OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers

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Adding infinite depth to mediocre game characters

XCOM characters

Boring game characters? Write your own backstory

I replayed XCOM: Enemy Unknown recently, where you recruit lifeless characters and equip them to fight aliens in a pseudo-realistic game of chess. In the game, characters are nothing more than lifeless puppets that you dress up in armour, then toss a dangerous weapon in their arms, and send them out into the battlefield. I like to add more to it than that, and I imagine these to be real people, with real hopes, dreams, histories and families. When one of them dies, say my character Otto Nagasaki, who was shot in the back by a hiding Muton, the game just marks his status to “dead” but to me it’s more than that, I’ll howl in pity and sob as I think of his grieving family. How is his wife going to cope without him? How can she now take care of her two children AND her father with degenerative Alzheimers? Damn you Otto for not being more careful at work!

Otto the character in XCOM

Be careful Otto! Think of your family!

But the drama is negated as soon as you realise you can just reload from a previous save point and everything’s fine again. Otto will now survive, and go home to his family at the end of the day. It takes all the drama out of it, but at least I can continue Otto’s life story in my head. Maybe he’ll take the weekend off, safe from the threat of alien invaders. Maybe go to the park, or take his kids to the cinema. But he’ll be called back to work suddenly and dramatically when another UFO is spotted in the sky.

If you don’t play XCOM like this, and imagine real life stories for each of your characters, it’s pretty boring. I like getting emotionally invested.

Persistent peril

Another game where you get emotionally invested is Heavy Rain (which is a few years old now, but I’ve been replaying recently), where characters can die at multiple points in the game, but the game continues without them, directing you towards one of the many different endings. I liked this, I really liked it. It was like I was building my own story, my own movie where I was completely in control of the characters.

Heavy rain - options "Kiss" or "don't kiss"The only problem is the characters weren’t mine. It felt like I had control, but I didn’t I was following pre-determined paths thought up by the game’s developers. Hey, it’s fine, I feel like I’ve got a lot of choice. But I still feel like I’m on rails, with only a few junctions to change direction before the end of the road.

That’s why I love play-by-post games so much, which are my all time favourite of games. Sure, there’s no visual elements, but you’ve got complete control of characters, events, and the entire world. That’s pretty rare in the world of gaming.

  • Andy Locke

    there’s probably a PhD thesis waiting to be written about the amount of psychological investment long term gamers make in their characters

    so when is Seymour coming back? ;-P

    • I miss Seymour.
      Every time I open a bottle of red I wonder if it’d be up to his standards 🙂

      • Andy Locke

        you can afford the sort of wines Seymour would like!?

        maybe it’s time for his pomposity to make a welcome return?

  • Daenelia

    For single player games i never bother filling out a backstory. It’s just for me, it does not matter.

    For multiplayer games I enter with my gaming partner, the backstory and personality grows organically.

    Even in board games I tend to roleplay and add depth to whatever character I am playing, even if it is just a faceless pawn! I guess I just need an audience to bring out my storytelling genie.

  • Mrxanadu

    I’ve done this for years, it’s just a fun way to spice up games that usually don’t have that much depth.

    I remember making up personalities for my entire crew in Silent Hunter IV, even the ones that I never saw (being locked away in the bowels of my sub and all). When I lost a handful of men after being rammed by a Japanese minelayer, it SUUUCKED. Those virtual men had virtual families! Virtual grandchildren that were supposed to hear their tales of valor during WWII….but nope, some stupid minelayer took them out. Their replacements had a lot to live up to….I remember never once promoting them or commending them.

    Getting that invested into a game adds more replay value and a whole new angle to the already existing gameplay.