Diamonds in The Rough

Diamonds in the Rough: This month’s Blogs of the Round Table invites you to discuss character flaws, or the lack thereof, in video game characters.

I particularly like this month’s round table discussion, as some of my recent blogs have been about how games really need to start focusing more on characters and character interactions. In order for that approach to be successful, the characters in games need to have some depth to them, and flaws are an excellent way of adding depth and humanity to characters. My initial reaction to the round table topic is that I can’t think of many games off the top of my head that include characters with notable flaws that are somehow significant to the narrative, but I’m guessing that’s for two reasons: first, I really haven’t played that many games, so perhaps I’ve just missed them, and second (and more likely), it’s a reflection of how little emphasis has been placed on characters (and characterization) as a central developmental focus of most games.

I would also say that part of the issue with characterization and the use of character flaws in games is that, in my highly unscientific and poorly backed opinion, I would guess that the majority of this technique has been used with the player character specifically, moreso than the other characters in the game. After all, there aren’t very many games (aside perhaps from CRPGs) where NPCs stick around for most or all of the game. In most cases, NPCs represent only brief or superficial encounters, and there isn’t much opportunity to really develop NPCs with any depth. But as far as the player character is concerned, that is probably a different story — but in those cases, you’re now dealing with that nebulous barrier between the player and the character the player is playing, which can be a tricky thing. As a result, it’s difficult to convincingly introduce a true character flaw to the player character in such a way that the player is encouraged to play along with it. After all, how many people want to take actions or make decisions in a game based on a defined flaw in their character, which could result in a less-than-ideal outcome? Particularly when the emphasis in so many games is on “winning”.

I will say, however, that of all the different game types, interactive fiction probably has done the best job of characterization and the use of character flaws thus far. Well-known IF gems such as The Baron, Galatea, even Varicella and Rameses (and quite assuredly many more) all manage to incorporate and deal with major and minor character flaws in both NPCs and player characters to some degree, some more successfully than others. Perhaps it is the nature of the medium, perhaps it is a consequence of these games being created largely by writers rather than teams of programmers, designers, and artists. I’m not sure, but I know I have yet to play a graphical game that deals with the nuance of character the same way that some IF games have so far been able to.

Of course, that naturally leads me to think more about Vespers. The game received a lot of recognition for the NPCs, including the “Best NPCs” award at the XYZZYs that year, and I think Jason did a great job fleshing them out — including the player character. But even so, it’s tough to identify any true character flaws that come into serious play. Constantin’s short temper, Drogo’s insanity — these really come across as features more than pure flaws, and for those of you who are familiar with the game, most of the outcomes during the game are dictated not necessarily by character flaws but more from certain external forces. This also would hold true for the player character, the Abbot, although it could be argued that the setting for the beginning of the game — the Abbot choosing to close off the monastery to the villagers — is one of the main precipitants for the events that follow, and may be due to a flaw in the Abbot’s decision-making capacity. But even then, it comes across as more of a bad choice made in desperation, not necessarily the result of a particular flaw.

This post is a response to the May ‘08 topic from Blogs of the Round Table. You can see other entries on this subject in the drop down box below, which will update automatically with each new post.

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  1. Corvus
    Posted May 5, 2008 at 2:54 AM | Permalink

    Since I believe that game mechanics are a perfectly valid means of expressing character, I don’t think a strong distinction is really needed between “feature” and “character flaw.” Of course, character flaws are typically things that a) the character isn’t terribly aware of and b) block the character’s success until they deal with the flaw. Still, it sounds like a good start.

    I can’t wait to get my mitts on Vespers, by the way!

  2. Rubes
    Posted May 5, 2008 at 10:50 AM | Permalink

    I think part of the issue with the distinction is that characters in games other than the player character (NPCs) rarely are given explicit goals at which they are trying to succeed, other than perhaps very simplistic ones. And thus, NPCs rarely seem to have motivations that can be affected by a flaw in their character.

    The “features” of the characters in Vespers, like Constantin’s anger, Drogo’s mental illness, Matteo’s depression, all play a nice role in giving the characters some depth. But I wouldn’t really characterize these as flaws per se, since they’re all aware of these things and they have no specific motivations that are affected by them.

    It would be cool if Constantin’s anger or Drogo’s illness somehow worked against them — like, if the player was able to use these things to learn something new by tricking them into revealing some piece of information. But it doesn’t go that far.

    Glad to hear you’re looking forward to it…if you happen to know any available animators, I’m always looking for more.

  3. Jimmy Maher
    Posted May 5, 2008 at 4:25 PM | Permalink

    As you pointed out, trying to characterize a PC that the player is herself in control of is very difficult. I think this is why interactive narratives do certain genres so well, such as mysteries, police procedurals, exploration / adventure stories, etc., and most other genres so badly. When a player fires up a mystery story in which she plays the chief investigator, she knows what is expected from her. The story of the game largely becomes uncovering the story of the mystery at the center of it. How, though, does the player know what to do in, say, a coming of age story? “Now go forth and make many mistakes, but learn from them and go from being an immature boy to a man!” It’s all a bit vague, isn’t it? “Figure out who killed Garlus the kindly old convenience store clerk”, on the other hand, gives the player a clear set of guidelines about what she should be doing. It unfortunately also often leaves her in control of a character who is little more than a cipher. In fact, I would disagree with you on one of your main points. I think it is MORE difficult to richly characterize the PC than the NPCs. You can make all kinds of eccentric and otherwise interesting NPCs, but how do you force the player to act like a slightly off-kilter PC? In effect, the player must get stuck always playing the straight man. Of course, we don’t SEE many interesting PCs or NPCs, but that’s more down to the fact most videogame writers have yet to achieve the basic competence of the average Star Wars novel author.

  4. Michael Martin
    Posted May 5, 2008 at 4:36 PM | Permalink

    In the CRPG domain, where the player generally does not have significant control over either the broad (major plot arc) or the micro (dialog) actions of the main characters, flaws are quite prevalent.

    In fact, the early-3D era CRPGs seem to be made of characters composed entirely of character flaws, to the point that they really belong more in mental hospitals. The TVTropes Wiki provides a pretty impressive list (scroll down to the “Videogames” examples).

  5. Rubes
    Posted May 5, 2008 at 6:53 PM | Permalink

    Hey Jimmy, thanks for the comments. I actually agree with you; I think it is definitely more difficult to introduce character flaws to the player character (as opposed to the NPCs). I didn’t intend to come across as otherwise, so my apologies if I did. Your point is the same as I was trying to make: how do you get players to accept and incorporate flaws into their actions and decisions, when those flaws (almost by definition) hinder the player’s success?

    I think it’s also important to make the distinction between major and minor character flaws. Whereas minor character flaws are distinctions that essentially do not affect the narrative, major flaws are more of the kind that Corvus describes, which hinder or thwart the character from achieving their goals.

    I think games are fairly good at using minor flaws, but I don’t think we see really exceptional use of major flaws all that much.

  6. Rubes
    Posted May 5, 2008 at 7:06 PM | Permalink

    Thanks also for the link, MM. I had seen that site before and browsed through it — it’s pretty amazing, actually.

    I agree the list there is pretty impressive with respect to video games. I haven’t played most of the ones mentioned, so I wonder how many of those are eally minor flaws as opposed to major ones that truly obstruct the character, and which are either overcome (in the case of heroes) or not (in the case of villains or tragic heroes) in the course of the main narrative.

  7. Michael Martin
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 12:25 AM | Permalink

    Rubes: Actually, most of the games on that list I’ve played left me cold; even in cases where their arrogance/poor impulse control/crippling fear of cheese/etc. made it harder for them to reach their goals, I mostly reacted to it as the designer pulling cheap tricks to string the plot out. I found myself shouting “YOU IDIOT” at my own character fairly frequently.

    Of course, I also am not terribly fond of CRPG-type games in the first place, so I may not be the best judge there. Not to mention that the link I gave was less to “characters have flaws because flaws are interesting” and more “characters are so loaded down with flaws that they’ve become a traveling psychological circus”.

    It’s too late for me to be able to flesh this out properly, but it strikes me that for encouraging a player to roleplay flaws, one could borrow a page from Nethack and track conducts. These are voluntary challenges that make life harder but give you bragging rights later.

    Conducts are typically things like “don’t eat meat” in Nethack, and you could consider “dot eater” mode in the shooter Ikaruga to be a conduct of sorts—shifting it to adventure games, how about tracking whether or not the player is having his character be, say, a compulsive gambler? You might even reward the player with extra cutscenes or dialogue or something for proper roleplay.

    Which is another important point, getting back to what you mentioned in the post before: just because it hinders the character, that doesn’t mean you can’t reward the player for keeping the conduct.

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