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Sidekick Characters

Andy Collins Posted:
Developer Journals 0

In which Ian and Andy introduce you to your Warden’s new best friends.

ANDY: Hello again! Ian and I are back from our holiday break and facing the many deadlines that seem never to respect concepts like “time off” or “I’m still in a food coma.”

IAN: My son, 13 months old and still too young to understand why this is happening, is cutting his molars, and that means sleep is but a pleasant memory.

I am very literally dying.

Hey kid, there's no crying in Moonrise!

ANDY: This week we’re discussing how to give a voice to the character you play in Moonrise.

IAN: We knew we wanted to let players insert themselves (or a character of their creation) into the world of Moonrise. We also knew we wanted to create a game with memorable personalities. The kind of characters players want to see more of, where people check in to see what they’ll say next. So we want you to create your own character, but we want personality and depth. Uh-oh.

ANDY: This isn’t a problem unique to our game. Any game that allows your character to interact with non-player characters in the world must address the issue.

Some games handle this by having you play a specific person. Ratchet, Link, Duke Nukem, Max Payne, Guybrush Threepwood... these are particular individuals with their own personalities. The benefit is that the player gets to “say” things with a style that befits the personality of the character that the game’s writer has crafted. The drawback is that this character isn’t really yours — you’re playing a character somebody else created, and if you don’t agree with the way that character acts, the only real choice you have is to walk away from the keyboard or the controller.

Not much personality, but at least you know his motivation.

IAN: Well, that or we write many hundreds of extra lines of lead character dialog, trying (and inevitably failing) to capture the various responses players might want to use in a given situation, and then all the extra response dialog, and then we rework quest logic to deal with the fact that some people are going to argue with or alienate themselves from certain NPCs and will need another source of quests and… well, it quickly becomes a task for a design team an order of magnitude or two larger than ours.

ANDY: Other games duck the question entirely by rendering your avatar speechless, such as in Portal, Doom, or World of Warcraft. Your character displays no individualized outward signs of personality (other than what you might type in a chat window), so the game designers don’t have to take into account any personality aspects of the avatar you’re playing. You can project any personality you imagine on your avatar, which is nice...but your preferences don’t actually manifest as an actual in-game personality, since your character doesn’t say anything.

IAN: So option A wasn’t what we wanted, option B wasn’t what we wanted and was also impossible, and option C wasn’t what we wanted. At this point, I proposed option D. What if we wrote fun, flavorful dialog spoken by fully realized characters, but instead of them being you, they’re the people you’re hanging out with? Instead of making the player speak, we give the player sidekicks.

ANDY: When Ian proposed this approach, I was intrigued by the possibilities it allowed us in writing mission dialogue. We didn’t have to fall back on the generic, flavorless approach used by too many games to count. Even though we couldn’t really know much about YOUR character, we could know PLENTY about your sidekicks.

IAN: Kumail, for example, thinks mangoes are too sweet, but likes them in savory foods. Lois has an older brother, but they’ve never really been close.

Anybody else suddenly feel hungry for a mango empanada?

ANDY: But how do you craft a good sidekick? In the case of Moonrise, our sidekicks needed to meet a few goals.

First, Don’t Be the Hero. The player’s character is the hero of the game. Sidekicks can’t ever become more important to the success of any mission than your Warden.

IAN: Being a Warden is rare, and people in our world are used to the reality that they should let a Warden take care of any dangerous situations. By specifically building characters who want to travel, learn, and experience these risky situations, but who are comfortable with the reality that they aren’t personally equipped to resolve conflicts, we get a group that you’re not necessarily saving all the time, but where you’re definitely the muscle.

ANDY: Second, we want our sidekicks to Encourage Action. It can be very tempting to write dialogue for a sidekick that expresses fear or concern, because the player’s Warden can come off as brave by contrast.

IAN: But having a sidekick say, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this” is problematic, because it makes the sidekick feel like a downer. We don’t want one of the fun, exciting pals to be someone who’s constantly trying to talk you out of playing the game! It also suggests that maybe you can say no. And you can’t. This isn’t that kind of game, remember?

Not our ideal sidekick.

ANDY: Third on our list of sidekick goals is the need to Feel Useful. If the sidekick is nothing but a non-saving-the-day cheerleader who encourages your Warden to explore dangerous new regions, that’s pretty dull. We want your Warden (and by extension, you the player) to understand why you bring these sidekick characters along on your adventures.

IAN: Which brings us to Kumail and Lois. Their backgrounds let each of them act as a font of specific, largely non-overlapping information. Even better, both of them are intelligent, passionate, curious people, which means they’re consistently able to move story forward and provide inciting events because they want to find something out. Nothing is more valuable to an interesting story than a character who wants something.

ANDY: Last but not least, we want our sidekicks to Supply Character. After all, that’s why we included these characters in the game! Every sidekick must have their own unique personality. How do they talk? What do they like or dislike? How do they deal with authority figures, or frustrating moments, or new experiences? Why are they willing to put themselves into harm’s way by hanging out with you?

IAN: Kumail is an old friend of the player’s Warden, but you haven’t really spent time with him since you left for the academy at age 12. Kumail hasn’t been slacking in the mean time, and is currently a grad student in an intentionally vague field that seems to mix zoology, anthropology, archeology and at least some physics and chemistry. This might be part of why he’s not in a rush to graduate and enter a somewhat crowded job market.

Kumail: That guy you know who just never left college.

ANDY: Kumail’s pretty useful in letting us sneak some tutorial-style information into the game even when your actual teachers aren’t around.

IAN: Our second sidekick is Lois, who joins your Warden during Chapter 2.

ANDY At first she’s just interested in the great stories that your adventures can provide for her readers. Soon enough, however, she’s drawn into the amazing world of Lunari, Solari, and Wardens, and to investigating certain mysteries that you uncover.

Lois: She can most definitely handle the truth.

 “Lois” was actually a placeholder name for this character for a long time, because we thought it might be a bit too on-the-nose regarding her inspiration. But as placeholder names often do, this one stuck despite my half-hearted attempts to come up with an alternative.

IAN: You’ll also have other folks tag along here and there. Generally it’s just for a quest or two, but in a few cases we have extended periods with an extra sidekick around. We do this for variety, but also because there are a few cases where Kumail and Lois’s specialized knowledge don’t quite cover the situation, and having someone specific around to say “oh, I am familiar with that, and will explain it to everyone now” is really helpful. It’s also a great change to develop our main cast, since they suddenly have a someone totally new to respond to.

ANDY: You tend to learn the most about any character by observing how they interact with other people, so watching familiar folks meet new people is lots of fun.

IAN: By deciding the player’s character would be the classic Silent Protagonist from Chrono Trigger, Half-Life, and Tetris, we risked making a world full of neat characters and stories but without any regular cast to anchor the player. Instead, we created Lois and Kumail, a team that can explain the world around you, bring outside information in, and get excited about the events taking place and push you to pursue them, all while giving players memorable, stable personalities to grow attached to. Early feedback has been really positive for these two. I’m looking forward to all of you getting to meet them.

ANDY: It’s certainly been a lot of fun writing for these characters... more fun than I expect it would’ve been writing dialogue for a single player avatar with only one point of view.

IAN: We’re definitely trying to have our cake and eat it too on this one, but I think it’s worked out really well, and ultimately we all get to simultaneously have and eat cake, which is literally the highest possible accomplishment to which a human being can aspire. That, or I don’t understand that idiom at all.

Drax also has trouble with idioms.

ANDY: See you next week, when we’ll talk about the art of long-form storytelling and how most computer games are more like TV shows than like movies. Bye!


Andy Collins