In life, there are only a handful of interpersonal connections that truly leave a mark on a person: the ones with your family, your friends, your partner, career leaders that aid your goals, and your connection with the playable character in a video game. Funny, isn’t it?
What might seem rather “chuckle-worthy,” is actually extensively discussed, debated and even studied. Simply Googling “the player-character relationship,” yields extensive information on why it’s so meaningful, why it isn’t, why it’s perfection when done correctly, why it’s been bland for several years now, how it’s morphed into what it is, etc, etc.
But why is this? Why is the player-character relationship so heavily discussed? Because it’s used and portrayed in many different ways. Games are used as a way to help depression and anxiety, a way to escape the mundane life (for people who are unhappy with their lifestyle and everything in it), and as a way to escape serious emotional, or soul-crushing situations, like family problems, or even breakups.
So, if this is the case – if games are really a “treatment,” albeit, not a cure, then…we owe it to the players to give them playable characters that resonate. Let’s do that.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
The number one character trait that gets players hooked is personality. Give players a character with an interesting personality, and they’ll find a way to relate to them. It can be a matter of humor, determination, leadership, or even a quality that they themselves lack, but finally possess in a video game. They’re escaping reality, remember? What better way than to become someone that is a joy to play as?
Now, some characters, like Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, and Jack from Bioshock, don’t even utter a single word. They are what some like to call “vessels,” meaning that they are empty shells capable of only action, but have no other value. While it may seem counterproductive, these characters have been known to be loved by players. Using Gordon Freeman as an example, there’s tons of art based on him, cosplay, and even terrible song tributes.
To answer your question, the one you’re surely asking, no, not every vessel is successful. The only ones that work are the ones that have some interesting factors, like what actions they’re capable of. What role they have. The player puts themselves in the character’s shoes, and provides the narrative behind the screen. A vessel is flexible – one way or another, depending on who the player is.
I Can Make A Difference
Emotional issues or not, players like a fictional world where they feel like they have an impact. Let’s consider Until Dawn for a second: while it’s a fantastic game, filled with options and timed prompts for players, it only has two endings, the good, and the bad, neither of which is particularly great. By the end of the game, players felt like the “good stuff,” had already occurred, and the grand ending was nowhere in sight.
They felt like they ultimately had no major impact, because the end would always be one way, or another, rather than the hundreds of endings that were originally promised (impossible).
This means, as developers, your task is to not only provide a character who has an interesting personality, or that is empty enough where the player can make up his/her own personality for them, you also need to ensure that the character makes a difference in the fictional world. Things like being able to take a declining city, and make it booming again. Or building settlements, like in Fallout 4.
The One Time Your Values Don’t Have To Mesh Well
Ah, values. In real life (IRL), values are important to consider when making a new friend, or meeting a potential partner. If the values don’t align well, the connection is ruined. Even in your line of work – it matters. Not everyone will want to work in gun manufacturing, or the gods forbid, something seedy.
But in video games, values are overlooked, because it’s a fictional world where anything goes. Things people wouldn’t do in the real world are now options in a video game. And no, that doesn’t mean they will take arms and go on a mass murder spree (those are rare instances, always connected with mental disorders long torturing the criminal, and not exclusively the cause of murder in video games).
That means that implementing opportunity for some wacky, or controversial actions, is not entirely a bad thing. Perhaps the virtual world is a great way to unleash the anger within, or even just troll. Being able to smack someone in the face, steal someone else’s life savings, yank an old man out of his car, or annoy Oscelot in Metal Gear Solid V, are all actions that players talk about even years later. The raids, the loot, the comradery, the mischief.
Players come in all forms, but everyone enjoys a good player-character relationship. A developer’s job isn’t just to make a game, it’s to create an experience and a connection-worthy playable character. Many a player has grown up with these characters. Many have developed a soft spot for them, and even created memories as them. It’s your job as developers to help them along.