Characters

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The abstract characteristics of diegetic persons.

Many games let players control game elements that represent people or creatures that act in the Game World. When these people or creatures have characteristics not directly shown in the Game World that can change during gameplay, these game elements have an abstract element called Character.

Note: The use of character here is in the meaning of the characteristics of a person rather than the traditional use in art of the representation of a person (Agents is used instead). Also, for this context anything one would be likely to take an intentional stance[1] towards, or perceive that one is intended to take such a stance, is considered a person.

Examples

Tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS let each player control their own Character, and one of the main types of goal in the games is to raise the character's level, stats, or skills. This has been carried over to computer-based version of roleplaying games such as the The Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout series, and games building on the genre, e.g. NetHack, Torchlight, the Diablo series, the Mass Effect series and World of Warcraft.

The X-COM series and Jagged Alliance series lets players control several Characters at once. Typically all these games also players choices in how to improve the Characters during gameplay as rewards for advancing, but several varieties of how they are created exist. Collections of multiple choice questions combined with some point system for skills are common (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, the The Elder Scrolls series, the Mass Effect series, and Torchlight) while some have one complete point system (GURPS). Randomness is often an important component, either for attributes (Dungeons & Dragons and NetHack) or more generally for the characters' backgrounds (Traveller and the Lifeboard used in Fallen Reich). The tabletop roleplaying games often have multiple systems that the player groups are choose from.

Many action-oriented computer games can be said to have an extremely weak form of the pattern through having just one abstract value, typically a health value. Examples of games that fall in this category include the Doom series, the Super Mario series and the The Legend of Zelda series (and they typically also have some inventories for weapons or tools). An exception to this can be found in the team-based FPS Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, where players have Characters that can develop between levels by gaining experience points in various skills.

Using the pattern

Characters are used to add complexity when creating Non-Player Characters or the Avatars controlled by players. The design of Characters in games can either be on the level of creating pre-defined descriptions and presentations of these or by creating rules for how players can create their own Player-Created Characters through the use of patterns such as Avatar Personalization, Construction, Initial Personalization, or Naming. Workshopping techniques can be used to make possible both modification and full creations of Characters as part of supporting Initial Personalization.

Characters can exist weakly in games through a couple of design combinations, and these can be used in conjunction with more explicit ways of creating Characters. Simply having Handles or Health values in a HUD Interface (or Geospatial Game Widgets in the case of Handles) does add some abstract qualities to Avatars. First-Person Views together with Point of Interest Indicators or Vision Modes add the abstract characteristics of perceptual functionality to a game which otherwise may only have Avatars. However, for more explicit created Characters diegetically important features such as names (often determining the Handle that identifies the player's character to other players), gender, and occupations need to be created. Exactly what features are appropriate depend mainly on the type of Alternative Reality gameplay takes place within (e.g. many fantasy Roleplaying games have several different playable races).

Characters are often given Characteristics related to the mechanical aspects of the game systems, and these also provide openings for future Character Development. Many different types of Characteristics are possible: Character Levels that affect overall power levels and access to various other traits, the numerical Attributes that represent physical or mental characteristics and determine values such as Lives, Health, and fatigue; the Abilities, Powers, and Skills that affect the likelihood of succeeding with actions and may give Privileged Abilities such as being a Producer that can create Renewable Resources; the Advantages, Disadvantages, quirks, or other ways of describing character traits and motivating initial Decreased Abilities, Improved Abilities, or Privileged Abilities; the Invulnerabilities, Vulnerabilities, and Achilles' Heels that affect threats and opportunities to attack; the Inventories, Equipment Slots, Containers, Pick-Ups, and Transferable Items which regulate how Characters can have Resources and Game Items; and the Characters place in social networks within the Game Worlds that define their relations with NPCs (e.g. as as Companions, Enemies or as having Linked Destinies), and the Characters positions in Hierarchical Factions, including possible Loyalty, Internal Conflicts and Rivalries within those Factions. Character Alignments can be used as overarching ways of defining what type of person a Character is - after choosing an alignment the choices regarding Abilities, Powers, Skills, Advantages, and Disadvantages can be easier to make. In games with Avatars, some of these characteristics are usually cosmetic but are still important as this Avatar Personalization supports Emotional Engrossment and Identification through Diegetically Outstanding Features.

Creating pre-defined Characters lets them fit within Alternative Realities in a way that can ensure Thematic Consistency and allows personalized and unique Avatars for all Characters. In games with Combat or Overcome goals between players (e.g. fighting games such as the Tekken series), pre-created Characters can also be extensively play-tested to ensure Player Balance. The use of pre-created Characters is common in games either where Character Development regarding gameplay is not a large part of game experience or where Characters, and any Character Development, is closely tied to a tightly controlled Narration Structure.

Typical ways of letting players create Characters are based on Randomness or Budgeted Action Points (Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS illustrate these two approaches, although there are several choices also in the first example). These are in turn used to determine the various characteristics possible mentioned in the previous paragraph. Creative Control or Freedom of Choice through Initial Personalization or Character Development typically provides some level of Player-Created Characters, but this may cause a problem of fitting or adjusting the Characters to have integral role in Narration Structures. This problem can be mitigated by the presence of Game Masters that can perform the necessary Negotiation to make the Characters suitable to the planned events in the game or modify the Narration Structures to fit them. Characters may also emerge from Units if these are individually given New Abilities since this means that they become differentiated by their Abilities.

It may seem somewhat paradoxical but the answer to the question of who controls the Characters after they have been created does not automatically have to be their creators. That Characters created by the game designers can be either Non-Player Characters controlled by Algorithmic Agents or Focus Loci for players is quite natural, as is the passive use of Characters mainly as a way to provide players with somebody to receive Quests from or to perform Trading with. But Player-Created Characters do not have to be directly controlled by those players either, the Sims created by players in the Sims series are semi-autonomous and can be left completely to their own devices (and if one has created several households the sims from other households are pure NPCs for any given game session).

Independent of how the initial Characters are created, the game designer can choose whether Character Development should be possible and if players should be able to affect it (including being able to automated it through the use of Mules). An alternative way of supporting Character Development is through the use of Character Defining Actions and Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, which both can be used to provide developmental opportunities during gameplay. Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences can in itself create Character Defining Actions, but there is a multitude of other patterns that can be used to provide such this pattern when used together with Characters: Abilities, Character Levels, Companions, Enforced Agent Behavior, Improved Abilities, Internal Conflicts, Loyalty, Predetermined Story Structures, New Abilities, Roleplaying, Sidequests, Skills, and Social Dilemmas. For Character Development during gameplay, if players are able to influence the development or not may mostly depend on if players have been provided in advance by Extra-Game Information or by diegetic Clues or Red Herrings (which in the latter case make players need to take Leaps of Faith).

A critical choice regarding Characters is if the game design should try to make character traits presented diegetically in the Game World. Although there may seem to be no obvious reason why to not do so it, the Freedom of Choice for players may be limited. This not only since Character presentation is typically done through Cutscenes (but see Environmental Storytelling) which automatically restricts players Freedom of Choice to perform actions at certain times (and gives Downtime). The presentation done by the design also limits how players can shape the Characters through Roleplaying since it puts restrictions in which direction the Characters' storyline can develop, at least as long as the players do not wish to break the Thematic Consistency of the game session.

Many games contain hazards that can Damage or kill Characters. How deaths should be handled is another design issue that needs to be considered for the pattern. Letting the Characters die is the simplest solution to having Death Consequences but may break Predetermined Story Structures if important Non-Player Characters die, and enforce Permadeath if used on Player Characters. Alternatives are using Death Consequences, Extra Chances (e.g. the fate points in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay), Lives (possibly together with Death Consequences), and Spawning. A completely different approach to the death of Characters is to encourage Playing to Lose, that is to encourage players to cause bad things to happen to their Characters for the sake of a making a good story.

It should be noted that Agents present in Game Worlds may have abstract characteristics and states not part of what constitutes the Characters. This since technical issues regarding following other objects or routes are neither diegetic objects nor part of what defines a personality.

Diegetic Aspects

Characters handle the abstract qualities of diegetic people and thereby helps maintain Diegetic Consistency since both hiding characteristics that should not be easily detectable but still making them possible to effect the gameplay. Encouraging or enforcing Diegetic Communication by the Characters is another step that can be takes to maintain Diegetic Consistency; allowing players to use Emotes can promote this type of communication but it is within the players' power to also break the consistency in this case.

Characters do not have to have pre-made diegetic presentations, but when they do Avatars are the most common form although some games (e.g. the X-COM series and the Jagged Alliance series) make use of Units. However, the Characters pattern does not need to be combined with any pre-defined ways of presenting people diegetically. Most table-top roleplaying games (such as GURPS and earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons) support use of Avatars in combat situations but make it optional, letting players express their Characters through Enactment using only their own voice and body. Another example of not having a diegetic presence during gameplay can be found in the computer game Alter Ego, which keeps track of the Attributes for the player's Character but doesn't present it in the Game World. If Characters are complex enough, the presentation Avatars provide may need to be augmented by the use of Game State Indicators to provide enough information.

Maintaining Thematic Consistency for Characters may be easy for those only encountered briefly but Algorithmic Agents and the use of Open Destiny may be necessary to maintain a longer illusion of personality or intentionality, especially in games striving for Replayability.

Interface Aspects

Since by definition the information related to Characters is not part of the Game Worlds, some other way of allowing players to get information about them is needed. This may simply be Extra-Game Information such as HUD Interfaces or Geospatial Game Widgets presented together with the Game World but can also be in the form of Character Sheets, the latter typically as a form of Secondary Interface Screens for computer games. Character Sheets may be more or less unavoidable if players need to interact with the Character statistics, e.g. to increase Attributes or Skills when Leveling (as e.g. in games such as the Elder Scrolls series and Torchlight).

In Turn-Based Games, Budgeted Action Points are quite common solutions to model Combat between Characters and their Enemies.

Narrative Aspects

Given that Narration Structures, and especially Predetermined Story Structures, very often depend on the intentions of fictitious persons, it would seem that Characters are integral to these. This is partly true. The pattern Characters related to the attributes of these persons in relation to the game system and how it affects gameplay. In this sense Characters strongly affect if and how Roleplaying and Enactment emerge from the game structures. This may also be the Narration Structures of the game as Scenes can be used to place specific focus on individual Characters, and in this case create Melodramatic Structures. However, the Narration Structures can exist independently of the gameplay and be told through Cutscenes. In this case, the main relation between the two patterns is the need to maintain a form of Thematic Consistency between the Characters gameplay actions and their actions in the narration. In both cases Characters can function as MacGuffins. A special case of this is games using Detective Structure since these require that all information available to a player is tied to one specific Character.

Players' views on Characters can quite easily be modified through the use of Gossip. Contextualization also allows players to develop their view of Characters through the use of Scenes that provide context for the "main" narration developing.

Consequences

Characters are Abstract Player Constructs representing people and other inhabitants of Game Worlds which diegetically have agency. In games with Game Worlds, Characters form links between abstract game state values and concrete game state values through their connection to Avatars or Units. The Enactment of Characters by players or Game Masters lead to Roleplaying, and when doing this well is seen as a goal managing to do so can provide Role Fulfillment (the possibility of this pattern can further be strengthened by relating Freedom of Choice to Characters in various ways).. Characters controlled by Agents that are players or AI Players are Player Characters, as are Characters who player use for Roleplaying. When no concrete Game World exists, Characters take the role of Focus Loci in replacement of Avatars. Characters is one way of creating Agents, although typically needing the use of Avatars or Units. When they have Achilles' Heels or Vulnerabilities, Characters immediately create goals concerning to Conceal these or Evade attempts to exploit them. More generally, threats of Penalties that can be avoided by Movement of the Characters give rise to Evade goals.

Characters provide games with points for Identification and through these points Emotional Engrossment, especially in cases where Roleplaying the Characters or Storytelling about the Characters is possible. This also makes them a source of Tension in games where the Characters may suffer Damage or other Penalties, or where they may die. The personalities expressed by Characters make it possible to encourage certain actions and discourages others, and thereby achieving Enforced Agent Behavior as long as players wish to maintain Thematic Consistency (Enforced Agent Behavior can of course be guaranteed for those Characters that are controlled by Algorithmic Agents). Systems can, at the risk of ruining Player Agency, enforce such wanted behaviors through the use of Automated Responses.

The Emotional Engrossment Characters can give makes it likely to strengthen the impact of, and widen the range of, Penalties usable in the game, especially in the case of Persistent Game Worlds or when Player-Planned Development of their Characters exists. The presence of Characters also allows more detailed Enemies and richer Narration Structures where social relationships can be important components.

The variety of values associated with Characters open up for a range of Rewards, e.g. New or Improved Abilities through raised Attributes or Skills, and Penalties, such as Ability Losses or Decreased Abilities through received Damage, that can occur during gameplay. Gaining Game Items can also work as Rewards. When these types of Rewards allow players some form of control over the Character Development, this leads to increased Freedom of Choice in games as well as creates Player-Planned Development, which is a form of Investment and allows the development of Competence Areas and Value of Effort. This is also a form of Customizable Development, which can allow a game system to acknowledge Player Time Investments and can support Emotional Engrossment to the Characters. These attachments do likely need Persistent Game Worlds since they can require many hours play over several play sessions to arise. The possibility of Character Development or equipping Armor, Tools, or Weapons make Characters able to instantiate Player/Character Skill Composites as long as some player skill component exists in the actions performed. It should be noted that simply Roleplaying can also provide Character Development and this can catch all diegetic aspects of Character Development that specific rules otherwise would miss.

When differences between Characters exist before gameplay begins, this leads to Asymmetric Starting Conditions. If these are not equally powerful this can disrupt Player Balance but can also be seen as a way of providing Difficulty Levels. In Multiplayer Games, having Characters in Teams where they have different Privileged Abilities allows Orthogonal Differentiation and lets players perform Team Combos. This also allows players to specialize in different Competence Areas regardless if Character Development exists or not, and gives opportunities of engaging in Team Strategy Identification. One specific case, used in Hattrick, is to have Coaches as Characters also. However, the differences in abilities may cause Player Balance to be disrupted. Games with Teams of Characters where Team Elimination is possible can motivate Player Elimination as a consequence of such elimination. Use of Characters as members of Teams also raises the question of allowing Reserves to have a possibility of choosing which Characters to make use of in particular gameplay situations.

For games using Character Sheets, the Character information can be a type of Gameplay Statistics and this is more or less unavoidable in tabletop Roleplaying games. This can of course also occur whenever any information contained within Characters are stored so they can be accessed outside play sessions.

For Online Games with Persistent Game Worlds where players log onto the games to control Characters, these can become Purchasable Game Advantages since players can sell each other the access to them.

Depending on the amount of information stored about Characters, and how much updating players need to do, the pattern can give rise to Excise.

Relations

Can Instantiate

Abstract Player Constructs, Agents, Asymmetric Starting Conditions, Coaches, Diegetic Consistency, Emotional Engrossment, Enactment, Excise, Focus Loci, Identification, Loyalty, MacGuffins, Narration Structures, Non-Player Characters, Player Time Investments, Player/Character Skill Composites, Predetermined Story Structures, Role Fulfillment, Storytelling, Tension

with Abilities, Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, Character Levels, Companions, Enforced Agent Behavior, Improved Abilities, Internal Conflicts, Loyalty, Predetermined Story Structures, New Abilities, Roleplaying, Sidequests, Skills, or Social Dilemmas

Character Defining Actions

with Ability Losses, Character Levels, Characteristics, Decreased Abilities, Game Items, Improved Abilities, Leveling, New Abilities, or Roleplaying

Character Development

with Achilles' Heels or Vulnerabilities

Conceal, Evade

with Agents or Roleplaying

Player Characters

with Algorithmic Agents or Thematic Consistency

Enforced Agent Behavior

with Asymmetric Starting Conditions

Difficulty Levels

with Avatar Personalization, Construction, Initial Personalization, or Naming

Player-Created Characters

with Character Development and Freedom of Choice

Player-Planned Development

with Character Development and either Creative Control or Freedom of Choice

Player-Created Characters

with Enforced Agent Behavior

Thematic Consistency

with Movement and Penalties

Evade

with Orthogonal Differentiation and Teams

Team Combos, Team Strategy Identification

with Persistent Game Worlds

Purchasable Game Advantages

with Player-Planned Development

Value of Effort

with Scenes

Melodramatic Structures

with Storytelling

Roleplaying

with Team Elimination

Player Elimination

Can Modulate

Alternative Realities, Enemies, Game Worlds, NPCs, Rewards

with Emotional Engrossment

Penalties

with Freedom of Choice

Role Fulfillment

Can Be Instantiated By

First-Person Views together with Point of Interest Indicators or Vision Modes

Handles together with HUD Interfaces or Geospatial Game Widgets

Health together with HUD Interfaces

Units together with New Abilities

Can Be Modulated By

Abilities, Ability Losses, Achilles' Heels, Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, Advantages, Algorithmic Agents, Armor, Attributes, Automated Responses, Avatars, Avatar Personalization, Budgeted Action Points, Character Alignments, Character Defining Actions, Character Development, Character Levels, Character Sheets, Characteristics, Companions, Competence Areas, Construction, Containers, Contextualization, Cutscenes, Damage, Death Consequences, Decreased Abilities, Disadvantages, Diegetic Communication, Emotes, Enemies, Extra-Game Information, Equipment Slots, Factions, Freedom of Choice, Game Items, Game Masters, Game State Indicators, Gameplay Statistics, Geospatial Game Widgets, Gossip, Health, Hierarchical Factions, HUD Interfaces, Improved Abilities, Initial Personalization, Internal Conflicts, Internal Rivalry, Inventories, Invulnerabilities, Leveling, Linked Destinies, Lives, Loyalty, Mules, Naming, New Abilities, Open Destiny, Persistent Game Worlds, Permadeath, Pick-Ups, Playing to Lose, Powers, Privileged Abilities, Producers, Randomness, Renewable Resources, Resources, Roleplaying, Scenes, Secondary Interface Screens, Skills, Teams, Tools, Transferable Items, Units, Vulnerabilities, Weapons, Workshopping

Reserves in games with Teams

Possible Closure Effects

-

Potentially Conflicting With

Player Balance when used together with Asymmetric Starting Conditions

Predetermined Story Structures when used together with Death Consequences

History

An updated version of the pattern Characters that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].

Acknowledgments

Markus Brissman, Maltto Elsolainen, Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, Anders Warrby

References

  1. Daniel C. Dennett (1996), The Intentional Stance (6th printing), Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-54053-3 (First published 1987).
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.