Let’s face it—stories in games are often overlooked. As long as the gameplay and mechanics are intact, players don’t outright need substance. Even during development, the story isn’t a driving factor. Everything, including the characters, are written around the design elements. And yet when it comes to exceptional characters and stories, they do get noticed. Characters like Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, or Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series are always praised for being so engaging, so amazing, so… realistic.
It’s the classic case of you didn’t know you needed it until it was available. While players might not outright need substance in video games, they do appreciate it when it’s done well. As a developer, this should be an ultimate goal: to learn how to create realistic characters.
Luckily for you, we’ve condensed it all into 10 must-do steps. After this article, your characters might be getting a major re-haul. Are you ready?
1. Establish a Persona
When you first meet someone, you tend to judge with your eyes. Maybe they wear their hair up all the time, or they lean toward wearing neutral colors. As time goes on, you get to know who they are as individuals, and suddenly know why they wear what they do, and furthermore, why they do what they do. For instance, upon first meeting the revamped Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, Lara was dressed comfortably, yet prepared. As an archaeologist on a voyage, her hair is out of her face, and her pants have about 30,000 pockets. As the game progresses, players discovered she wasn’t as tough as her earlier counterpart, and in fact, she was very much relatable. Her story was one of more than discovery; it was self-discovery. It was about a young woman who needed to be kicked around by life a bit to truly live and appreciate her friends and family. Rather than just live in a series of actions and motions, Croft’s mission was one of meaning and honor.
When you create a character keep this in mind: your character needs to have a personality. She needs to be filled with secrets in the beginning, hinted through clothing. The character’s style should connect with their personality, and lifestyle, all of which need to be discovered as the game progresses. There should be depth here.
2. Something Old, Something New
In the same vein, the rule of “something old, something new” isn’t just for weddings. In writing, it’s used to describe adding something traditionally known, or expected, along with something innovative. For instance, consider Nathan Drake. The adventurer, adrenaline junkie character isn’t a new one. We’ve seen it time and time again in Indiana Jones, Skyrim‘s Dovahkiin, and again, Lara Croft. And yet Nathan Drake is very much original in that he is the “guy next door.” He doesn’t pretend to be smarter than he is, but when he does, it’s clear it’s him being charmingly funny. He knows what his limits are, but he isn’t afraid to push them, unless, you know, he’s being shot at by 30 men. Sometimes, during cinematics, he’ll scream as he’s falling, and that makes him different. He’s an average guy, he could be any of the players, just put under adventurous circumstances.
In other words, taking something familiar and adding your own spin to it often results in very likable, memorable characters. A character that players can relate to, and yet look up to and aspire to be, in some small way, is your objective.
3. Do Your Homework
Did you know authors spend months researching before writing their books? In fact, when writing a character, they often study up on different career paths. Once they find the one fitting of the character, they know how to make it sound believable in the story. The same goes for video game characters. Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid series is a prime example of this. Snake’s character made stealth and technological warfare into what it is today. Modeled after Escape from New York‘s Snake Plissken, Solid Snake can talk the talk of someone in his line of work. All the characters can, really. He comes on credible, and very much capable for his line of work. Albeit, creative liberties were taken with the overall theme. The story is one few other than Kojima can understand.
This means, even if you also decide to take creative liberties and make things a little unrealistic, the core of information should remain intact. To make a realistic character, you absolutely need to make sure that you research his/her profession, add elements from research results, and make it possible for it all to show through dialogue.
4. Genuine Reactions (Animations)
Assuming you’ve played games like Divinity 2, Oblivion or Mass Effect 3, did you ever sit there and say “these are some very realistic animations”? That’s right, you have not said that. In all likelihood, you’ve cringed at the horror on the screen. From weird attempts at smiling, to punches that don’t connect, or even awkwardly sliding down stairwells, bad animations make it painfully obvious that your character is just that—fake. Creating realistic characters involves not only better movement and action animations, but reactions. Characters need to show emotion, like any other human being.
For instance, there’s a scene in The Last of Us where Ellie brings up Joel‘s daughter Sarah. Sarah has passed away, and now Joel is having to lead Ellie to the Fireflies. They have a moment in this scene, where Joel’s pain over Sarah is visible, and his distinct opinion of Ellie is crystal clear—that she’s not his daughter. The anger, pain and emotion behind every single sentence is so realistic, and reflected by their emotions, that players couldn’t help but get sucked in. We still can’t.
5. “You Talkin’ To Me?”
Ever notice how Tiny Tina talks? Like a little girl. Albeit a crazy one, but she’s still just a little girl. Now consider how Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn talks—like a grown woman. The funny part is they are both voiced by Ashly Burch, from “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?” Compare her iconic song “Pop Goes the Bandit” to random dialogue from Horizon and prepare to have your mind blown.
When creating characters, it’s important to make them distinct. The way they talk says a lot about them, just like how the rule applies in real life. Not everyone talks like Travis Bickle, A.K.A. Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Even every state has their own accent, with New Yorkers speaking distinctly different than anyone in Texas or California.
The key to developing a good, distinct character that stands out is to remember that he/she can’t speak like anyone else in the game. There needs to be variety in voice in the game, setting individual tones for all the characters. Of course, this means investing in voice acting that doesn’t disappoint.
6. Connecting with Surroundings
Here’s another tip that should be obvious, but it isn’t always: have your characters interact with their environments. Think of Assassin’s Creed. The game series is all about action and adventure utilizing the game world. Buildings, platforms, rooftops and bales of hay are all used by the characters. In the short video above, players can see how colliding with the NPCs doesn’t allow you to pass through a crowd. Instead, using forceful pushes causes them to move out of your way more. It’s the equivalent of being at a concert and slowly pushing against someone—they won’t really move. Shove them, and they will.
Of course, this is just one example. Just like in real life, there are various ways to make it clear that your playable character is solid, realistic and capable of reacting to the objects around him/her. For instance, if there is something in the bushes, have their heads turn. If the sun is extraordinarily bright, have them shield their eyes and comment. If the town streets are crowded, have your character squeeze through, rather than just magically walk through them. Much like you would groan at the site of a long line, they should too. By connecting with other objects in the world, or at least acknowledging the things you normally would, suddenly your character is capable of processing information about his/her surroundings.
7. Building Relationships with Other Characters
Remember the last scene of Uncharted 3, when Nathan and Elena have to explain to their daughter that they used to hunt for treasure with Sully? In the scene, not only do they both act like parents, they also act as though they’ve known each other for years. They are clearly a team, a loving couple, and two people who have plenty of memories together. The bond between Nathan and Elena is so realistic, they truly act as though they’ve been through a lot and came out the other side victoriously.
It’s bonds with other characters that make yours that much more realistic. Because frankly, we’re nothing without the loved ones in our lives. From family to friends, romantic relationships, and even those who annoy us, our interactions with other people show us who we are. When designing a character, don’t neglect relationships that could and should be built upon. Don’t establish them as a loving couple if there is no backstory. At least show some backstory through dialogue, body language and yes, even the way they look at each other.
8. The Meaning of Life
Here’s something relatable: have you ever wondered what the point of life is? Is the point really to work, or is it… something else? Maybe it has to do with the relationships built, or what it is we learn over the course of a lifetime? Whatever the point of life may be, there’s one sure thing: each day holds its own meaning, and therefore, its own missions. In fact, there can be goals that take months, or years, to accomplish, which in turn gives your life meaning during that time.
For instance, the meaning of life for a college student is to hopefully progress into adulthood with a degree, job prospects, the ability to move out (assuming they haven’t left mom and dad’s yet), and maybe even a solid relationship. Once you’re an established adult, there’s a long road ahead, with several different goals. Maybe move to a better city/state, land a better job, or get married, for instance.
In a video game, it’s no different. As a Dovahkiin, players needed to defeat Alduin, as the prophecy stated. As Mario, they had to save Princess Peach. Even Pac-Man had an objective, to eat fruit while staying away from ghosts. Every character that players remember has some sort of mission that gives their life meaning. Whether it’s to steal gold, avenge someone, or something else entirely.
9. It’s All About Those Quirks
Kratos has an angry sneer that only he can really do, doesn’t he? Mario says “here we go!” Even though Claptrap doesn’t really have a line or anything, he still has something. He talks with his arms. As a robot, he truly shows emotions with his arms!
So, what do characters like Kratos, Mario and Claptrap have in common? Quirks. People in real life have quirks too. It can be sighing, nose twitching, finger tapping, fidgeting, etc.
Whatever it is, these people have a “signature move,” or line that is unique to them. It’s some sort of behavior that those around them have come to expect. And it’s these quirks that can really make a character stand out. In order to create realistic characters, developers should use quirks, in conjunction with the other tips listed in this article. When done correctly, both with something original and that pairs well with the character’s personality (Kratos is violent, and has an angry sneer), characters can make an impact.
10. It’s the Little Things
Speaking of quirks, little things can make all the difference. The way the wind moves their hair, or the way they walk in proportion to their size are some good examples of this. For instance, the large enemies in World of Warcraft walk slower and heavier than their lighter counterparts. Creatures like the thorny leafling travel in packs, and run super fast. Meanwhile, the Horde orcs move like they’re heavy, and even move their large arms and weapons along with their legs for momentum.
To create realistic characters, it’s crucial to keep track of the little things that tend to slip through the cracks. The things that you might not think about right away. They might be tiny details, small in the grand scope of things, and certainly on the bottom of the “ideally would like to do” list, but sometimes those small things have the biggest impact. These small details, like how they hold a sword, or the noises they make when jumping, can tell players a lot about the characters. They can solve any doubts about the characters class, experience with a weapon, size and even their inability to follow the laws of physics, as is the case with Fury’s mesmerizing hair.
Realistic Characters Take Effort
Creating a good character is easy. It’s based on what you learn in college, and perhaps even the first year out into the real world. But to create realistic characters, you need more than that. To go above and beyond for your fans and player base, you absolutely need to keep track of elements that developers with years of experience have learned, usually after making several mistakes along the way. The truth is, as time goes on, your character development skills get more and more solid. And while you can’t learn everything overnight, you certainly can keep certain things in mind, thus making the process that much more fruitful and fun.
To create truly exceptional characters, you have to make them as close to real and relatable as possible. Focus on their interactions with game world. as well as their bonds with other characters. Establish a signature quirk, and keep the way in which they speak consistent. Research their professions, and stay true to what you chose for their personalities. A cowboy won’t speak without an accent, for instance. More so, have their personality be reflected in their actions and attire. Everything from their hair to their choice in shoes should correlate to who they are, and what they do.
And as much as you’d like to skip over the tiny details that normally go on a non-priority list, remember that sometimes the small things play a huge part. Something as simple as the way in which hair moves in the wind can break immersion. And if it does, much like Fury’s hair in Darksiders 3, have it at least captivate the audience by being pleasant to look at. Sometimes immersion and reality can be proven to be illusions in a game, but it’s how, and how often you do it that counts.
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