Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Elements of a Great Game – Atmosphere – Supporting Characters–Part 1

In my last “elements” post we took a look at the different kinds of main characters that we often find in gaming. (Those being static and dynamic characters.) In this post I want to look at another optional layer to this already optional element and that is supporting characters. Mario has his Luigi, Sonic has his Tails, Han his Chewy and Simon had Garfunkel. Now, I know that supporting characters cover more than just the atmosphere of a game. They certainly do add atmosphere, but they can also change game play and cross right into game mechanics. However, supporting characters have to go somewhere and so I am sticking them in here just because we've already run into them.

There are several roles that these supporting characters fill. The first and most simple is to give a multi -player aspect to a game. When we look at the original Super Mario Brothers we see Luigi represented as the “green Mario”. The play styles between the two characters is exactly the same. Their great in-game difference is nothing more than the color of their cloths. This is also true of Contra, Ikari Warriors and loads of other games. The addition of multi-player gaming certainly added something to the game, but that was the extent of these supporting characters' roles. (Multi-player gaming is actually another optional element, but it's going to have to wait for another time) However, even though the main and supporting characters are exactly the same except for wardrobe, the developers still understood that it was important to represent these characters as separate individuals. The second player in SMB isn't green Mario he is, in fact, Luigi. Just look in the manual!

Now, with Ikari Warriors and Contra the difference in the characters never got much further than clothing and they remained where they started as simple multi-player options. However, with Mario and Luigi the different characters began to take on different play styles along with their different cloths and back stories. In Super Mario Bros. 2 Mario was still the well rounded guy he had always been, but Luigi became a fantastic jumper even though he wasn't quiet as strong as his brother. In games like Sonic the Hedgehog the supporting characters were introduced with different play styles already intact. As each of these series developed, more and more characters were added to the list and more and more play styles became available. (Again, options in play style is another optional element, but now we're looking at supporting characters.) Each of these supporting characters also had story based reasons why they had their skills or powers. This helped immerse the player in the game. The philosophical gulf between deciding to play “high jumping Mario” and Luigi is very great even if it wouldn't have effected game play. These characters added not only more playing options, but presented a more rounded and real world to the player. They added something to the atmosphere of the game.

Villains are another aspect of supporting characters. One of the things that made the original Star Wars trilogy great (you remember, the real Star Wars movies) was that you could really hate Darth Vader. From the moment he broke that young soldier's neck he was somebody you wanted to see “get his”. Bowser represents a generally more humorous woman stealing villain that everybody can want to defeat. Mother brain represents a menace that has to be stopped. Dracula is a undead blood drinking a-moral killing machine that just needs to finally die! All these villains provide fuel for the imagination as do their poor victims. In the first LOZ princess Zelda was nothing more than the poor girl kidnapped by Ganon. However, as simple as her role was it certainly supported the feel of the entire game. Imagine what you would have felt like if you had finally defeated Ganon only to find out that “Princess Zelda” was a prize winning poodle that a well off north-eastern family of elite dog breeders wanted back... Legend of Zelda would have had a whole new meaning.

These are only a few ways in which supporting characters add to the atmosphere of a game. Their influences are much deeper in RPG games. In fact I plan to cover than in my next post. I don't want to make these posts book length, so I'm breaking them up.

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  1. "Imagine what you would have felt like if you had finally defeated Ganon only to find out that “Princess Zelda” was a prize winning poodle that a well off north-eastern family of elite dog breeders wanted back"


    For me, supporting characters give me the feeling of not being alone in this fight. Games can do without them, but more meaning is added to the game. Hence, the "atmosphere."

    Thanks for the great post!

    PS Have you seen the video series Extra Credits? They talk about much of the same things you have been.

  2. I haven't seen Extra Credits yet. I may have to check it out when I get some time.