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Writers: Creating Characters for Games

Aaron Roxby Posted:
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AGC Writer's Conference: Creating Characters for Games

BioWare's single player experts talk about how they create characters for games

Editor's Note: Although not quite an MMO related panel, the comments of BioWare writers on their single player games could reflect interestingly on the company as a whole and thus we thought this workshop had some value to you.

If Bioware is known for one thing, it is the deep, complex characters and dialogue that populate their virtual worlds. At the Austin Game Conference on Wednesday, Jade Empire Designer Mac Walters and Lead Writer Mike Laidlaw discussed the Bioware philosophy of character creation and how it is being implemented in their anticipated new game, Mass Effect.

Bioware’s RPGs have always dealt with incredible amounts of dialogue. As anyone who played Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic or Neverwinter Nights can attest, that translated to lots and lots of on-screen text. With Mass Effect, the writers and designers have new, very powerful tools for bringing their virtual actors to life. While this allows them unprecedented power for creating realistic, emotive characters, a whole new set of difficulties have presented themselves.

In the past, the lion’s share of character development and emotion had to be expressed through exposition. On-screen characters lacked the ability to visually emote. Mass Effect grants these characters a full range of lip synch and animation. As a result, writers are having to look at things in a new light. Mass Effect’s writers are finding themselves writing less, trading exposition for description of action, becoming in essence, the directors. Past games would rely on dialogue alone to convey an emotion like anger, where as now that same character can simply furrow his, her or its brow. Because of this, writers now need to plan for every little instance of a scene. This makes the ability to share every detail with the designers, via careful documentation, essential. Or, “If you fail to plan… You plan on having your fingers broken by artists”.

To insure this, Bioware’s writers continue to rely on an in-depth Bible for each character, detailing as many aspects of their personality as possible. Each node of the script must contain careful comments for each department, from cinemas, to scripting to animation. Inter-departmental relationships have become more important than ever, as each little detail must come together to create a complete character moment. While digital characters are capable of great things, they are still just puppets, only as good as the human performers and designers bringing them to life.

This added complexity leads to new issues. The more choices that you give a player the more expensive the game becomes. Choices also add to the complexity of the script, as each possible response and character direction add more factors that must be considered at each step of writing and design. In addition, the more choice that you give a player, the less control the writer ultimately has in the story that they are telling. Bioware however is in the business of making games, not movies. Choice is essential, as video games in general and especially RPGs are played to be immersed in the character, to feel that you are really in control of your own destiny.

To this end, great emphasis is put on “Defining the Band”, or the possibility space of your story. For example, one may decide that hedges are impenetrable barriers within the player’s spectrum. This works, unless you include a single bush that the character can move through. Character “voice” is an essential part of the Band, starting with the Player Character. Games like Knights of the old Republic are know for letting characters exist on opposite sides. The player can be a noble Jedi Knight, an Evil Sith Lord or anything in between. This is accomplished by both large in game decisions and smaller, subtler dialogue choices. Dialogue choices should also be clear. A player should know what direction he or she is taking his character in, based on the choices he or she is making.

Mass Effect will contain an entirely revamped conversation system. In past Bioware games, the player would scroll through a list of possible responses, seeing the exact text that the character has to choose from. Walters and Laidlaw gave a brief demonstration of how Mass Effect has altered this system. In the demo, the game’s main character, Colonel Shepard, is shown speaking with a pointy-headed alien bartender. The bartender tells Shepard that a bribe will not change his mind. Now, instead of the usual list of dialogue choices, a six point radial dial appears on the bottom of the screen. A brief paraphrase of what Shepard will say appears by each point. To select an option, the player simply moves the analog stick in the direction of the desired response. By picking “Threats might”, Shepard drew a blaster pistol and threatened the alien. These paraphrased responses will always be on the same point on the analog stick and the options appear even before the NPC has finished speaking. The hope is that after a little bit of play time, the player will be able to carry on a conversation naturally and without needing to pause and read descriptions. In addition, because the player is not pre-reading every response, dialogue will be new and fresh each time that a player replays the game.

Following the demonstration was a brief Q&A with the audience. While most of the information shared during the Q&A was simply reiteration of earlier points, it was mentioned that Colonel Shepard will not be the only playable character. While he is a pre-made character, in the vein of Jade Empire, the player will be able to make a completely customized character, changing everything from facial features, to skin color to the sex of the character.

Bioware is one of the industries leaders when it comes to character creation, dialogue and storytelling in games. So far, Mass Effect is looking like a more than worthy addition to their stellar lineage of role playing games.

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Aaron Roxby