Games are on the precipice of a ma­jor revo­lu­tion in vir­tual sto­ry­telling. They just need a lit­tle push, ar­gues Rick Lane

Custom PC - - OPINION - RICK LANE Rick Lane is Cus­tom PC’s games edi­tor. @Rick­_Lane

Cru­sader Kings II proved that strat­egy gam­ing could be about in­di­vid­ual peo­ple

Char­ac­ter is the most im­por­tant el­e­ment of great sto­ry­telling. You can have a thrilling, twisty-turn­ing plot, but if your char­ac­ters are one-di­men­sional man­nequins then your story will be a dis­pos­able pot­boiler. Sim­i­larly, a group of strong enough char­ac­ters can form the en­tire ba­sis of a plot, through form­ing re­la­tion­ships, en­mi­ties and bounc­ing off one an­other in in­ter­est­ing ways.

That’s why so many games strug­gle with sto­ry­telling. Most games fo­cus on giv­ing you a clear plot to fol­low, while char­ac­ters are of­ten con­sid­ered sec­ond, if at all. They’re the hard­est part of game de­sign to do well. They need to be well writ­ten, and mod­elled, an­i­mated, voiced and im­ple­mented in a way that the player can get to know them, but with­out ob­struct­ing play. Cer­tain gen­res, such as RPGs or ad­ven­ture games, are struc­tured to bet­ter ac­com­mo­date good char­ac­ters, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to cre­ate.

In re­cent years, how­ever, a grow­ing num­ber of games have found ways not sim­ply to in­cor­po­rate char­ac­ters into game struc­tures, but also to make them a fun­da­men­tal part of their sys­tems. It be­gan with Cru­sader Kings II, a grand strat­egy game about build­ing and main­tain­ing a me­dieval dy­nasty. At the head of each dy­nasty was a char­ac­ter with a unique set of traits, rang­ing from strength, hon­esty and piety, to glut­tony, in­fi­delity and mad­ness. All the sub-char­ac­ters had sim­i­lar traits too, and all were vy­ing for more power.

The re­sult was a grand, dy­namic soap opera, of sham mar­riages and fam­ily trysts, war­ring sib­lings and das­tardly mur­der plots. Cru­sader Kings II proved that strat­egy gam­ing didn’t have to be about mas­sive armies and face­less na­tion states, it could be about in­di­vid­ual peo­ple, and it was bet­ter for it. More re­cently, other strat­egy games such as XCOM, RimWorld and Maia have fur­ther ex­plored the im­por­tance of char­ac­ter in strat­egy gam­ing.

Cru­sader Kings II didn’t need to vi­su­alise its char­ac­ters be­yond sim­ple por­traits, but char­ac­ters are also be­ing made more com­plex in tra­di­tional, big-bud­get games. Shadow of Mor­dor could have been a bog-stan­dard third-per­son ac­tion game, but was raised to an­other level by its in­cred­i­ble Neme­sis sys­tem, trans­form­ing the face­less orcs you fight into recognisable en­e­mies that you love to hate. Like Cru­sader Kings II, Shadow of Mor­dor had traits that orcs would ac­cu­mu­late as you fought them, with unique strengths and weak­nesses that meant you had to find in­creas­ingly novel ways to de­feat them.

Both these games fil­ter the con­cept of char­ac­ter through their sys­tems, us­ing them to gen­er­ate recognisable and in­ter­est­ing in­di­vid­u­als who ap­pear dy­nam­i­cally. Yet they pro­voke the same emo­tional re­sponses of char­ac­ters in other gen­res of fic­tion: ex­cite­ment, kin­ship, loathing. In turn, these char­ac­ters make games more in­ter­est­ing, as we can re­late to them on a more per­sonal level. A game then be­comes about more than win­ning or los­ing, or mak­ing tac­ti­cal de­ci­sions. It be­comes about those char­ac­ters, our al­liances with them or our grudges against them.

The im­por­tance of these games and their ap­proach to char­ac­ter can’t be un­der­es­ti­mated. They’re on the cusp of rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the way games cre­ate and tell sto­ries, and how we un­der­stand sto­ry­telling as a con­cept. More de­vel­op­ers just need to recog­nise the power of these me­chan­ics, and find ways to de­velop new games around them, tak­ing the next ma­jor step for­ward in the evo­lu­tion of in­ter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling.

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