This can be split into two parts – the player character and the non-player characters, which are always very different beasts.
In many first person games, the nature of the player character is less defined, primarily because it is felt the player will see themselves as the character. Defining the character’s traits may well act against the player’s desire to feel in control. That’s not always the case, though, as games like Half-Life defined the player character pretty well.
In third person games, the player sees the character they play and it becomes easier to give them traits and a personality different to that of the player. The degree to which this will work will still be down to the expectations of the genre, with high action games offering fewer opportunities to explore the characters than a story-driven investigation.
NPCs have different roles in different genres. In many action games or strategy games, NPCs may well be nameless characters designed to offer more in the way of a busy feel or exist as “cannon fodder”, although I’m not a fan of very generic characters.
Whereas, if the game relies on the interactions between the player character and the NPCs, the latter may well be fleshed out with names, a small back-story and may even have their own agenda during any conversations.
Look at the genre you are working in and work out the character needs that apply.
We should create stories and worlds in which the player feels alive and remains involved at all times.
The story worlds created for screenplays and novels are expected to support the characters and ideas in ways that are believable, consistent and don’t interrupt the suspension of disbelief. Sometimes those worlds need to be big and bold, like our ideas, but other times a much simpler approach will help the story by giving it a clearer focus. Having the characters fit neatly within these worlds is an important part of engaging the viewer or reader, even when they might be at odds with that world.
Game worlds are even more important. The player actively explores the game world as they work through the numerous options open to them and this world must keep them feeling involved.
However, game worlds aren’t there simply for the characters to exist within, they are worlds in which the player takes part in combat, investigation puzzle solving and so forth. The stories support and enhance these things and give a richer experience to the player, involving them more completely.
Equally, the player must feel that the world has a consistency that makes sense in relation to the story and the gameplay. No one wants a surprise thrust upon them that kills them unfairly or have the game expect them to solve a puzzle that relies on a mechanic they didn’t even know existed.
The same goes for the stories and worlds you create – be as unusual as you like but deliver a consistency that enables the player to feel like a vibrant part of your world. Make sure the twists and turns, no matter how unexpected, are consistent with the game’s world and keep the player involved.
We must write characters the player will want to play.
Player characters like Lara Croft, Master Chief, Geralt, etc. didn’t get to be popular by accident – they were created and written with the player in mind. The very best characters you could ever come up with might count for nothing if they are not fun to play and interesting to follow.
Admittedly, you might argue that good, playable characters fall into the realm of game design, but that’s only partly true. If you want the characters’ story to connect to the gameplay in a cohesive manner, the writing of them must overlap their design throughout the whole development process.
Just as screenwriters must write characters the viewer will want to watch, game writers should help make game characters vibrant by giving life to them beyond their gameplay attributes alone.
Finding the right balance is tricky, of course. A writer shouldn’t “steal” the character away from its gameplay. If the attributes and associated mechanics are those of a cold-hearted assassin, the writer’s task is to make the character interesting while supporting that style of gameplay.
If the writing reinforces the character properties and enhances the experience in the process, the player’s actions in driving the game towards its goal will become so much more rewarding.
Dialogue works best in a game when conversations are fully interactive.
Too often we see the player character interact with a non-player-character (NPC) and the latter simply gives up information too easily, often without being specifically asked and usually in a kind of small monologue.
In situations of this kind, there is no drama between the characters because the player doesn’t have to work for the information on offer. Without such drama, conversations become dull and the player will develop no interest in what the characters have to say.
Sometimes the situation is even worse and the player character simply has to approach near to an NPC for that person to begin talking. Too often, they also give up information no one would really reveal to a stranger, such as, “The King hasn’t been seen for weeks.” Such things undermine any character believability.
When the player decides the direction of a conversation through questions and subject choices and the conversation expands or contracts based on the information revealed, they become much more invested in the conversation and the characters involved.
Conversations should be as much a part of a game’s interaction as all aspects of the gameplay mechanics in order to maximise the experience it delivers.
It’s very easy to look at the writer’s part in the development of a game, especially if it’s a particularly narrative-heavy one like an adventure or a role playing game, and see its importance as greater than it might be. Many other media require a writer to start the creative process but games are very different in this respect.
In games, there is nothing more important than gameplay and it’s vital that you realise this. Without gameplay you wouldn’t have a game and a writer might as well be writing for those other media.
Clearly, writing is important in game development, just as art, animation, programming and design are, but if none of these elements support the gameplay in the way they should, the gameplay is in danger of being undermined and the player will not enjoy the best experience possible.
Stories, characters, dialogue and so forth should all be developed and written with half a mind on the gameplay at all times. Your well-crafted lines should never contradict the gameplay mechanics or the gameplay abilities of the characters.