Just like in films and books, characters are typically a prominent feature in video games. Sometimes, they are well-developed, and other times, their personalities and growth fall flat. In the case of well-developed characters, they may also be well-liked and, in some instances, may even begin to feel like an actual friend. Thus, you end up treating them as such. For example, in a role-playing game, you may give your favorite party member better equipment and armour, or, in a game with a branching narrative, you might choose the dialogue options that better cater to the non-player characters, or NPCs.
Why do we grow attached to NPCs? As fictional characters, they’re no more real than the fairy tales we have heard in our childhood. Perhaps we endear ourselves to Cinderella or The Little Mermaid because we project our own fantasies onto them and bring them to life. Commedia dell’arte, a form of theatre popular in Europe in the 16th to 18th century, relies on a cast of stock characters because the playwright trusts that the audience knows, or at least is familiar with, the archetypes (or, in more modern terms, tropes) of the characters.
While these stock characters are generally flat and one-dimensional, depending on the narrative and genre, it may be risky for writers to rely on them. It is even riskier in video games, where players can interact with NPCs unlike in static, pre-fixed media. Characters are supposed to be representations of people. Therefore, if they were developed and well-written, then they would feel more real to the audience.
So, how do you develop and write a character to seem more realistic? Stuart Spencer, the author of The Playwright’s Guide: An Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing, states that a character is comprised of four essential components: general qualities, emotions, actions, and speech/behavior. While stage plays are an entirely different medium from video games, I believe Spencer’s rules can apply to any narrative vehicle, from film, to written stories, and, of course, to video games. These components make a character relatable, enabling us to make more personal connections with them. For example, perhaps we sympathize with the tragic hero because of the trials that lay in wait for him. This is especially true in role-playing games which encourage players to interact with the NPCs in their party and in the local environment.
In a session of Dungeons and Dragons, maybe interacting with NPCs lead to a new route to explore in the story, which then provides more possibilities for the player. Similarly, in a video game, it could unlock a new side quest that rewards the player in some way, maybe with in-game currency or with items. In the Dragon Age series, there is a system that gauges how loyal your NPC companions are to you. The points are influenced by your interactions, and where you stand with the NPC can affect gameplay elements, such as their decision to remain by your side or to backstab you. In the main installments of Atlus’ Persona series, interacting with NPCs can affect gameplay by unlocking new skills and open up new narrative and backstory, expanding on the game’s world and setting.
The latest addition to the Persona series, Persona 5 (released worldwide on April 4, 2017), features a well-developed cast of major and minor characters. Almost every NPC has their own history that the player can learn, and they all have their own striking characteristics and motivations. The narrative of this Japanese RPG centers on seven high school students and a mysterious shapeshifting cat named Morgana, who claims to be a human. The main protagonist is a transfer student who is under probation after being arrested for assault. In actuality, he had tried saving a young woman from sexual harassment, only to be framed for violence. In the world of Persona 5, adults are corrupted and the public easily manipulated. The main cast isn’t taken seriously when they demand change, considering that, in the eyes of an adult, they are only children. Therefore, they form a vigilante group called the Phantom Thieves and steal hearts, which then influences the corrupted person’s mind in service of the greater good. Persona 5 is a story that incorporates the concept of social reform, and as the narrative progresses, the characters are forced to confront ethical questions, such as taking away one’s freedom to choose their own path (regardless if it is morally incorrect).
One member of the Phantom Thieves is a young man named Ryuji Sakamoto, the very first NPC who joins the player’s party. He exemplifies Spencer’s four components of a character with his brash personality, his grand ambitions, and his rough mannerisms. With how his character grows throughout the narrative, it was hard for me, at least, not to see him as a friend.
Warning: spoilers ahead
Describe yourself in three words. Are you funny? Creative? Smart? These are examples of your general qualities, or to put it differently, your personality traits. No matter the circumstances or how much time passes, these personality traits will persist and define what kind of character these people have. For example, if you know someone who is quiet and demure, then you would think that it would be out of character for them to speak brazenly to a stranger. It is difficult to change a personality, so you can even think of general qualities as general truths.
When I first encountered Ryuji in Persona 5, both he and my player character (PC) were caught up in the rain and late for school. He looked the part of a stereotypical, Japanese high school delinquent: dyed hair, violating dress code, and loud. As you get to know Ryuji over the course of the game, you discover that he’s honest to a fault and has a strong sense of justice. What strikes me the most about his character is how upbeat and energetic he is. Every party member has a trait associated with them, such as the headstrong Ann Takamaki or the arrogant Morgana, and when they interact with Ryuji, it brings out more of their character, creating a perfect contrast and complement. The interactions help us get a grasp on who he is as a person and where he stands in the party, highlighting his qualities. They help us understand why he acts and reacts the way he does and, specifically, why he emotes the way he does.
As people, we can be supportive of change or we can stand against it. Some of us are not affected by it either and will not choose a side until this change has some sort of impact on our daily lives. Regardless, we all experience emotions, and we all possess thoughts on certain matters. Sometimes, we act on these emotions and thoughts. In history, you can see this sort of behavior during the Civil Rights Movement or the Stonewall Riots. When civilians are moved by the injustice they, or other people, experienced, they mobilize their beliefs and take matters into their own hands.
The same could be said in the virtual world. After the arrival of the Phantom Thieves in Persona 5, the civilians are perturbed by their appearance. Some of them are awed and astounded by this mysterious group, believing them to be on the side of justice. Some are much more critical, claiming that they are criminals. Some are indifferent until these vigilantes make a huge impact, such as the shift in attention that occurred when they began targeting powerful individuals (i.e. an influential artist or the president of a large corporation).
The reaction of the NPCs reflects our society. The NPCs, even if they are mere civilians, have their own lives written into the story, so they should be expected to feel one way or another about the changes in the political and social atmosphere. Their reactions affect the tone and mood of the game, further immersing the player in the game’s world. While the Phantom Thieves garnered more support, I, along with Ryuji, felt elated; it was empowering when the civilians looked away from the police and began looking to the vigilantes for help. When that support turned against the reforms my party was trying to make, I became frustrated, and the only person who hated the negative reaction more than me was Ryuji.
Ryuji is a character full of emotions. Compared to the other characters, he is nearly bursting with them. He is the kind of character to leap to someone’s defense at the risk of his own expulsion. It’s because of his emotions that he was kicked out of the track club when he tried to stand against Mr. Kamoshida, a man who has wronged him and other students at Shujin Academy. When he learns that Mr. Kamoshida has harassed other students, he tries to expose him. This resentment extends towards all of the other untrustworthy adults who seek to get their way regardless of what it means for other people. For example, when the PC tells Ryuji about the man who framed the main protagonist and put him at fault, Ryuji, without question, wants the man’s name so that he could track him down and demand all the wrongs to be righted.
Ryuji is generally an upbeat character and is eager to be a part of the Phantom Thieves and make changes in their society. However, because of his negative past experiences, you can also see him in equal turns nostalgic, bitter, remorseful, and sad. He experiences the vast spectrum of emotions that any other person would have, and that engages the player in the world of Persona 5. Ryuji takes everything personally, which enables the player to reflect on why.
Actions (AKA: Wants)
In playwriting, action can be defined, not simply as physical movement like a punch or a kick, but as the process by which a character achieves what they want. People desire all sorts of things, from worldly possessions, such as a Nintendo Switch, to something more intangible, like wanting to hold someone’s hand.
Since Ryuji wants to become closer friends with the PC, he regularly seeks out the main protagonist (although it is up to the player to improve their friendship through a system known as a Social Link) to go for a run or to hit up a ramen joint. As the player completes the quests in Ryuji’s Social Link, they are able to discover more about his character. For example, he wants to help people who are stuck in the same powerless position that he has been in, so he takes matters into his own hands and tries to stand up for the helpless students being bullied and harassed by Mr. Kamoshida. In the main story, he wants the Phantom Thieves to make an impact on society. In order to do that, he helps the PC and Morgana found the Phantom Thieves and actively takes part in their missions.
People want many things in life, and their desires motivate them to take some course of action to achieve their end goal. Sometimes people (or, in this case, characters) want the same thing. In other cases, they may want different things. This conflict then leads to a more engaging experience for the audience.
Speech and Behavior
People judge others by how they speak and behave, and the same applies to characters. What defines someone as a good civilian? As a teenager? As a rebellious one? Every individual speaks and acts in different ways with our own little tics and tells, so we judge who they are based on observable quirks. Even identical twins have their own differences. Maybe someone mutters all the time or maybe they’re inclined to enunciate every syllable. Maybe they stand tall and hold their head up high or maybe they slouch. These idiosyncrasies separate one person from another. For example, if a character stutters, it might mean that they’re anxious or less confident in comparison to someone who speaks eloquently. Speech and behavior helps us define a character by how they present themselves.
Hypothetically, let’s say that a CEO is infuriated with his subordinate’s mistake (his emotion) and wants to prevent it from happening again (his action). Therefore, he calls his employee to his office and lectures him (his behavior) but uses severe, critical language (his speech). In essence, actions and emotions can lead to speech and behavior which helps us visualize who the character is.
Ryuji’s mannerisms are rather coarse and brash. He speaks roughly and uses vulgar language. If he wants answers from someone that he doesn’t particularly like, he’ll confront them and intimidate them, or try to, at least, because that suits his image as a delinquent. He tends to act first, ask questions later. However, underneath that tough exterior, he is kind-hearted and altruistic, so he seeks to help out the best that he can even when it doesn’t relate to the Phantom Thieves.
After comparing Ryuji to Spencer’s four components of a character, he starts to sound more like an actual teenage boy despite his lofty ambitions as a Phantom Thief — a realism that the writer should be aiming for. In Persona 5, Ryuji and the other party members are far more involved with the protagonist than minor NPCs, such as the PC’s classmates. Thus, they ought to give the impression that they have their own background, personalities, interests, and motivations. Ryuji has personality, which defines how he should act and react, and he has motivation and desires as a character, which he shapes into goals. Like a real person, he also tries to find the means to achieve his goals in a way that remains true to his character. This type of characterization makes the plot and theme much more impactful because the player feels as though they are interacting with actual people.
In the end, a well-developed character is one whom we can understand, if not one to whom we can relate or with whom we can sympathize. We don’t have to like them, per se, but it is the ones we like that we tend to treat better. Usually, we like them because they behave as an actual person would or because they have a charming personality. In Persona 5, I enjoy palling around with Ryuji because he’s a fun guy to hang with. I like his energy and I like his backstory. He’s not perfect, and some of the things that he says are vexing. However, the same goes for most people.
After all, characters represent people, and people are flawed. An interesting character is similarly imperfect. They have their own general qualities, their own actions and motivations, their own emotions, and their own mannerisms. They’re multidimensional and complex like the human psyche. Even if we understand them, we can’t think that we know someone inside and out because people are simply unpredictable. We are constantly learning more about people, and that includes our characters.