Since one of our contributors is currently developing his own video game, we asked him to share some of his experiences from the game dev process. Maybe you’ll find it interesting, and maybe you might decide to try to make your own too. He’s been working on a visual novel, Gloom and Doom, do wishlist it on Steam.
Creating video game characters is hard. How many times have you stared blankly at your keyboard because you just can’t come up with a cool enough name? How many hours have you spent choosing hairstyles and shoes while creating a Sim?
Think too long and you might miss out getting that unique name in an MMO.
It’s even worse when you’re designing original characters for your own video game. It’s not quite as easy as rolling 3D6 for six specific attributes, because character stats don’t tell you what you need to know about a character when it comes to writing them.
I had the same issues while designing the 18+ characters in Gloom and Doom, but I got into a rhythm after a while and things got easier, faster, and felt better. After looking back at the process behind them, I noticed 3 recurring methods that I used. Try these 3 methods if you need help breaking your writer’s block.
#1. Base your character on someone you know
Any budding writer has heard the phrase “write what you know”. It might sound boring, especially if you were intending to make a sci-fi or fantasy game, but it can work once you accept that it doesn’t have to be a literal concept.
Imagine you have a friend named Chris who works in digital marketing and on weekends he plays golf with some sleazy golf buddies, and during the games they’ll swap icky stories about karaoke bars and hookers – which makes Chris feel really awkward because he’s a decent church-going guy.
If you’re going to base a character on Chris, you don’t have to make your character a digital marketing guy who plays golf. You can take the his essence, and switch the context to something else. Like a space marine who feels awkward around his teammates because all they ever want to do is purge aliens with flame.
In Gloom and Doom, the main character is Gloom, an ancient wraith who has been hunting demons for 500 years in order to earn his way into heaven. Gloom was created using this very specific method, but that doesn’t mean I have any friends who are undead.
Gloom was based on some of my close friends, back when we were in uni. One of them had quit uni, and was working in a crappy job that wasn’t doing anything for his career prospects. He’d go and study something, but that wouldn’t work out, then try his hand at something else that wouldn’t work out either.
This was mirrored in another friend who had a crush on this girl and was at her beck and call to drive her around in his car. Of course, she totally friend zoned him but he kept trying to get out of the friend zone.
The common thread between them was every day was the same, no matter what they tried to do. They were both stuck. So I took this essence, amplified it and made Gloom out of it. A being that was thousands of years old, trying to change but totally stuck in an unchanging routine.
The whole undead wraith concept is supernatural, but it was just a skin over a character concept that was grounded in reality. And you need this because no matter how weird or quirky your character, it has to be relatable so that your audience can connect to it on an emotional level.
Nobody knows what it’s like to be an undead demon hunter, but we’ve all been in a stage where we’ve felt stuck in life. By basing your character on your friends (or enemies) and borrowing some personality traits or behaviors here and there, you’re grounding the character in reality and your audience can pick up the signs and better accept your character.
#2. Base your character on something cool you came across
There’s a character called Nathaniel and he’s basically this blind skateboarding zen angel who uses his pet owl as his eyes. When I write it that way, even I feel like it’s the most weird and random collection of different elements.
As bizarre as he sounds, Nathaniel was deliberately put together using some concepts that I’ve come across. For starters, there’s Muga.
Muga is this samurai ideal, where your mind and body is one. Where you’re so in the zone that you can perform actions without thought, without regret. You just know what to do.
I first personally experienced Muga when I was playing NiGHTS Into Dreams, and then later Arkham Asylum, and I started chaining a huge combo in the first zone. It was this euphoric feeling, and instead of getting all tense and nervous, I found peace. My eyes relaxed as if I was staring at a Magic Eye pattern.
So I based Nathaniel’s character around this constant striving for Muga, but I then combined it with another element: skateboarding. Why? Because I saw my favorite skater Rodney Mullen deliver an amazing TED Talk about his love of innovating new tricks. I thought it was awesome, and I love how you can tell Rodney Mullen is just so comfortable skating and making tricks without needing to prove anything to anyone other than himself.
So I combined the two concepts for this zen solitary angel, and started sketching him. That’s when another element popped up.
From the very first sketch, I thought it’d be cool to have him wear a skate hoodie, and have it cover his whole face. I just liked the look. Then because of that look, I figured it’d be sick to make him blind. But how would a blind person skate? That’s when I decided to give him a psychic pet owl to act as his eyes.
We all read or hear cool things all the time. Entire movies and stories have been based around a single cool idea, so it makes sense that you can do the same for a character.
Whether it’s something you hear in a cool podcast, a compelling article in between the pictorials of an old porno mag, or even a particular chapter of a school textbook, take those ideas and and collate them somewhere. Then see what cool ideas can be joined together, and from that essence make a character that rocks your world.
#3. Base your character on what your story needs
For most of my characters, I had something strong in mind before I started writing. All of them had at least a few paragraphs or pages of notes about their needs, fears, defining traits.
All except Lorael. The only note I had for Lorael when I started writing the script was that she’s the angel of Justice, and she was embarrassed of her name because it sounded like a shampoo brand.
But I know what I needed her to do. I didn’t know who she was, but I knew what her character had to do for the story so I worked backwards from there.
In my story, she has to represent the angels that resented Gloom and didn’t like the idea of working with him. So from that, I started writing that she is the new angel of justice, and Gloom was her successful predecessor. That gives her a reason to resent him immediately, because I dunno, if you’ve ever been in that kind of position before but I once had this boss who kept comparing me to my predecessor, like a ghost car that’s always just ahead of you in a racing game.
I knew Lorael also had to inspire another character named Wynona to take charge of her life and strive for progress. From there, I gave Lorael a backstory where she started out as a lower-classed angel and had to really fight to prove herself as a worthy angel of justice.
Between the resentment and the fight to overcome odds and bias, her character came to life as a strong-willed, little bit cocky and reckless upstart.
And as Nathaniel was already so dour and zen, I gave Lorael a playful demeanor to juxtapose the two angels.
This is a philosophy that I learned from Aaron Sorkin’s Screenwriting Masterclass. Sorkin doesn’t believe that characters need any backstory until the story directly calls for it. So if you know exactly what this character needs to contribute to move the story along, reverse engineer your character and design it to be perfect for what it represents.
So that’s it! 3 different tools that you can use to create your next character. I hope you found it useful. If you have your own super tip for character creation, please let me know in the comments below!
Interested in more updates about Gloom and Doom? Visit the Neo Tegoel Games game dev blog.
Want to wish list Gloom and Doom? Find it on Steam here.
Drew used to be a professional videogame reviewer, then he took an adulthood arrow to the knee. Now he is a content strategist, helping brands tell their stories without resorting to overused videogame memes.