Video Game Controls as Characterisation

In this article I argue that character design in video games starts already with the design of game controls, since game controls are the means for both action and expression of intention.

More than a Character

The mutuality between game controls, game mechanics and game characters has rarely ever been examined. The standart in most game design documents is to tackle these aspects of game development under seperate chapters, the creation of the character being the job of the writer and later on modeller, the design of game mechanics and the specification of game controls being the job of the designer and later on programmer. My thought is that designing basic game mechanism and their controls, is already the first step in building the player-character. I believe that for better character design and dramatically more compelling gameplay, the writer and designer have to work together and actually design the “player”, which is a mix of contols, mechanisms and character.

The Strenght and Ability of a Character

In drama, one of the guidelines about creating character is that they should be donated with the strenghts and abilities to carry out the role that the nature of the conflict demands from them. For example if a character is a “weakling”, he should put his weakness forward in a strong and convincing way, so that his weakness feels real. In terms of game design, then, the creation of “strong and convincing” characters already starts with the design of game controls, because these are the tools the player will use to carry out the actions which he will overcome the challenge with. Poor key assignment for instance, would take away from the powers of the character, because it would hamper her ability to “realize” herself.

A choice and the action that follows from it, is one of the basic methods to give the characters dimensionality. Often we judge characters and identify with their roles in regard to what they have chosen to do or what they will be able to do. The same, it could be argued, goes for games. We understand the character as he acts and thereby reveals his intentions, his goals and his personality. This is also a point where ecology, physics and AI become important, because they will have an impact on the options that a character can interact in order to “realize” herself. As a player-character, can I destruct? Swim? Jump? Drive? Dive? Deceit? Convert? Converse? What is there in the world that I can interact with and how does it behave and respond to my decisions and actions? How does it affect the ways in which I can realize myself and reach my goals? How does it relate and build up my image as a character? Without even the need for backstory and other characterization, just through the use of controls we have already a foundation for strong and convincing character, because control enable to act and decide. These build character.

The Character and the Challenge

Most important is the nature of the challenge as it relates to the control of the character and the execution of actions/decisions. If choice and action relates to the challenge and can be carried out the challenge demands it, then the character feel much more able, and hence identifyable. For example in the Mario series you don’t have billions of choices, but the few ones you have, really count; also the required skill-set is limited, but it is fully functional in regard to the challenge. The key assignments are neat and simple. In short, Mario has all the strenghts and abilities to carry out his role, is easy to control and hence feels like a character.

There are many games in which the characters are great although we don’t know anything about their backstories and all the other things that we would ask for in characters. Alone the available actions and the decision that these acrions reflect, are already character. For example in a game like Soul Calibur, we don’t know the backstories of fighters very well, but the variety of actions that they can carry out and the decisions that we can make in the given context, is enough to make them feel convincing and three-dimensional. With their plain functionality they perfectly serve the challenge that the player faces: to win a fight. The visual appearance and associated sounds of these fighters add enough chrome to round up their unique feel and makes it fun to be in their shoes.

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One Response

  1. […] found an article by Altug Isigan that posits that video game controls define the character because they ‘are the means for […]

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