Game Characters, Simpsons Syndrome, and Cardboard Cut-outs in General

First off, I’d like to give a shout-out to Counter-Attack, another gaming blog that was nice enough to reward me with a lovely Steam authentication key for entering their contest. They’ve got some good articles and a lot of content, even if they are a bit hard to find

Where was I… oh right, cardboard cut-outs. I don’t mean those awesome standies with a life-size Master-chief  holding two SMGs. I mean the characters themselves. I think you’ll agree, many video game characters are pretty flat, and, not taking advantage of the obvious cup-size joke here, part of the reason is how we receive characterization in the first place. Simply put, changing characters are interesting characters. Don’t believe me? Let’s go all the way back to where I first noticed what I call Simpsons Syndrome: The Simpsons.

Most people agree that the first five seasons of The Simpsons were the best. Why is that? The show hasn’t gotten less clever. In fact, I think they really hit their stride in season seven with how they approach difficult topics. I could gush about the writing for a while, but I’m not going to. Suffice it to say, that, as an aspiring writer, I am repeatedly impressed with their subtlety and skill, even if… especially because… you don’t have to notice it to appreciate it. What have changed are the characters. Or, more specifically, they haven’t.

Simpsons syndrome is when characters who have been around a while gel into a sort of safe caricature of themselves. The Milhouse. The Lisa. The Homer. Many would argue that they gelled into those in the early seasons, but, if you watch, those characters are filled with doubt and emotion. They appear to change a bit every episode, even if they reset at the end of the episode or the beginning of the next. They haven’t swollen to fit the popularity box they created, behemoths, unable to wiggle within their enclosures. They aren’t yet the larger-than-life Barts and Nelsons, almost archetypical in their stature. The early Simpsons are small, complex, and relate-able. However, a well-developed, immediately-understandable, caricature-character does facilitate the exploration of more complex topics clearly, because you know where each character starts from. 20-some minutes of airing time is not a lot when you think about developing a character and a topic with any sort of depth. You can do it, but then it all becomes a bit muddied. If i could spell it out, the syndrome’s symptoms would be gelled characterization with little movement in increasingly fantastic settings and circumstances.

It’s a degenerative disease that leaves you where The Simpsons are now: a bit static and kind of floundering. Then again, that’s understandable given how long they’ve been around. The problem is that everyone knows those characters now. They’d be difficult to change now without the risk of upsetting someone. Then again, you’ve got to be willing to take risks in an artistic medium to really explore it. Maybe Maggie will even start talking. That would be some crazy shit. It’s really a problem with formulas in general. If you’re stuck with one route of access into the city, then you’ll never be able to beat the traffic. Unfortunately, it’s a major problem with game characters.

For some reason, games seem to be stuck on formulas. This medium has massive potential for telling stories, but we haven’t quite gotten it yet. We’re getting there, but we’re stuck in our formulas. Maybe it’s all the possibilities, or the sheer cost of making an expansive game, but I don’t buy either of those excuses. You can tell a good story very simply. I think that we’ll figure that out soon enough, but for now let’s talk about the syndrome as it pertains to games.

Right now, we’re pretty content to let the story take the back seat to shooty-action. We’ve got silent protagonists everywhere and stock characters of questionable, or obvious, ethnicity, when it serves our needs. We’ve got the funny guy, the tough girl, the serious guy… You get it. These characters are places to start. Even the best stories have some of these characters in them to surround the main character, but they don’t stop there.

Creating a good character is all about fleshing it out. Fleshing it out well is the result of interactions with characters and how they move. There’s a phenomenon in psychophysiology where if any object follows your eyes perfectly, then it will fade from sight.  As such, your eyes undergo small movements, called saccades, constantly to prevent this from happening under normal circumstances. Characters follow much the same pattern. Unless there’s a reason that we should pay attention to a character, then we’ll forget it and file it away, safely, as someone we only have to pay attention to when they’re made immediately obvious. They cease to be objects of interest and remain interesting objects. BUT, objects don’t engage, unless they’ve got a story to tell. Unless they’re dynamic, they’ll  become bland. This may leave you with the ability to focus on the game-play, but, if your story is interfering with the game-play, then you’re not telling it very well, are you?

So, if starting with stock characters is fine, for expediency sake, but the important thing is what you do with them, then how can games work with this? Many developers have tried implementing morality systems to try and let you watch your characters develop, but the characters themselves rarely change. I mean, Fable let you watch yourself get covered in shiny bobs, and scarry bits, but it didn’t really affect the story characters. You could choose an ending, so you were writing the story, but the story didn’t really write itself. All of the real writing was done on the player’s end, with a loose narrative to tie it all together. That’s fine in a sandbox game where we’re surrounded by the results of our actions (see Minecraft), but when we’re coming to a game to get our story on and develop a character, then it’s kind of a let-down to have to do it all ourselves. I mean, really, heroes in an academy that fight a bad-guy who defects from the inside isn’t exactly a new concept (see X-men), so you’d think they’d focus all the really good bits of writing around the character. Put some consequences in, and make us understand them. Gaming is an interactive medium. You can tell the story with one hand and let the player write the characters with the other, if you do it well. Gamers generate stories with their actions.

Then again, we approach different games for different reasons. It’s difficult to recommend any one tactic for this sort of story-telling, because I’d be ignoring the complexity of the interactive experience and falling into the same formula trap that others have. Don’t keep your characters in a box away from other characters. Don’t be afraid to let player actions affect the ending. It’s getting a little repetitive up ins, so I’m going to end with an idea for creating characterization without sacrificing game-play.

The two-pronged morality meter is an often lampooned one that will change how a player approaches a game. It can severely hamper a player’s freedom to create a character that’s not just a series of choices you made for them. It’s hard to create a character when you’re busy min-maxing a bunch of numbers and actions. However, if you added a dimension to it other than good and bad, then you’ll start creating more well-rounded characters. Let’s say you’ve made a stealth game with assassination elements. During game-play, you’ve got the option to kill or sneak past enemies (see Dishonoured), but there’s a good ending and a bad ending. Good equals sneak. Bad equals kill. A bit lame, but we work with what we have. (On a side-note, if the player wasn’t told this, it would make the game far more interesting. What your player knows is almost as important as what’s there)

You could add extra abilities or bonuses for one of the other depending on how you beat a level, but it’s already a pretty mechanically complex game, so we should avoid adding too much more to it. However, you could add a couple lines of dialogue to the guards mentioning your character as either being a cold-blooded killer or a swift, silent wind. You could alter the appearance of the player’s armor to reflect those kills by adding knicks on their weapons gradually. Or, you could approach it from the other direction. Why would a player be more likely to kill than sneak? You could alter back-story, because it’s all given to you in medias res any ways, but given what we’re working with already, let’s assume you can’t. You can slowly, imperceptibly increase the sound of your character’s foot-steps. Do it slowly enough and your players won’t notice, but, when they do, it’ll make sense to them intuitively. Aside from not caring about stealth, your character might just be angry. So, characters that kill more make angrier sounds to reflect their loosening grip on their emotions. These changes don’t affect game-play, but they help to justify and explain a character. These seeds in the fertile imaginations of your players will become something more, if you trust them. You would need to add changes in the opposite direction so that you’re not sending the message that your character isn’t just building towards anger, but changed by his actions.

So, that’s it. Trust your players. Let your characters change and interact. Be ready to challenge formulas when they interfere with telling a good story.


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