Discussing in private a detail of my IFComp entry, I realised that a major field of authorship, namely character design, was, AFAICT, never discussed here, nor, AFAIR, on r.a.i.f.; one can surmise that there’s not much need of character design, because of the non-deterministic nature of the extremely powerful renderer used in IF, but conveying in words the appareance and nature of a NPC (and the PC) can perhaps be more important than seems: a wrong wording can put the player-reader off track in NPC dealing, when OTOH, there are many memorable, well-fleshed NPC, whose remain impressed in player’s minds and hearts;
so let’s debate on this underdiscussed side of authorship, the character design.
I feel like IF tends to naturally take cues from both video games and literature in many aspects of design. Yet it also has its own distinct traditions and flavour.
One point I was reflecting on recently is how much (or how little) to describe characters. In some works you can find very thorough descriptions of what the PC and/or NPCs look like, while in other works characters are represented entirely by their words, actions and relationships.
In my recent game I had specific appearances in mind for the few named characters, but I chose to reveal almost none of it in the end since it felt kind of superfluous!
I always make visual versions of my characters. Ie pictures. And this is all part of building their personality.
Now a lot of people say, pictures don’t add anything and that words say it all, insofar as a mental image. Then they say the pictures are at odds with their mental image and make it worse.
Personally, i don’t think this is true if the picture of the character is introduced at the same time as the word description in the story. I think in this case, both complement each other in an additive way.
try this experiment with one of your own story characters, and answer these questions;
What are their shoes like?
What hairstyle do they have. What’s the hair color?
Are they carrying any personal items or accessories?
What are their eyebrows like (arched, flat, curved, bushy, tapered etc).
What’s their eye color?
I put it to you that you won’t have all those answered from your text. But when you make the visual image, you have to have those answers.
Ok, so you might think that the style of eyebrows isn’t relevant to your story. But personally, i think it does. I obsess about these kind of details when i create a character.
Then the visualisation and personality blend into one and the dialogue writes itself (mostly).
I tend to have quite a strong mental image of the characters I put into my games, and I like to put as many of those details into the description (when the character is examined) as I can, without overwhelming the player with information. In a parser game the player will try to interact with everything, so if you mention the character’s eyebrows they’ll probably try to pluck them or shave them off, so for me it’s about getting a character’s personality across as economically as possible. Some of my favourite writers don’t describe their characters’ physical appearance in much detail at all, but their personalities come across loud and clear, and my mind fills in all the blanks.
If you asked me any of these questions about the characters I’ve created I’d be able to answer them without hesitation, whether or not I’d mentioned these characteristics in my game. Unlike @jkj_yuio I don’t make visual images as part of the process of making my games, but I recently undertook the exercise of creating images of my characters in MidJourney, and I found that I could easily identify the images that looked right and those that didn’t. The images I ended up with after two or three iterations looked almost exactly as I’d imagined the characters to look. It felt a bit like identifying a suspect from photos in a TV police drama.
I kind of do the same thing musically. I picked music - a “theme song” - for each character in RSPM and Cursèd Pickle and in my brain that helped me with their whole vibe essentially. Not just for characters, but situations and plot points were really helped by the sonic landscape I chose for each of them.
Even if that music isn’t used in the game. I wrote an entire horror screenplay to “This Love” by Maroon5 on loop back in the day…
Yujo’s method for fleshing NPCs perhaps can’t be used by people negated in drawing like me (I remained to early grade school’s sticks, go figure…) whose are OTOH capable of writing well, as textual IF authors tends to be are by nature of their Art, and in my case, my word sketching ended being the major introduction to the PC and two NPC in my story, and a really detailed one… to the point of being overdetailed, I suspect.
excellent idea, albeit I reckon that has its pitfalls.
I hope this is not too tangential to the stated topic, because in my mind it is very much a thing: voice. Establishing a character’s voice (especially the MC’s) strongly and early, is the best description. I don’t tell you Salomé is pretty, tall or short, what color are her eyes, what’s her bra size, what’s her favorite food and if she was a flower, what flower would she be, and what if she was a country? I give you voice and attitude, and you decide on your own what she looks like. I do give you some definite wardrobe details, because they are reflections of character (how she likes to be stylish, but also how this reflects her need to exploit her apperance, etc.).
I don’t tell you if Eva is blonde or brunette, I tell you what she does, and you deduce what she’s like by the way she acts and talks. Up to you if her hair is long or short, and if her parents were loving or absent, and if she loves marrons glacés.
I don’t get character design from music or drawings like some people said here. I get a general game idea (from anything, could be a book, a movie, or something else), a sort of “hook” or “seed” and expand that. The player character evolves in this process as well as everything else (NPCs, rooms, items, special triggers, quest plot etc.)
I think every character should have a unique personality and contribute to the story and gameplay in a suitable way. In my opinion character development is not as crucial in interactive fiction as in regular prose, but it’s still pretty important.
By the way, what’s everyone’s views on the blank slate vs fully defined player character debate? I’m most comfortable with something in the middle. Blank slate PCs tend to bore me and some sprinkles of character can make a piece of IF a lot more memorable. On the other hand, if the PC has an extensive backstory and an epic character arc, that can make the interactivity feel pointless.
I’m also curious if there is any interactive fiction where the player is the player character or otherwise a part of the story in a meta way.
In my game designs so far the PCs can’t change or make moralic decisions. They are half defined, which means the background (profession, knowledge etc.) is evolved by me, but it’s leaving room for the player’s imagination.
Off course the game can make the difference. For example if the IF has RPG components, the player can decide a lot about the PC. If the story/plot is about revealing infos about the PC step by step then there’s no room for imagination, instead the PC is very much designed.
It depends on the game. If the character is a stranger meeting new people in a strange land AFGNCAAP can work. If the plot revolves around stuff the PC has been involved in, it kind of requires some character development which can be tricky because the author needs to get the player to infer information about the character with solid environmental design or directly tell them via parser narration “You are a 3000 year old mummy…” or player conversation, hopefully avoiding “As you and I both know, Bob…” type of dialogue, or internal monologue “Yeah, you don’t have any clean clothes because you hate doing laundry” kind of mini info dumps.
If you have a very developed character that might be an unreliable narrator or defiant (can refuse commands the player issues) in my opinion the prose and story tend to work better in first or third person so the player isn’t being told “you are/you did all this stuff” because negotiating agency in that case is difficult - say the PC is a hired assassin who wouldn’t think twice about murdering a target but the player might have a bit of trouble making the same choices. It’s so easy for the player to say “no I’m not” which breaks immersion.
Something I’m discovering myself. One of my choice-based WIPs has a player character so wilful, imperious and lacking in self-awareness that I know exactly what she would do or say in any situation. Consequently creating meaningful choices for her became rather difficult. I considered making the game into a novella instead, but in the end I came up with another solution, inspired by Stephen Bond’s excellent The Best Man, which is to change the viewpoint character around from scene to scene. I’d taken it for granted that IF should have a single player character, but that doesn’t have to be the case at all.