How to characterize a PC in a parser game?

In my latest WIP, I’ve had multiple beta testers recommend that I include more characterization from my main character, like comments on what’s happening or emotions, etc. I’ve gotten that feedback before, and now with multiple people asking for it in this game, I feel like I need to learn how to do it. ‘If one tester makes a suggestion, it’s just their opinion; if many make the same suggestion, you should definitely change it’ is my rule in general.

How do you characterize a PC well? For my past games, I’ve always felt like the PC was there for you to identify with, and having a PC say something is putting words and emotions in the player’s mouth, telling them how to feel.

But that’s only how I feel as a writer. As an player, I like games like Everybody Dies or Taco Fiction or Dancing with Fear that have weird or intense narrators I would never identify with. I also like the ones with blank slates I can act through.

The one game where my PC was most characterized was the Magpie Takes the Train, but that’s because I was working with JJ Guest’s established IP and pre-existing MC.

For those of you who enjoy writing strongly characterized PCs, how do you go about it?

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I try to see the world through their eyes. What would they focus on when looking through the room? Is there something that makes their heart speed up or tightens their chest? Like there could be a simple vase, but it’s one that was passed down from their parents, and it takes a centre place because of it. Or describe a physical/emotional reaction when seeing the object/person. Or include inner/intrusive thoughts.

(granted I haven’t written a parser game (yet?), but I’ve played Aisle recently which does a pretty nice job at portraying emotions)

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I think it really depends on what kind of game you’re writing.

If you’re writing a “traditional” old school treasure hunt or a generic “explore an abandoned [whatever]” quest, then having a silent/blank slate protagonist works just fine—the player character is just a placeholder for the person behind the keyboard, and characterization generally doesn’t matter. It can matter, or be made to matter, by the framing narrative. See, for example, Infocom’s Infidel, in which the characterization of what would otherwise be a Zork-ish blank slate of a puzzle-solving, item-collecting protagonist is what gives the narrative its motivation and “flavor”.

On the other hand if you’re writing a strongly narrative-driven game, or a game in which interactions with NPCs figure prominently, then it probably makes more sense for the protagonist to have thoughts, feelings, motivations, and so on…possibly ones that are orthogonal to those of the player behind the keyboard.

Most of the time what you want to do is contrive to have the player’s motivations and goals to be identical or at least compatible with the protagonist’s: Alice wants to get the MacGuffin because it’s her ancestral birthright or because she’s a secret agent who has been sent to obtain the Enemy Nation’s secret national security MacGuffins or because she’s a burglar and a nice gold-plated MacGuffin fetches a good price. And of course the player wants to get the MacGuffin either because they want to see these things happen or simply because they perceive that that’s how they win the game.

Once you have a reason for both player and protagonist to desire the MacGuffin, then it makes sense (in a narrative game) for the protagonist to supply verbiage indicating their opinions on how the MacGuffin-getting is going, the plausibility of various schemes for MacGuffin extraction, and so on. This is both an opportunity for you, as a game designer, to give your game world some flavor, but it also should be used to telegraph gameplay-relevant information about the game world to the player. Think about how a tricorder functions in the original Star Trek series: wave it over something and it tells you what it is. If it can’t tell you what you just waved it at, then that’s the story’s way of telling the audience that it’s not just that you (the audience) don’t know what the thing is, the characters don’t know either…and it is presumably a legitimately puzzling question (because otherwise the oracular tricorder would just provide the answer). That kind of thing.

You can also use characterization as a mechanism to hand-wave your way through what are sometimes called crimes against mimesis. This happens a lot in, for example, Sega’s Yakuza/Like A Dragon games—if the protagonist is walking down the street and a random person goes up to them and proposes a silly scheme that’s an obvious scam then the thing the player wants to do isn’t to engage with the situation as they would were they to encounter a similar situation in life, they want to blindly blunder into the obvious scam because it’s going to be funny and entertaining and possibly heartwarming and will almost certainly be worth a bunch of experience points. Put in slightly different, more explicit terms, Kiryu (the protagonist) presumably doesn’t want to get scammed but the player absolutely wants to walk Kiryu into as many scams as possible…because that’s where a bunch of cool gameplay lives.

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You don’t need to strongly characterize your PC. Just a sketch will do. When I think about PCs, I do 3 things:

1.) Decide what kind of person they are: nice, sad, lost, dumb, mean, etc. In your case, you probably want the PC to be relatable, yes?
2.) Connect that to an archetype, a conglomeration of real and fictional characters that are like what I want my PC to be.
3.) Overlay that with something specific and real. For instance, I based my sweet little groom Angelo in The Spectators on a real boy that age who I know well. I thought about the way he talked and reacted, and used that. But if you want to lightly sketch the character, you could probably skip this step and just go with archetypal feeling and responses.

Lots of great games don’t have fully fleshed PCs, and that’s usually a good thing because it allows you to to put yourself in the PC’s shoes more easily. But I do think players expect a warrior archetype to react to things differently than a scientist archetype.

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Long response:

Summary

I’m doing it now (strong characterisation) for four PCs in one game, so I’m living my IF dream writing scenario.

Since you, @Brian, have already got your game going: I don’t know if you’ve thought about what your PC is actually like as a person yet? If you’ve been writing in your default mode, you might not have. So you need to create some target of characterisation to aim for before you can begin. Amanda’s three-step program could be a way to develop the target.

Applying it is in the writing of the descriptions and responses. Like @Manon said, remember that you’re seeing the world through their eyes.

e.g. My main PC is a straight shooter and not a tricky thinker, so the room descriptions via her aren’t too different than typical neutral IF descriptions. Another PC is intellectual and skeptical and acidic, so descriptions from her can get clever and snarky. Her vocabulary is much bigger, too. The same room as seen by each of them will come out in two very different descriptions.

While descriptions are front and centre and seen by all players, I think the responses (to actions tried) are where a lot of the, uh, action is.

Most responses in IF games are probably rejections or modulations (of what the player tried) and these are great for characterisation. If I look at my other big characterisation game, Six, there are a huge number of rejecting messages enforcing each PC’s personality. (“I’m not doing that, I don’t want mud on my dress. I’m not kicking people, kicking people is naughty!” etc.) What I really like about this is, not everyone will see all of them. In fact, no one player is going to see the whole set in the game. Each player will see a different set that corresponds to the way they, themselves, tried to play, and to me this reflection off what might be their own wants off the character is a magic trick of characterisation in parser IF.

I know you’ve read a ton of books, and the actual writing of character-specific stuff is on display in every fiction novel you’ve read. I use the same techniques from every novel I’ve read.

If the character is meant to be really clear, you may need to do the writing to find them. My reserved character in my WIP was hard to imagine in the abstract. I had to write a bunch of the game in her voice to work her out, then go revise what I’d done once I had a clearer picture. I’m guessing you’re not going to want a character as sharply delineated as that. But what this makes me think of is – if your game is already along a ways, once you’ve set a target for a personality, you could try applying it to prose you’ve already written, and to some default responses, too.

Setting default responses in character voice can stick the whole game tone to the PC quite quickly. Just watch out for overwriting these. I’d say it’s probably the commonest mistake in this kind of game. Having a characterised PC is often novel, so the author writes the default responses in a sledgehammer tone. These are going to be seen repeatedly, at which point they can look silly if they’re overkill. Plenty of Monsieur Nelson’s carefully worked out defaults are fine for any human. Just change the ones with the withering British tone :wink:

-Wade

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Hmm, this and what everyone else said made me think.

In my current game, I have one main PC but also 4 minor PCs (one part of the game is a murder mystery where you live out their flashbacks). Those minor PCs are very strongly characterized (mostly by lying a lot).

So I guess mentally I feel like it’s ‘okay’ to let a side-character be characterized. Maybe I should pretend for a second that my PC is a side-character and think how they’d be characterized, using the tricks that you guys mentioned.

All of the responses so far have been great!

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I completely agree that responses to failed, unnecessary, or plain silly commands are one of the main sources of character exposition for your PC.

Conversation is another. The choice of words and phrases the PC uses reveals a lot about the underlying thoughts and feelings.
(@bitterkarella’s Guttersnipe-games are really good at this. Gotta love Lil’ Ragamuffin. Guttersnipe 1: Carnival of Regrets (ifdb.org))

Something that I haven’t seen mentioned here:

A good introduction goes a long way. If you start your game with a memorable scene where you display your main character’s personality, it will reverberate throughout the game. Every time the player imagines the PC, her picture will be coloured by this first acquaintance with the character.

This can be an action scene, a conversation, a scene of the PC remembering how they got here,… As long as it clearly shows how this person responds (physically or emotionally or intellectually) in this situation, it’ll imprint the character in the player’s mind.

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For me, the starting point of any story, including IF, is “who is the main character and what do they want?” Consequently I tend to prefer strongly characterised PCs. Often the character comes first, and the story follows. The games that have given me the most trouble to write were the ones with the more generic PCs. Some of my games have a companion character who is more vivid, and this seems to help when the PC is a bit generic.

One way I like to characterise a PC is to write descriptions of rooms, people and objects from their point of view. The Magpie in Alias ‘The Magpie’ is a something of a connoisseur (read: snob) of antiques, and he’s also a thief, so he tends to assess every item he sees in terms of value. This actually made it a lot easier for me to write the descriptions of the dozens of items of furniture and decor in Bunkham Hall.

Another thing I like to do is have conversations spontaneously start when two characters meet. They can be initiated by the PC or by another character. I usually give just the first couple of lines — an initial greeting — that sets up the relationship between the two characters. It’s then up to the player to continue the conversation, or not (using ask / tell). When I first did this I thought it was a risky strategy, but not a single reviewer mentioned it, so perhaps it’s not that remarkable, or it’s more common than I thought.

A companion character can also be a useful foil for characterising the PC. In Renegade Brainwave the PC is policeman who is constantly muttering observations to his deputy, but in his case he doesn’t get much response.

With a strongly characterised PC stories often seem to write themselves, because I only have to think, “what would the PC do in this situation?” This seems to work very well in parser games, but I’ve found that in choice-based games it can actually limit the list of choices I can present to the player. I’m still finding my feet with writing choice-based games.

Note: In my head I’ve written seven parser games, but only five are published. The other two are very close to being finished, and when I make generalisations about my approach I’m including all of them. Hopefully, you’ll see the other two soon.

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in one of my major WIP my PC is actually two in one: a classical “faceless & nameless” one, aside his modicum of characterisation, and a really characterised one, the two PC being connected in one in an interesting way, and the entire story & plot rotate around this connection. A veritable challenge, I admit. but is a rewarding challenge, confirming the truism that the best enjoyment from IF is writing & coding, more than playing.

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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Yeah, this is key to characterization of a PC in a parser game, I think. What details do they notice? What associations do they make? How familiar or unfamiliar is the object/scenery to them? How do they feel about it? Of course, answering questions like these is only half of the effort; the other half is figuring out how to smoothly work bits of the answers into the descriptions without info-dumping.

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Baggage is important. NPCs will react differently to your PC depending on what things your PC has done or said before the player gets their hooks in them. Sitting down for a beer and having the livid waitress dump the pitcher over your head, saying, “The nerve to show your face here!” before flouncing away says alot about your PC without the PC saying anything at all.

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Oh, and I don’t recall if it was already mentioned, but don’t forget lowhanging fruit like pre-existing inventory. What the PC has (fake visa? Twinky? A hand grenade? Bo Goodies all-you-can-eat Coney Dog rewards card with 8/10 punches towards a free meal?), and sometimes what they don’t have (money? Weapon? License? Best to draw attention to the absence with things like an empty wallet and $0.16 of pocket change, or an empty pistol holster and a blindfold) is an easy way to cram some personality into your PC.

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I wonder if anyone submitted a bizarre starting inventory to SeedComp.

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I feel like I spend a lot of time (even in choice-based games) thinking about how to imply, without it being too intrusive, that a character has had a whole life up to this point and didn’t just spring into being fully formed when the player took control of them. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like IF tends to be pretty in-medias-res and you kind of get less space to establish that than you would in static fiction.

It largely comes down to finding “efficient” details—that is, things that tell you a lot about the character or relationship in relatively few words—but I’m not sure how to articulate what makes a good “efficient detail” or give advice on coming up with them. Though the waitress example would certainly qualify!

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I think voice is a really important part. I’m guessing from what you wrote your game isn’t primarily character-focused, which means that putting long setpieces or character-revealing events in isn’t on the menu, and what you’re looking for is ways by which you can inject character through regular parser usage. I don’t write parser but I sometimes play it, which means that my view is external and so may not be very helpful, but I can list some games that I think characterized their characters very well.

A Rope of Chalk - Details is pretty strongly character focused, but it cycles through several different characters with different, distinct voices, and I think it did well at distinguishing the characters via voice and incidental asides.

The Spectators - Details, similarly to A Rope of Chalk, features multiple characters, but in The Spectators they go over the same space, as opposed to A Rope of Chalk. I think it does a good job of separating the characters in ways that aren’t just the game telling you that the characters are separate - they think about different things, notice different things, and are treated differently despite sometimes sharing physical presence.

Rameses - Details is possibly on the far side of character-focused, but it has an extremely strong voice. I feel like if I asked the main character of Rameses about a semi-random subject - let’s say, sailing, or makeup, or whether the day is nicer than the night, I have a guess about how the character would react to the question, depending on who was asking it.

Coloratura - Details puts characterization into a lot of the descriptions and, more prominently, the mechanics - if you try and pick things up, for example, you kind of can’t, so your status as an alien is forced into the foreground mechanically as well as descriptively, at least compared to the regular conventions of parser games - but I found many of the descriptions to be characterful.

Swigian - Details - which I believe you wrote - has an extremely distinct voice, which conveys a lot of character in a minimum of words.

I honestly don’t know how helpful a list of games is, but I don’t feel qualified to really speak as to how to achieve the effect - all I can do is point at things that have achieved the effect for me and say “Do like that, maybe?”

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