Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Elements of a Great Game – Atmosphere – Characters

Whereas all games have some sort of atmosphere and some kind of setting (even pong was supposed to be table tennis.), not all have characters. However, just because they're not universal doesn't mean they're not one of the solid building blocks of gaming. Not every painting has purple in it, but purple is still a color in spite of that fact. Now, some would point out that purple is, in fact, blue and red. A combination of two more basic colors. I know, that's the reason I picked it. Characters may not be one of the most basic elements, but they are still very near the foundation.

There are at least two kinds of character development in gaming and I want to touch on both. The first, and mot common, is the static character type. This ranges from the hero of Shining in the Darkness to Sonic the Hedgehog. In spite of the fact that these two games are very different, one being an RPG and the other a classic platformer, the static nature of the main characters is very much the same. In both of these examples the main characters is a hero. He is fighting for truth and justice against some evil that is trying to take over the world. At first it may seem that character development is very different for these two games. However, that is not the case. The story telling method is very different, but the character development itself is not. First we'll consider the differences and then look at the similarities.

In Shining in the Darkness we have a complete in-game story. In the standard RPG fashion the game opens with short overview of what is going wrong in the world and what it is the hero is going to have to do to put a stop to it. Throughout the game more and more of the story is revealed as our champion get's closer and closer to his final destiny of defeating the great evil. We are told the sad stories of individuals wronged by the villain and given a number of story based motivations to drive us on to victory.

In Sonic the Hedgehog we also get a great back story. The hero is in fact saving cute little animals from being imprisoned in robot bodies under the control of the villain. However, this story isn't presented in-game, but is rather found in the manual. Some might say that this makes the characters development in the game unimportant. I disagree and it's obvious that Sega felt that developing Sonic as a character was very important. In each new game we have a continuing story and new characters with their own back stories.

Consider two of the most recognizable characters in video gaming Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario. Both of these characters were introduced in games that had no in game story. In both cases the game developers took the trouble to fill out both the background story and the characters. Each of these characters has since stared in his own RPG, not to mention TV show. These characters were woven into the imagination of the public. In spite of the fact that their back story had nothing to do with the game play of the games they were in, those stories still made the games more enjoyable. There is a long list of characters in this category. Samus, Simon Belmont and Mega Man are just a few examples. All these characters started out in games where their story was all in-manual.

Having considered the differences, now let's consider the similarities. In both SITD and STH the hero starts out and ends in the same place as a character. He was a hero at the beginning and he is a hero at the end. His path was set and it wasn't up to the player to change it. The player's only option was to go from point A to point B or not to play. Both these heroes are perfect examples of static characters.

The dynamic type character, to my knowledge, is found almost exclusively in RPGs (I can think of very few non-RPG examples). Even in that genre is it fairly rare. There are also two types of dynamic character to consider. The first is what you might call the “Literary Dynamic”. The character is dynamic in as much as they start out a villain and become a hero or, much more rarely, start out a hero and become a villain. However, here again the player has no control. So, whereas the character is dynamic from a storyline point of view they are still static from the aspect of game play. Truly dynamic characters are those that the player has storyline control over. The player can choose, not only what the character does, but also why he does it. We have seen this type of character in a number of titles. Fable, Oblivion and Knights of the Old Republic are certainly familiar to most of us.

These characters draw players in, not only with their rich compelling stories, but with the connection formed by the player by being in complete control. It is the philosophical difference between an on-rails shooter and a flight simulator. On-rail shooters can be beautifully crafted, the player guided through stunning scenes and the enemies put just where they should be just when they need to be. With an open flight simulator the developer doesn't have near as much control over what a player sees or does, but the freedom the player has to go where he wants and do what he wants makes up for it. This is really the same difference we have between games like Legend of Zelda and Oblivion. With LOZ you see what you're supposed to see while you're doing what you're supposed to do In Oblivion you see what you want to while you're doing what you want to. Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses.

Personally I am more drawn to the dynamic type characters. However, both types are fundamental building blocks and both have their own charm. There are also a number of ways to present supporting characters that add depth to a game. We can touch on those another time.

If you guys like you can follow me on Facebook:

My Facebook

Also please feel to drop by the forums and say hello:

CC Forums


  1. Wow! I never read the SMB manual until today (found it online). I really feel it does add more to the game. I now want to go look up manuals for my other favorites.

    Perhaps sometime you could add the original manuals to the CC browser!

  2. We have quoted the storyline in some of the game info pages. Adding that to the CC Browser probably would be a good idea!

  3. Very nice blog. I am impressed . Games are good source of entertainment for any of the aged gaming fanatics. R4 3ds xlcard is the latest version in cartridge technology