones you don’t. How do they walk, how do they run? Do they bob their head in time with their music, play air guitar? When you begin to look at the different ways people can interact with the world, you can see the different ways a game character can do the same thing.