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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Game Design: Internal Vs. External Characters Part 2

Yesterday, we dissected the difference between internal and external characters, and why it's a big deal to make the distinction. Today, we're going to be seeing some examples of characters done the right way and the wrong way.

The most successful internal character is Mario. One of the reasons for his continued success is because he says very little. When we play Super Mario 64, he only says things like, "Its-a me, Mario!" and "Hello!" They tried giving him more dialogue in games like Super Mario Advance 4 by having him say things like "Just what I needed!" It was an immersion killer. It sold a lot, but you'll notice they've stopped doing it. They've even cut down on the voice samples in games like Super Mario 64 DS and Super Mario Galaxy.

Mario also has very little continuity from one game to another. There's no reason to care if Super Mario Land is canon in the Mario universe, or if Super Mario Galaxy came before or after Super Mario World in a fictional timeline. It doesn't matter. Mario is merely a construct and not necessarily a fully fleshed out person with his own motivations, and it works for that specific character.

Here's another example: Sitting through mountains of exposition is okay when we're playing Final Fantasy VII. We care about Cloud's backstory and his motivations, so we want to know what makes him tick. However, what makes Gordon Freeman tick? What kind of life did he live before Black Mesa? Who cares? He shoots aliens now, and that's the important thing.

You could make the claim that Gordon Freeman isn't an internal character, as everyone calls him "Gordon," and you're playing his story. In response to that, I ask you, when Alyx smiles at Gordon, how do you react? Do you react by saying, "I think she likes Gordon?" Or do you think "She likes me?" Similarly, Alyx can take punishment from enemies rather well. Playing through Half-Life 2 Episode 1, I was still protecting her even though I knew I could use her as a meat shield. Why? Because I myself was emotionally invested in her survival. I had internalized the Gordon Freeman character so that he became me.

Other game developers will gently play with this "internal/external" dilemma. Bioware did this with Jade Empire. When you play as an internal character, you expect that your character is "the one," the main hero who is head and shoulders above everyone else, and for most of Jade Empire they play that up. I won't spoil the game, but those who have played Jade Empire know that it subverts the very nature of an internal character.

Circling back to Sonic the Hedgehog: Sonic started out as an internal character. We weren't just playing as Sonic, we were Sonic. He was an extension of ourselves, and the controls reflected this. Over time, Sega tried shifting him to being an external character without warning and we still see him as an internal character. Therefore, the same things we'll accept while playing as an external character, like endless dialogue and strange controls, become unacceptable when playing a new Sonic game. Therefore, they'll delve into weird diversions like a human/hedgehog romance, and they have no qualms about giving him motivations, hopes and dreams. They tie the games together with needless plot threads, making the transition from internal to external even more jarring.

It's not a bad idea to switch some characters from internal to external. Some characters, like Link or Samus, were originally internal only because it was never really thought of to use external character in action games at that time.

However, Link started out internal and is slowly moving external. When A Link To The Past came out, it wasn't important which game came first in the Zelda canon. Once they started adding more story in Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, it became more important. It's cursory, but there's a mythology that never existed before and adds depth to the game. We still view Link as internal, but there's no doubt that he's moving to the external side of things.

Similarly, Samus was viewed as internal throughout the entire first Metroid. Then, during the ending, they rip the lid off and reveal that Samus is a woman, thereby opening up tantalizing possibilites for melding internal and external characters together. Metroid games still play as if Samus is an internal character, but Metroid Fusion took a huge step in trying to externalize her by giving her a former commanding officer and more backstory. Now that Retro Studios is done with the Prime series, it's very exciting to see which direction they'll go with the Samus character.

That's a lot to cover, but I hope that my point has been made clear: When designing a game, it's important to decide whether or not your character is an extension of the gamer or separate from them and design accordingly. Otherwise, you can end up making more Sonic games, and who really wants that?