Apparently a pretty face is all you really need.
There are a few key elements that make any game memorable. While some garner attention due to their photorealism and others wow with their sheer size and scale, there is one x-factor that remains constant. It’s the characters. I don’t need to impress upon you the importance of brand loyalty and just how valuable a well-known mascot can be - Sonic, Mario, or Lara Croft for example. But just how important are these characters to a game’s success? In fact, are they the most important variable?
One developer suggests so. Tom Abernathy is narrative lead for League of Legends at Riot Games, and happens to know a thing or two about iconic characters. He previously worked on Halo: Reach; a franchise made popular by one of the most popular faces in game history - Master Chief. When speaking at this year’s Game Developers Conference, Abernathy stated that there is one ingredient in any game that will virtually make or break it - how engaging characters are to the public. While some would argue that a game with great play mechanics can be just as memorable, Abernathy points to extensive research that concludes it’s all about the lead. “Users don't remember plot; what they do remember is they remember characters. Focus on the things that they will retain, that are going to be most important to them in the long-run. Focus on character," he says.
While I admit I can’t compete with market research, what little insight I do have into the industry leads me to disagree with this assertion.
I can concede that a boring protagonist or a villain who’s written in a stereotypical, half-assed fashion makes me tune out and turn off fairly quickly. I can even agree that a game designer’s focus should never consider the world their creating to be of a higher priority than the characters that exist within it. However, here is where I cross the line into the realm of disagreement. I firmly believe it’s what a character does in the game that makes him or her interesting. It doesn’t steam from a cool design concept or sweet weapon. We’ve seen hundreds of characters over the years that look flashy on the box art of a PlayStation or Xbox game that’s never seen again. Why? Because they game was boring. To stick with the example of the Master Chief from earlier, I’ll bet most gamers can give you a pretty good synopsis of the plot from the previous Halo games right off the top of their heads. He’s not just a guy with cool looking green armor who runs around with an energy sword. The epic scale of his adventures (at least during the original trilogy) is what resonated with people.
You could say the same thing about classics like Super Mario or Link. Sure the characters are lovable, but I’m thinking that’s not really the reason they have enjoyed such longevity. I don’t know about you, but I fondly remember feeling like I was on a quest of a lifetime when exploring the underground paths of World 1-2 or the mysterious caves in A Link to the Past. It was the adventure, and more specifically the story telling aspect, that made me fall in love with these characters, not the other way around. Games like Grand Theft Auto V are known first and foremost for their expansive sandbox universe. However, without some kind of compelling narrative, GTA devolves into one gloried mini-game after another.
Fortunately, cinematic storytelling has become a staple of gaming today. While I’m all for simplicity (as non-story driven tiles like SimCity or Minecraft afford), I do love a good tale. With technology helping to push the medium forward, the industry continues to become more like interactive films every year. While some may not appreciate that fact, I love it. Feeling immersed can be a real rush.
So I say give both characters and plot equal billing, as one can’t really exist without the other. Do you feel the same way? Let me hear from you in the comments below!