Character Development in Gaming & Writing

Last week, we looked at how video games develop character backstory, vary worldbuilding and balance action and reaction scenes.

That blog post received more views in two days than any of my other posts so far. (Thank you so much to anyone who read and/or shared!) As a result, I couldn’t help but expand the topic into a series about gaming, writing, and where the two intersect.

So today we’ll ask, what can video games teach us about the importance of strong characters?

Character Matters

Not all video games have a story. Even franchises that began with linear stories, such as the best-selling Call Of Duty (COD) franchise, have frequently shifted their focus to multiplayer (i.e. Black Ops 4).

When a game doesn’t have a story, the player’s focus is firmly on the gameplay, so the lack of plot altogether will likely go unnoticed. None of the soldiers on a COD multiplayer map have names, histories, or reasons for being at war; they’re ciphers for players to shoot at each other. That’s perfectly fine when the entire game can be encapsulated in action sequences.

But when a video game does have named characters—each with personality and reason for their actions—it becomes glaringly obvious when those characters are weaker than the gameplay.

Take, for example, the recent release of Jedi: Fallen Order. Currently, I’m slightly more than halfway through Fallen Order, so my opinion may change at some point. At the moment, I thrill with every swing of a lightsaber, deflection of a blaster bolt, and leap to lightspeed, but I’m also dogged by the sense that the protagonist and player character—Cal Kestis—is thinner than my television screen.

Cal is a Padawan in hiding after the prequel films’ Jedi Purge. His master died in the purge, as did the overwhelming majority of other Jedi, and Cal works as an ordinary scrapper to blend in and stay alive. That is, until he’s located by the newly formed Empire’s enforcers.

After a duel with the Second Sister, a warrior fueled by the Dark Side of the Force, Cal is narrowly rescued by another Jedi survivor. She’s seeking to rebuild the Jedi Order… and needs Cal’s help to do it.

On paper, that’s a rich premise with lots of room for character development.

Unfortunately, in my personal opinion, Cal could be replaced with a sentient, Force-sensitive roll of white bread with minimal impact on the story or my investment in the gameplay.

Other than his interactions with the charming droid, BD-1 (who has more personality than the rest of the heroes combined,) Cal’s character arc is completely flat. We only see his fallen master in static, dull flashbacks of Jedi training that are poorly disguised tutorials. Cal relearns his lost Force powers by just conveniently remembering how they work, not by confronting any of his presumed emotional and psychological baggage from surviving the Jedi Purge.

Does Cal feel guilty for escaping the purge when so many others didn’t? Does he blame himself for his master’s death, or does he feel betrayed by his master’s absence? He screams in his sleep, but what does he dream about?

Did he have any friends, rivals, or otherwise in the Jedi Order that he hopes are still alive? Where did he grow up? Why didn’t he go back there? How did he end up on the planet where the story begins? How did he escape the purge at all?

We don’t know.

Cal’s Jedi powers are invigorating, but his character is (so far) one-note. And in a universe like Star Wars—which is populated with iconic protagonists like the unwavering Princess Leia, the reluctantly heroic Han Solo, and the stubbornly determined Luke—it’s a tragedy that Cal’s character is only interesting as a vessel for the player.

Contrast this with early 2000s Star Wars RPG, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR).

KOTOR’s gameplay and technical presentation hasn’t always aged well. Character facial expressions are often wooden and awkward. Combat can become repetitive once your crew is powerful enough. Walking underwater on Manaan feels like when you’re trying to run in a dream but can barely lift your feet. There are plenty of weird, occasionally game-breaking glitches.

Despite the technical limitations of the early 2000s, despite the fact that my non-optimized laptop struggles to run the game at all, KOTOR is (in my opinion) the best Star Wars game ever made, even in the year of Jedi: Fallen Order.

That’s because KOTOR’s characters are rich, dynamic, believable people with fascinating stories and emotional arcs.

HK-47, an assassin droid, is transfixed by violence as a result of his programming, but he’s also a believably good character if lead on the right path. Canderous, a Mandalorian, is gruff and brutal not because the gameplay demands it, but because of his unique cultural background. Bastila is a troubled Jedi because of a layered, broken relationship with her mother, who surrendered her to the Jedi Order as a child. Mission, a Twi’lek teen, helps the player because she’s trying to rescue her Wookiee friend, Zaalbar—and Zaalbar helps the player as thanks for being rescued.

On the outside chance that you haven’t played KOTOR, I won’t go into the player character’s story because it contains numerous spoilers. It suffices to say that the player character of KOTOR is singlehandedly more memorable than the entirety of Fallen Order’s cast so far, inspiring novels, comics, fan creations, cosplay, and more.

In summary, KOTOR’s characters feel like people who had lives before the game began, who are affected by their relationships with one another, and who believably rise to the occasion (or fall into darkness) as the plot progresses.

Jedi: Fallen Order is not a bad game. I would argue that it’s the best single-player Star Wars experience on modern software, and it’s certainly proved to be a persistent distraction from my writing since its release. When compared to KOTOR, though, the story’s impact pales.

Every buzz of a lightsaber’s ignition in Fallen Order goes straight through my spine. I can feel the shudder of power when I use a Force Push or Force Pull. Its planets are diverse and beautifully rendered, often causing me to stop adventuring and simply gape at the alien horizon.

But I don’t know Cal Kestis. Not really. When I shut off the game, I think about how cool it would be if I could move object with my mind. I don’t wonder what will happen to Cal, or what happened to him before. (If you like Cal, you’re of course entitled to your opinion!)

Regardless of your chosen genre, your writing will stand or fall on the strength of its characters.

Much like outdated gameplay, your readers are far more likely to forgive problems with pacing or language than they are to forgive disinterest in your cast. When outlining your story—or, if you’re bolder than I am, leaping directly into a rough draft—consider the lesson of Fallen Order.

Lightsabers are all well and good. But if you make me care about the person wielding them, I’ll follow your writing across the galaxy.

Author’s Note: I spent an alarming amount of time this weekend progressing in Fallen Order. Eventually, at around the 80% mark, we do find out what Cal saw during Order 66, but only via an extended flashback. I would argue that it’s still too little, too late. But I’m still having a lot of fun.

Updates

  • The current giveaway is THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON by Katherine Locke! Follow me on Twitter and retweet my pinned before 11/29 for the chance to win a SIGNED paperback that uniquely blends magical realism, historical fiction, and characters that really, really need a hug.
  • My website now hosts a Buzzfeed-style, 10-question personality quiz. If you want to know what type of dualisia (human/creature hybrids) from THE DRAGONSPAWN SAGA you would be, now you can!
  • I’ve thankfully found some beta readers for THE FIRE BREATHES, but I’m still actively seeking more. If you’re experienced with YA fantasy and comfortable providing general, constructive criticism, please reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or the comments of this post. The prologue is available now if you think you might be interested.
  • As always, thank you for reading!