Wednesday, December 9, 2009

EXP Podcast #55: The Making of a Memorable Character

What makes Mario such a memorable character? Is it that sweet mustache? Those flattering overalls? Could it be his trademark 'woohoo'? Or is his appeal coincidental? How would Faith from Mirror's Edge measure up?

These topics are on our minds thanks to a fascinating article by Andrew Vanden Bossche discussing game design and its influence on memorable characters. This week on the EXP Podcast, join Scott and I while we discuss ass kicking, those gendered voices in your ear, first-person hugs, and the art of impressive character design. Your comments are encouraged and appreciated.

Some discussion starters:

- What makes a memorable character for you? What do non-memorable characters in excellent games lack?
- How much does nostalgia and good game mechanics effect how memorable a character is?
- Are player-generated characters more memorable than developer creates ones?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
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Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 34 sec
- "Memorable Game Characters, Mirror's Edge and Picture Books" by Andrew Vanden Bossche, via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. What a great topic to think about for hours. Good podcast guys.

    There are a few games that I find interesting in regards to your question.

    1) Shadow of the Colossus: I feel like Wander is not a very memorable character who engages in amazingly memorable events through gameplay and the interaction with the unforgettable Colossi. As a result he becomes memorable by association but not for anything intrinsic to his character (except maybe at the end)

    2) Brutal Legend: Eddie Riggs is one of the best videogame characters in a long time and he has so much that makes him a great character. He is fully developed, has one liners and also represents a large chunk of a certain part of our culture, enough so that people are able to identify with him. However he exists in a game that, on a mechanical level, will make him largely forgettable to gamer culture. He won't have the longevity of other characters because he most likely won't have the luxury of iteration

    Assassin Creed Series: Ezio is a very memorable character who is well developed and will be remembered for his association with the day that Assassin's Creed grew up. Yet at the same time will most likely not appear in another game except in a way similar to Altair in number two. I find his status very interesting as Desmond is a forgettable everyman who is far less interesting than his ancestors. The sequel also results in Altair becoming a more compelling character for me because of the "master" status he is given in the sequel through the fleshing out of the Assassin's Lore and Codex, and his Armor being the ultimate reward in the game. Assassin's Creed will be interesting going forward as a successful franchise that relies on one-hit characters that, according to the framework setup, can't be developed beyond DLC release for their current version.

    Just a few of my thoughts guys. Thanks as always for a great 30 minutes of discussion

  2. One character that is not memorable per se is Samus Aran, the protagonist of the Metroid series. Her characterization is only implied through the gameplay and the situations she ends up in. She's tough and a loner, because she survives alone in enemy-infested planets. She's modest, because she barely acknowledges the praise the Luminoth bestow upon him at the end of Metroid Prime 2. But she values her adoptive family and co-workers, as shown in the Zero Mission mural, the internal monologue in Metroid Fusion. But unless the player was specifically looking for those clues, she might as well be a featureless robot that can turn into a ball. In that sense, her characterization is quite similar to Gordon Freeman, Master Chief and the Wander. They're defined by their actions.

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  4. @ Gerard

    Thank you for listening.

    1) I agree, Wander is not memorable. Each of those Colossi are, however. Also, the environment is memorable. Which makes me think about games that succeed only on memorable environments instead of characters. Bioshock being the prime example.

    2. Eddie is very memorable. Due in no small part to the voice work by Jack Black and Tim Schafer's dialogue. It will be sad to watch him fade.

    @ Hirvox

    I agree with you on Samus, but I think we might be outliers. Her suit, with its grappling hook gadget and ability to change into a ball is memorable to many. She as a character? Not so much. The story that you admire is separate from her combat self, which is problematic. Do you think if Zero-suit Samus were in her own game (as she might be), she would be more memorable or less?

    One thing to add in general, and that is the relative importance of memorable characters: Indelible impressions make for good marketing.

  5. What about Gordon Freeman? We know pretty much nothing about this guy, he never talks and I find characters like Alyx way more interesting in the Half Life games. It's the typical "I'm just a floating gun" problem.

    I think designers generally have a hard time making playable characters in First Person games memorable, especially if they don't open their mouth even once OR if they aren't seen from a Third Person perspective at least once, e.g. in a cutscene(like in Mirror's Edge) or through a mirror or something.

    Maybe actually knowing how the character looks like(getting to know him in-game, not from the cover motive) is one of the things we need to relate to him or her.

  6. I noticed the conspicuous absence of any GTA characters. It seems like Rockstar goes out of its way to create strong lead-characters (especially with Nico), but do they succeed in making a lasting impression?

  7. I was trying to think about non memorable characters in memorable games right here, so I didn't mention the GTA games.

    In my opinion the creation of strong characters is(together with the open world design) THE defining attribute of the GTA franchise, by any means it is since Vice City.

    The interesting thing with the GTA games is that the most interesting characters is not necessarily the playable character. I'm thinking of Brucie right now, who gave me tons of laughs throughout the entire game.

    I can't think of any other game that gives its NPCs such deep background.