When you play a videogame, what’s the first thing you look for? Good gameplay? Addicting multiplayer? An engrossing plot? Well-written and memorable characters?
For me, I personally look for the characters and gameplay primarily whenever I boot up a new game with no prior knowledge – Perhaps that’s part of how I grew up, playing games like Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, God of War and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
One thing, however, that has always perplexed me is how games with essentially no in-game plot, such as Overwatch, Team Fortress 2, or even ICO can create memorable, unique and downright amazing characters, from which the community can expand their creative vision onto.
Let’s take a look at two of the most prevalent contenders: Overwatch, and Team Fortress 2. You google one character from one of these two games, and I garuntee you that the first few images that will appear are pieces of fan art or comics; try this again with a game with a deep plot such as Halo’s Master Chief, or Metal Gear Solid’s Snake, and you’ll notice that the amount of fan art decreases drastically; why is this? In my opinion, it’s down to three cardinal values:
A character’s Animation, Personality and their Voice Acting. Let’s dive into each of these subjects one by one.
Animation is often key in portraying emotion within a character, especially to deaf players; to people, the way a character acts and moulds around an environment is far more impactful than we often give it credit for – Take for instance, the characters of Overwatch; Tracer bounces around battlegrounds with an energetic sort of force about her, confident yet casual, with her reloading animations looking more like rookie reloads but suitably badass in times of frantic chaos, where you come out victorious…
I suppose that’s why Overwatch works so well as a way to analyse how animation alone can sell you on a character.
No matter how you look at it, the one character that will catch your eye first when going through the poses you can unlock, is the character that shows the type of emotion you feel when thrashing an opponent in combat – Feel heroic and desire praise for your actions? Take a look at how Hanzo or Genji act in their “Play of the Game” animations, often cool, steadfast and imposing. Perhaps you want to gloat over all who failed to defeat you? Look at D.Va or Reaper, with their dramatic and over-the-top animations; do you just want to say “Oh cool I got PotG, I guess that’s a thing”? Go for Zenyatta, Widowmaker or Zarya; any way you look at it, upon first glance, whichever character aligns with your particular emotion of victory will capture your eye first with these animations.
I guess it could be down to me being a sucker for animations, or longing to just see emotion and flavour burst out of every little thing my character of choice does; I hope that you also see how animation can play such a big part of a character’s identification and impression.
Now, time to appease you Team Fortress 2 purists out there! Personality is another massive factor when it comes to dissecting a character with no mention of their backstory and to be honest (As long as you’re blind to the character trailers, this is a discussion on how characters with no plot in-game act), TF2 is a shining example of this; every single character in TF2 follows a character archetype, be it cliche or genuinely brilliant, there’s no denying that at least one of the characters is stuck in your mind. Let me ask you this, If you’ve played TF2, can you genuinely say that you’ve forgotten any one of the characters? The Heavy’s love for sandwiches and his minigun, Sasha; The Scout’s infamous “BONK”, or the Spy’s snarky, yet cold comments?
I bet you can imagine their voices, how they act to one another, and their catchphrases now.
Another game where personality is key would be Jak and Daxter – Whilst, yes, these games do have a plot, the majority of the story centres around the world and if it focuses on characters, it focuses on our protagonists and solely focuses on Jak. Bring in Daxter, the lovable goofball that brings comedy to the mute protagonist of the first game, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy – Daxter never really got too involved with the central points of the story, albeit apart from the first and last parts of the game, but more than made his mark as an essential character of the franchise due to how he acted and behaved, with his snarky, crude humour and bouncy, almost liquid-like movements adding to his bubbly and reactive personality.
There’s no doubt that personality is a critical part of characterisation, especially in games with a shallow plot.
Voice Acting is another massive factor in showing you exactly who, what and how a character would act like in different circumstances, from leisure time, to the midst of combat, to looking in the eyes of a lover or friend, to being shown their deepest, darkest fears – One game that shows how Voice Acting can fill a game with a bad plot full of charm, life, and energy would be…Can you guess it…?
Now I know what you’re thinking, “But Joe! Borderlands is amazing! How dare you defile the holy one’s name!!”; listen, I’m a huge fan of Borderlands, as well as Borderlands 2, but just cool off for a minute and think…
What actually happens in the main story of Borderlands 1?
You’re a Vault Hunter, who has to locate four Vault Key Pieces to open a Vault full of riches and treasures, looting said pieces off four targets:
Sledge – A Bandit Leader.
Krom – Another Bandit Leader.
A walking Rakk Hive
And then finally going to locate the last piece off of Baron Flynt, who is…You guessed it…Another Bandit Leader.
You do this, only to find out that the game’s ‘antagonist’ (I say this since Steele literally has minimal involvement in the story asides from playing “The Big Bad”), Commandant Steele, has instead stolen the key piece, with the help of Patricia Tannis, an archeologist that informed you of the pieces’ locations.
You go to the Vault, find Steele, where she is killed by a hulking behemoth known as The Destroyer, who inhabited the Vault, and was released upon opening it – You kill it And…And….Uh…That’s it. Roll on Borderlands 2.
However, think for a minute about your experiences with Borderlands 1. Think of all the characters and humour it set up for the second game; Claptrap, Scooter, Dr. Zed, Marcus, TK Baha, Crazy Earl…All of these characters and more acted as the life force, soul and blood of Borderlands, with their voice actors providing the exact forms of execution in their lines to get you slapping yourself across the knee from the humour. The next time you play Borderlands 1, try to remember a month after you completed it, if the story, or the characters spring into your mind first…
“Catch a RIIIIIIIIIIIIDE!!!!”
So overall, we believe that, when creating characters, if these three core values are followed, then a good character is sure to be born; obviously there are other factors in play too, such as backstory, evolution, relationships with other characters, how far they stray from cliche character tropes to name a few. With games where this is nonexistent or limited, it’s interesting to see how communities still hold these characters dear to their hearts. Looking at how these games with minimal plots attract communities, and gets them to care about characters and create stories for characters that many would find hard to care for (I.E. Overwatch’s Mercy, or TF2’s Scout) is immensely intriguing. How these characters ignite something within communities to create these tributes and fan works for characters that could’ve easily been forgotten, who’s achievements within their games are vastly surpassed by better developed, more human (Or alien) characters in other, more fleshed out games, is simply astonishing.
Given that though, one point a friend of mine made whilst talking about this topic stuck with me:
“Good games make good communities”.
This couldn’t be truer.