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Monday, March 23, 2009

Game Design: Internal Vs. External Characters Part 1

This train of thought all started with Sonic the Hedgehog.

Fewer characters have inspired so much devotion and so much hatred as Sonic the Hedgehog. In the 90's and early 00's, Sonic was the epitome of cool. Sega did what Nintendidn't, and Sonic was a demonstration of that. He ran faster, his games were cool, and Sonic himself was ubiquitous, appearing in several cartoon series. He very nearly could have eclipsed Mario in popularity.

But then something happened. Sonic went from the top of the heap to digging in the trash bin faster than Amy Winehouse. They still make Sonic games, and every time a new game comes out there's a little bit of hype, but when the games get released they usually land with a sickening wet thud. Inevitably, Sonic's fans defend the game to the death, while most everyone else looks at these deluded souls with derision and pity.

How did this happen? Many have focused on laggy controls or the change to three dimensions as being the cause. Others speculate that all the extra characters haven't really helped matters either. I thought it was because "Dr. Eggman" is a stupid name, and he should always and forevermore be known as "Dr. Robotnik."

Another answer came to me, though, and it's an answer that reverberates not only through the Sonic series, but all of gaming. It explains why we are willing to put up with these issues in some games, but they can be completely unacceptable in other games, and it has to do with the way we perceive characters.

Most characters can be split into two groups, internal characters and external characters. When you play as an internal character, that character becomes an extension of self, meaning that you have internalized that character's story so that it becomes your own. When you play as an external character, you are playing THAT character's story and not your own. Examples of internal characters are Mario, Gordon Freeman, old-school Sonic, and the protagonist from Grand Theft Auto 3. External characters would be characters like Solid Snake, Cloud Strife, new-school Sonic, and GTA4's Niko Bellic.

Why is it important to make a distinction between internal and external characters? For the simple fact that it affects everything about the game. I do mean everything, from the controls to the story to the environment itself.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each character type. When you use an internal character, you are able to provide deeper immersion with less exposition. The character becomes whatever the player wants that character to be. The developer provides the blank canvas upon which the player projects themselves, making them more emotionally attached to the character. Instead of being a nebulous "they," the character has now become an "I." I beat Bowser. I passed that level. I distracted that creature with a grenade.

You also have to do less explaining with an internal character. The player assumes some things about an internal character. They assume that the internal character is "the chosen one" upon which the gameworld hinges, so you don't usually have to lay out pages of backstory.

The downside is that you have less storytelling capability. Nowhere is this more apparent that in the Half-Life. We all agree that the story is great, but there are so many gaps in the story because Gordon only knows what he is told. How do you fill those gaps without stepping out of character? It's something that Valve is grappling with, because when you try and cram more story in, it can very easily break immersion.

Another downside can be attributed to developer laziness. The same problem crops up with amateur fiction writers: They don't want to describe a character, so instead they assume that the audience will describe them. They don't want to say that a character has brown hair and blue eyes, so they hope the audience puts that in for them. Similarly, a lazy developer might view an internal character as a crutch to reduce their workload, so that they don't have to explain much about the character.

External characters have their own strengths and weaknesses as well. An external character can have a more involved backstory in most cases, since you're not telling the story from only one point of view. A great example of this is Final Fantasy VII, which tells not only Cloud's story but also Barrett's, Red XIII's, Aeris' and Sephiroth's stories, among others. It makes all of the characters a little richer and involves you more in the gameworld.

You also don't have to worry about control as much. Control is still a big deal, but gamers are willing to accept compromises for more in-depth storytelling. Since we use the character as a tool and not as an extension of ourselves, we're willing to give up a little control. For instance, if Mario couldn't shoot fireballs while walking, it would be a travesty. It's a tiny distinction, but it would affect the gameplay greatly and there would be nerd riots everywhere, including this site. However, we'll accept that Solid Snake and Chris Redfield can't reload while walking. It annoys us, but it's not a gamebreaker since the character is a tool instead of an extension.

There are some negatives to external characters, though. There is much less immersion in an external character, because you don't become the character, you use the character. The developers have to resort to other means to get your attention, like the Sanity meter in Eternal Darkness. Therefore, as a developer, you have to work harder to get the character attached to the game emotionally.

You also must provide a balance between gameplay and exposition with external characters. If we're following someone else's story, we need enough information about the character to provide us with motivation during the gameplay but not too much so that we feel overwhelmed by exposition. This is a trap among many amateur filmmakers: They feel that the way to achieve immersion is through backstory and an opening crawl. The reason why things like an opening crawl work in something like, say, Star Wars is because it's brief and there's action immediately afterwards. The story only gets filled in with more details once we're attached to the characters. Many developers (hello, Hideo Kojima) can't manage that balance and instead provide far too much information about the character and the world, breaking immersion.

So, what are some real-world examples of these types of characters in action, and what lessons can we learn? Check back tomorrow.