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