Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Idle Chatter Builds Character

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 30 Oct 2012 16:00
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Let's bring up Thief again, Dishonored's main influence. As I said in the video, a game about keeping quiet could justifiably have a silent protagonist, but Garrett's in-game asides add a great deal without saying anything plot or gameplay vital. Even in the mission briefings, his personality comes through. Here's the very first line of the briefing of Thief 2's first mission, in which Garrett helps a friend elope: "I've always equated 'feelings' with getting caught: they both get in the way of my money." Sixteen words in and Garrett has ten million times the personality of the entire population of Dishonored. And it applies to the NPCs, too. None of them are as visually striking as Dishonored's random guards, but their flamboyant delivery and idle chatter genuinely endears them to you, organically motivating you to stick to non-lethal methods. Remember Benny the guard, Thief fans? Dishonored doesn't have a Benny.

Your goal in writing a game story is to create characters that engage us, but don't make the mistake of thinking that this rests solely on what the characters do, what they look like, what opinions they have, or the circumstances from which they arise. That's all secondary. Telling us that new character X once took on an entire stagecoach full of armed lemurs doesn't do shit for character building. Neither does actually showing them do it, on reflection. What matters is how human they are. They don't even have to be human - see every Pixar film - just exhibit human characteristics, the most important of which is emotion. Emotion is the main thing that separates us from the animals and the supermarket self-checkout machines.

Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto 4, Withnail from Withnail & I, and Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It (which is incidentally my new favorite show). If you were judging these characters based only on an impartial description of their actions, we could easily hate them. But we just can't when we see them in action, partly because they're funny and partly because they're all capable of expressing strong emotion, maybe in ways we wish we could, and they come across as more human for it. They rage and get melancholy, they might commit crimes or manipulate people but they also get flustered, and frustrated, and desperate. Malcolm Tucker only gets swearing angry because he cares about the party. And ultimately, strong emotion is just all about giving a shit.

It's the characters that don't seem to give a shit that I can't stand, whether they've been assigned the status of hero or villain. Albert Wesker from Resident Evil didn't let up the smug everything-is-under-control emotionless shithead act until about one nanosecond before his violent death, and that's what made him such a grating cunt. And then there's Rubi from Wet who never seemed to be the slightest bit threatened by anything but never seemed to be enjoying herself, either.

All of which is reason, if it were needed, to think very hard about having a silent protagonist in a story-driven game, because when a silent protagonist gets betrayed there's no way of knowing if they're angry about it or just glumly accepting. For all we know they could be turned on. The audience needs more to go on than just a spreading damp patch on the trousers.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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