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Character Development in Video Games

By on September 14, 2009
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swansonplan-full

I sometimes get the feeling that although narrative design is all the rage at the moment, maybe it doesn’t get the same level of behind the scenes developmental commentary afforded to the other disciplines.

To that end, I recently published an internal character developmental insight / postmortem from Penumbra: Black Plague, and it’s currently doing the rounds on some of the gaming websites, so I thought I’d share it here as well. I don’t particularly pretend the Penumbra games have been played by everyone – or, indeed, anyone – but it’s at least proved of interest to those of a writery disposition.

Amabel Swanson: A Character Postmortem

From her original character sheet:

“Swanson is our attempt at a ‘rescue the princess’ type character, without actually just resorting to stereotype, going for a bland sort of generic safeness, or making her a helpless goon. However, she does need to be motivational for the player – he needs to like her, to want to save her, and to be livid when Clarence kills her. The latter is our priority.”

One concept behind Swanson was to pursue the idea that female characters in video games could be something other than sword-wielding ninja bitches and cute, approachable tomboys. We set out to make her a damsel in distress – the player’s intentionally cliché mission being to rescue her – without falling into the trap of making her appear weak, or pissing him off with fetch quests…

Read on…

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.
  • Thanks Nicholas 😉

    I think perhaps it's a question of getting to know your audience, and learning how to play them more effectively. We'll see how I get on next year when hopefully I'll have a couple more projects out in the open.

  • Thanks Nicholas 😉

    I think perhaps it's a question of getting to know your audience, and learning how to play them more effectively. We'll see how I get on next year when hopefully I'll have a couple more projects out in the open.

  • *** Harry Potter spoiler alert ***

    You make some very interesting points, particularly about how the author's awareness of a character can diverge strongly from the readers.

    J. K. Rowling is a great example: when her fifth book came out, it was heavily trailed that a “key character” was going to die. A character that was very important and would be missed.

    When the death occurred, I felt cheated. The character had not existed for the first two books. He was a baddie for most of the third. He barely featured in the fourth and he was grumpy thoughout the fifth.

    As a reader, I had zero emotional connection.

    As an analyst, I can understand it: Harry was an orphan. He suddenly gained a godfather. That godfather was summarily taken away. To lose a family once is a tragedy. To lose it again – that's unbearable.

    But it's unbearable for Harry, not for me. I would have much more upset if any of the regular teachers, or a Weasley, or half a dozen characters who were unimportant to Harry but familiar friends to me, had died.

    In essence, the author was living so much in the character that she didn't notice the impact would be lost on her audience.

    Clearly, this is not to fault JK Rowling's staggering success in a series that I love – merely an observation that even the most successful writers can sometimes get caught up in their own awareness of a story. Plus the PR weenies compounded this issue by making such a big issue that there was a BIG DEATH in book 5.

    So if even billionaire writers can make a mistake like that, maybe you don't need to beat yourself up over it 🙂