This article, by PepsiRanger (best known as the author of the game 'Powerstick Man' for his amazing Operation: Ohr reviews) gives advice on the importance of characterization, explaining how to create interesting and deep characters, giving examples from several Ohrrpgce games, and from excerpts of his short stories.
 

 
Behind the Epics:
Why Should We Really Care?

By Pepsi Ranger

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When we consider hitting the key that takes us past the title screen, what is it that keeps us sticking with it?  The game I mean, not the title screen.  Is it the graphics?  More than likely.  But what else would keep us glued to our screen without getting up to get a drink?  What else makes our eyes burn from screen glare because we're too hooked to even shift in our seats?  Is it the music?  Yeah, that's it.  We all love hearing Final Fantasy music to the set of talking dogs that fight chickens.  No, wait, it's gotta be the graphics, right?  It's always the graphics, like the way the character walks.  Or, that cute anime girl who shakes when…I mean, yeah, it's the graphics.  It's definitely the graphics, right?  Wait, that question has already been asked.  Then if that's not it, and if it's not the music…is it the pizza?  Unfortunately, the OHRRPGCE has yet to implement a taste feature.  And no, don't bring up the subject of Scratch-N'-Sniff Hamster stickers.  Bob may be a decent role model, but I don't want to smell him.  So, what's left?  Oh…

It seems we've made contact, folks.

First of all, I think it's important to mention the fact that articles that deal with writing in any form, from the plot, to the characters, to the dialogue have been done to death.  That's right, folks, there are at least fifteen other articles out there in the OHR Community alone that deal with this subject.  Chances are, there are thousands of others devoted to the subject on other websites for other reasons.  There is nothing else left for us to know.  Essentially, this article should be written for nothing.  But it seems that some authors just aren't putting enough strength into this area, so I've been asked to bury the subject.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that I am not a brief writer.  If the thought of reading a long article intimidates you, now would be a good time to go back to the Top 30 and try to figure out why your game's not up there.  If it is up there, odds are that you've already read all the other articles, and you probably don't need to read this one anyway-and good for you by the way, for making the Top 30, not for reading the other articles.  But, for those who like tears in their eyes from looking at the computer too long, or those who just don't know how to write, now is the time to start reading this-not like you haven't been already.

Okay, enough tangents.  There will be plenty of room for that later.  Time to get down to the raw essentials.  There are three things we need to work on to put a decent story together.  Ten points to anyone who already knows them.  Here's a hint-go back up two paragraphs and read the first sentence.  If you did that and you still don't know, then you lose ten points.  Yep, that's right.  We need plot, character, and dialogue.  But, the question we should be asking is not what they are, but rather how they should be approached.

Well, let's give this some thought for a moment.  It seems everyone wants a great plot, right?  Realistically, I think many of the games we've released have pretty good plots.  Let's explore this idea further.  What are a few of the more popular games out right now that most of us have access to?  There's probably too many to list here, so for argument sake, let's examine Monterey Penguin, Lolsidothaldremobine, and Ends of the Earth 2, since most of us have at the very least downloaded them.

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Part 1: Doing the Plot Thing

Monterey Penguin is the story of a penguin that gets thrown into a crate and shipped to a zoo somewhere.  Except, the crate never makes it to the zoo because the goobers running the shipping company think he's a box of contacts.  Therefore he gets dumped into some one-eyed octopus's front yard.  When he steps out of the crate, he realizes the house he landed in front of is not his own, and he's not too crazy about that.  His mission then becomes his need to get home.  Pretty straightforward, right?  Still interesting nonetheless.

Lolsidothaldremobine is a little more complicated in its plot.  In fact, it's so complicated, that I'd rather leave the details for your own research and discovery if you haven't checked it out already.  However, what I will do is briefly summarize it so that the purposes of bringing it up are justified.  A disgruntled world of uncouth postal workers pops up near the peaceful and civilized country of Lolsidothaldremobine.  Because the postal workers are stupid, they think the Lolsidothaldremobians' introduction of intelligent, but uncreative ways of communication is a sign of war, and they eventually shatter the country into another dimension, where each province is not only cut-off from contact from each other, but the citizens believe they're the only ones who survived.  The story begins with Coris, a guy who knows another guy named Yugen, who discovers that not only another province survived, but that there is also a way to get there.  Amazed by the revelation, Coris and his friend Letia set out to see what's become of the other provinces, trying to let the leaders know what they discovered.  Of course, there is much more meat underneath the initial plot, but this introduction is what's truly relevant for the purposes of this article.  Also, if you're confused about my description of the game, then play it to clear up any misunderstanding.

Ends of the Earth 2 is perhaps the most traditional of the RPG story line.  The straightforward explanation of the game is that undying evil has returned to the world and the chosen hero must set out to stop it once and for all.  The question is not how they should vanquish the enemy, but rather whether or not the hero and his allies can actually do it.  Those who finished the game know how it ends, so there's no point in mentioning it here.

Okay, so that means we got it, right?  Not so fast.  Is every plot line going to be about penguins trying to get home or continents smashing into the void?  Not likely.  The thing is, we all have our ideas about what we think would make a decent plot.  We have games about hamsters wandering the countryside, games about ducks and toy cars searching for cookies, and games about superheroes fighting off stinky villains to name a few things.  Question is where did these ideas come from?  Did any of these creators plan on sitting down to actually write their stories out word for word, event for event?  I don't know.  You can ask them if you'd like.  Chances are, these plots probably weren't taken too seriously at first.  Even less likely is the fact that other gamers took them seriously at first.  So why did the authors make their games with such flimsy stories in the first place?  Well, maybe the truth is that they're not so flimsy.  Maybe they began where plot is supposed to begin.

This may not make a lot of sense yet.  Bear with me a moment.  Let's go back to our three examples.  Why did the author of Monterey Penguin think his story would work?  Why did the author of Lolsidothaldremobine think his would work?  Why does anyone think his stories work?  Is it because the gaming world wants to play a game about a lost penguin?  Is it because we all really want to play yet another game where the hero of a world of infinite monarchies sets off to end evil once and for all?  No.  The things that make our plots work is our characters and their worlds.

Does this mean plot isn't good enough?  Basically.  Who really wants to play a game about a wandering hamster?  Maybe it's because the hamster's name is Bob and his sidekick throws Spam as a weapon.  Maybe not.  It's still an interesting concept, right?

So, let's relate this to our previously mentioned games.  Monterey Penguin is an innocent little ice bird who likes to play in the snow.  So far he's pretty unlikely, right?  What happens when he gets kidnapped and dropped into some eyeball's temperate front yard?  He's not going to build a snowman, is he?  No, he's going to drive himself to find a way back home.  But, how will he do that?  Maybe that's why it's safe to build a plot now.  After all, Monterey isn't going to just sit around and twiddle his thumbs, is he?  Does this mean the going will be easy here on out?  Not if our hero must confront a crazy hunter and a world of dead people.  What?  A crazy hunter?  A world of dead people?  Yeah, maybe we all know those elements are in there, but when they're written down, they seem kind of weird.  Yes, it's true.  These elements are a little odd.  Makes the character's world and circumstances just a little more interesting, right?  How does Monterey Penguin handle them?  Good question.  Maybe you should play the game again.

Okay, it's pretty obvious that Monterey Penguin benefits from having an interesting character, but what about Coris from Lolsidothaldremobine?  What's so special about him?  His bandanna isn't all that awesome.  He walks like Al Gore.  Why should we care about him?  First of all, the bandanna can mean something.  What it may mean, I don't know since I didn't make the game.  Maybe it's symbolic to a tribe.  Maybe Coris is really a biker.  Maybe it's just to make the character stand out as a hero.  Whatever it may mean, the author has an option to use it for plot purposes if he wants to.  As far as the walking thing-the same principle can apply.  Maybe Coris was "trained" to walk that way.  Maybe his anal probe exam didn't work in his favor.  Maybe that's just the way he was animated.  These two little observations about his character can potentially turn into a deeper history that the player can be interested in.

But, what does Coris's walkabout picture have to do with the plot.  Isn't the plot about finding the lost provinces and preventing disaster from happening to each one of them?  Yes, it is actually.  Which brings us to understand a secondary feature in shaping the plot.  Coris's country is floating in the void.  What the heck is he supposed to do now?  He can't get off it, right?  How does he even breathe?  What's the Temple of the Dimensional Thingy with the Little Lights that Glow When You Touch Them in the Sundier Border Town have to do with anything?  And most importantly, what would we do if we were in his shoes?  Again, these are questions that can potentially shape the plot into something a little deeper when given some thought.

How about Ends of the Earth 2?  How does the character of Atoch drive the plot?  He has to be something special, right, since the game's story line is ultra traditional?  I think we're catching on.  Let's consider him a moment.  Who is Atoch?  Is he a prince to the Royal Crown?  Is he an ambassador to the Gohran Empire?  Any of those things could have been an option.  Certainly the story would have shaped out a little differently in either case.  But he isn't any of those things, is he?  If we track back to the first Ends of the Earth game, we'll discover that he is just a kid who grew up knowing of a thousand year-old legend, dreaming of one day naming himself after his favorite storybook hero.  Okay, should we care?  Let's reiterate his character background again.  We saw him fishing with his grandfather at a backwater pond in some rural place in the first game.  Now he's stopping the same evil that he only heard about the first time around.  His character is not exactly lame, is he?

And, this is where the plot should begin.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with having an idea in our heads long before making the game.  There isn't even anything wrong with deciding where it should begin and end.  Sometimes that's the best way to keep control of our stories.  But, it's important not to let the story control our character.  Why?  Think about it.  If we're playing a game that involves a deep story, do we really want our characters' actions forced?  Only if we like to have everything spelled out for us.  Consider real life even.  Mom and Dad promises to pay for your tuition to any college, just as long as your choices in life lead to this particular campus.  What?  That doesn't make sense.  What if this campus over here has a better education?  What if this one down the coast better suits your job needs?  Limited campus options are pretty screwy, right?  And so will be our characters' actions if the plot is forced onto them.  Therefore, plot is important, but it's only important if the characters make it important.

Which brings us to part two of this article.

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Part 2: Does Your Character Sing or Does He Dance?

Even though we need to build a plot, our characters are much more important for the grand scale experience.  Think about that for a moment as you get up to get something to drink.  Go ahead.  Consider this as intermission time.

Okay, now that you're properly nourished, let's consider how to make our characters worth paying attention to.  We already examined how Monterey Penguin, Coris, and Atoch can lend to their story lines.  Does that leave us satisfied?  Can we just skip the whole section on character building and move onto the last point so that we can finish this article and get on with our lives?  No.  The problem with almost anything that gets released anymore is the fact that very little attention is given to the characters' lives and personalities.  We still have games where megalomaniac supervillains want to destroy the world because they have nothing better to do.  That's great if there's a reason for it, but why am I going to take anyone seriously if his methodologies don't make any sense?  Is it going to make sense to me that a high school principal sends one of his students on a "secret mission" to stop corruption and anarchy?  It might if it's set up right.  But, when it's just information fed for me to just accept, then the story is going to fall apart under the weight of absurdity.  All of these points should already be made clear, but there are still games coming out that completely ignore the needs of character building.  Why?  Maybe the authors aren't trained well enough.  Maybe the whole approach is overwhelming.  Okay, that's understandable.  So, maybe it's time to change that.

Lesson 1: Secrets of a Boy Band

Perhaps the best way to build a character is to give him some sort of quirk, limitation, secret, or anything that will make him stand out.  Sounds simple enough, right?  But, what is the best way to do that?  Here's a trick-make a brainstorm bubble chart.

A what?

Here's an example:
 


Figure 1.1: A potential brainstorm for the Adventures of Powerstick Man.

For those who have done one of these bubble charts before, you already know how to read them.  For those who have never seen one before now, you probably don't have a clue.  The way this method works is that you write the name of your character on a sheet of paper and circle it.  From there, you draw a line from his name to pull out some random characteristic.  For example, let's question who Powerstick Man really is.  Is he a door-to-door salesman?  Possibly.  Even though it's not shown in this diagram, I would write that down as an option.  But, if he's not a salesman, what is he?  Maybe he's a superhero.  Hmm, sounds intriguing.  If he's a superhero, wouldn't he need an arch villain?  What would his arch villain's name be?  How about Biff the Bloodhound?  Again, it's not on the diagram, but it should be.  What's another good name?  How about the Odor King?  So, if his name is Powerstick Man, and his arch villain's name is the Odor King, what would his super power be?  As you may have figured out, each bubble leads to a new question or factor.  When our diagram gets large enough, we may actually know something about our character, including his quirks and limitations.  If we examine the chart a little more, we'll find that Powerstick Man is gap-toothed.  Will that make him a stud for the ladies?  Hmm, good question.

Okay, that's spectacular and all, but how do we convey all that in a game?  This all seems a little on the complex side.  Yes, it is complex, and the truth is we won't need to utilize everything on our charts.  In fact, we would probably be lucky to use even half of our information.  There's also no rule saying we can't make something up along the way as we write.  The idea is not to get extreme, but rather to get interesting.

Let's take a look at a different character from a completely different type of story.  His name is Bobby.  He has a secret.  This secret must be kept in the dark.  But can he do it?  Let's find out.



 

             Bobby quickly kicked his CD player when the door to his room sounded a knock.  He had no time to hit the off button.  The system sputtered a moment and then smoked as the music droned to a stop.  He couldn't believe what he had just done.  That was the third stereo this week.  He knew he had a problem.
             "Come in," he said.
             The door opened.  His girlfriend Ashley opened the door.  Her face was puzzled at the sight of the smoking stereo system.
             "Are you okay?" she asked.  "You look nervous about something."
             "Just wishing I had better music equipment."
             Ashley looked at Bobby and nodded at him.
             "Paid for the generic brand again, didn't you?"
             "I suppose the pawn shops were made to rip me off."
             Ashley smiled.  She grabbed his arm.
             "Well, you ready to take me to the movies?"
             "Yeah, just let me get my-"
             Bobby immediately spotted something next to his stereo that shocked him.  He quickly grabbed the flat object off the table and tucked it behind his pants.
             "Get your what?"
             Bobby stealthily chucked the object into the closet.  It hit some plastic bags and fell silent.
             "My, uh, sanity?"
             "You mean your jacket?"
             "Yeah, I could get that too."
             Bobby removed his arm from Ashley's grip and headed for the closet.  He pulled a blue jacket from the clothes rack and quickly put it on.  There was no time to decide if it was comfortable.  He slammed the closet door shut, and glanced at the floor to make sure the flat object did not fall out.  Satisfied, he casually extended his arm for Ashley's shoulders and they led each other out the door.
             About twenty minutes had passed when Bobby and Ashley drove past the rich-person restaurant.  They didn't have much to say to each other since the lights of the city were more interesting anyway.  They watched and watched as one building after another would pass by their sights.  The radio was blaring to near deafness, which would make it hard to talk to each other even if they had wanted to.
             Bobby smiled and nodded at Ashley as the sights continued to roll on by.  His teeth were recently brushed and he thought she could smell the minty freshness.  Her blue eyes sparkled at him, and it seemed his charm captivated her easy amusement.  It was a typical teenage sight to laugh at.
             A moment passed when the song on the radio changed.  To Bobby's surprise, his favorite song replaced the one that blasted before it.  His smile grew wider for just a split second until he realized Ashley was wincing at the radio.
             "Ugh, change this," she shouted.  "Who still listens to New Kids on the Block?"
             Bobby was horrified.  He wanted to say something, but what would she think?  He had to submit to her wish.  He changed the radio station.  Some roller rink garbage poisoned his radio instead.  He was close to tears.
             "This is more like it," she said.  "Sing with me, Bobby."
             Ashley cleared her throat.  She started to repeat the lyrics to this song that Bobby hated.  Bobby clutched the steering wheel tighter.
             "Aren't you gonna sing?
             Bobby's mind raced.  He turned off the radio.  Ashley looked stunned as her voice trailed a second after the initial radio silence.  Her voice was actually very nice, but she always hated to sing into thin air.
             "I have a question to ask you," he said.
             Ashley folded her hands over her lap.  She looked into the side of his face.
             "Okay, ask it."
             "This is a hypothetical question.  What would you say if there were still people in this world who listened to New Kids on the Block?"
             "I'd say they're about as cool as Vanilla Ice."
             "Is that good or bad?"
             "What difference does it make?  They have their lives to live.  If they want to listen to them then let 'em.  I personally don't think those kind of people exist anymore, but it's their business if they want to listen to sucky music."
             "Would you lose your respect for them if they did exist?"
             "I don't think I could relate to them, but what should they care what I think?"
             "Would you think badly of them?"
             "Bobby, I don't judge people by what kind of useless music they listen to.  I got other problems to deal with."
             Bobby nodded in thought.  Somehow he didn't feel his question was answered.

             Later on that night, Bobby lied in his bed staring at the ceiling.  What could he do?  He knew he had a problem on his mind, but the solution seemed to be too much.  Maybe he could just fall asleep.  But his thoughts would not leave him alone.  He knew what he truly had to do.  He knew Ashley wasn't being completely straight with him.  He had to do something now.
             He climbed out of his bed and walked toward the closet.  His eyes adjusted to the images of things as he opened the closet.  He saw the flat object setting on top of a large plastic bag.  It was face down.  He picked it up and looked at it.  Then he wiped a tear from his eye.
             "It's time to bring you out of the closet," he said.
             He read the words on the front one more time.  The image of the New Kids on the Block could barely be seen on the disk cover in this darkness.  If only he could see it in full color and light.  But that would be prolonging the agony.
             Bobby walked over to his dead CD system and attempted to pry open the tray.  It took some effort, but he managed to muster up enough strength to pull it out.  The New Kids CD faintly sparkled under the dim lights shining through his window.  He removed the disk from the tray.  Then he kissed it and finally placed it back into the case.  He raised the jewel case to his head and held it there for a moment.
             "I'm so sorry, Donnie," he said with a sniffle.
             Bobby took a deep breath.  He tossed the CD into the garbage can.  The can clanged in utter pain.  But it was the garbage man's problem now.  Bobby just had to find a way to feel released.  He started by climbing back into bed.  He knew at least there, he could enjoy his reoccurring dreams of touring with the Spice Girls.

Figure 1.2: From my short story "Hang Tough with the Right Stuff." ©1999 CFD Entertainment

What did Bobby teach us when we found out about his secret?  A few things actually.  We found out that he doesn't trust his girlfriend's opinions.  We also discovered that he hates roller rink music.  We even came to realize that he cares more about keeping his secret than he cares about keeping his stereo system functional.

So, how does this help us in designing characters?  If we utilize something dark in a hero's character, we may just find out some more interesting things to keep track of.  Even if we have already figured out our main plot, we still have plenty of material for subplots.  All it takes is some exploration.  This is why Coris's bandanna and walkabout style can even do their parts to serve the story.  They might not mean a thing, but who is to say that it can't mean something later?

This brings about another interesting question.  How can we be sure our characters are interesting?  Well, short of asking someone else, we really can't know.  We just have to do our best and hope it works out.  But, if we give our character some interesting personality traits, then it would be hard to have a pathetic hero.

This brings us to another example of making good characters.

Lesson 2: The Wish for Photographers Who Taunt Musk Oxen

Whenever we design the story for a game, it seems we have a habit of creating the most generic of circumstances.  For example, how many times has the world been thrust into danger because somebody opened a forbidden portal or something like that?  You probably don't want to attempt to count, do you?  When we have generic circumstances, we are often tempted to create generic heroes.  The perfect example is the knight whose village is burned down by the ferocious dragon.  As plot would serve, the knight gets upset, and vows to slay the dragon.  There's our game, right?  Of course he's going to do all that because that's what legendary knights do.  It's written in the Code of Chivalry Handbook.  So, how do we make him interesting?  The simple answer would be to take him out of his element.  Does this mean we have to teleport the knight to the center of a football game?  No.  Let's look at another character in another example.

His name is Jake.  Photography is his game.  All he wants to do is make the best wildlife calendar available.  How can he achieve his goal?  Here's one way to do it:


             A gust of wind blew past Jake's face as he watched the hairy animal stomp along in the snow.  Either the creature didn't know he was watching it, or it just didn't care.  Jake was satisfied either way because to him he saw another winning photo opportunity.  His home state of Arizona could not offer such a prized shot of this magnitude, combining beastly musk oxen with the bright white snow.  He affixed his camera's aim onto the musk ox as it slowly turned its head to face him.
             "Say hello to history, you walking sleeping bag," he said.
 Jake adjusted the focus on his single-lens reflex camera, watching the blurred hairy image move in and out.  The target box in the center of the view helped his aim, but he'd been doing the photography game for so long that he could probably put this calendar together without even looking throeugh the viewfinder.  Just to test this theory, he held the camera out in front of him, closed his eyes, and snapped a picture.  After reopening his eyes, he realized that he wasn't carrying around an instant film camera, so he took another shot using the aim features.  The shot looked centered from what he could see, but one more shot couldn't hurt.  Five snaps later, he decided it was time to change angles, lenses, and add a colored filter for a darker image.
             The musk ox, which was an incredibly hairy beast with large handlebar looking horns curving over its brow, casually scuffled through the snow toward its herd.  Jake walked on his knees a few feet to maintain his angle on the musk ox.  He snapped another picture of the beast as bits of snow flaked up from its hooves.
 "This will make a great February shot," he said, snapping another.
             Jake held his position while he waited for the musk ox to reach its herd.  As the animal made first contact with the others, it stopped walking and wagged its tail.  Jake moved forward again.
             "You're gonna make the calendar worth twenty bucks, my shaggy friend."
             He tilted the camera vertically and placed it up to his eye.  The musk ox appeared in the glass, with the shaggy butt of a neighboring musk ox jutting in from the edge.  Jake snapped a couple more pictures.  He checked the shot counter.  There were still a few exposures left to be filled.  Perhaps he had gotten enough of this animal.  Maybe he hadn't.  Maybe there was still some gold to go for.
             "I'm your pimp daddy now, lucrative beast," he said, dropping his camera to his side.  "Metaphorically speaking of course."
             Jake slowly stood to his feet and carefully stepped closer to the herd.  He reached into his pocket and removed quarter.  It wasn't going to do him any good here, so he figured he could sacrifice it for the greater good of the calendar.  He flipped it in the air, called heads, caught it on the back of his hand, saw it was tails, and threw it at the musk ox.  The coin hit the animal in its thick, hairy body and fell into the snow.  The musk ox continued to wag its tail, while watching other musk oxen.
             The quarter was still worth something in America, even if it wasn't worth crap on this desolate glacier, and Jake refused to let it go to waste out here where half-ton beasts would just stomp it deeper into the ice.  He continued to approach the herd, slowly for the first few steps, but then realized that wasn't going to get him there faster, so he walked stridently, with his free hand clenched into a tight fist, his other hand tightly grasping his camera, and his gaze affixed on the musk ox.
             "You're not getting away with a boring pose, you tease," he said.
 The musk ox's ears twitched before it turned its head toward Jake.  He maintained his gaze on the animal as he realized it was staring back at him.  The creature seemed mesmerized at first, but then it lowered its head slightly.  As Jake continued to move toward it, he could hear it snorting.
             "You ready to rock?" he scoffed.
             Jake held his camera out in front of him, with his finger on the shutter button.
             "I'll give you the most exciting day of your life."
             The musk ox continued to snort, deeper and heavier.  As Jake got closer, the animal lifted its front hoof up to its head, and brushed the hair around its eyes.  Jake snapped the picture.
             "That's right, baby," he said, "show me those angry eyes.  They haven't seen anything yet."
 Jake charged at the animal, keeping his camera in front of him at all times.  The musk ox standing next to the first turned its attention toward Jake.  It too lifted its leg to brush the hair around its eyes.  The first musk ox placed its hoof back into the snow, and lowered its horns into the charge position.  Within a flash, the animal raced toward Jake.
             "Anyone tell you which game is more dangerous?" yelled Jake.
             Jake snapped a picture as the animal came within mere feet of him.  Almost instantly, he sprung to the right, as it charged past him.  It looked like the beast tried to catch him with its horns as it passed, but he couldn't tell, and he had no desire to turn around and see.  He made a beeline for the herd.
             A majority of the musk oxen turned their attention toward him as he ran closer to them.  He could hear the other one stomping in the snow behind him.  Assuming that the pursuing animal was considerably faster than he was, Jake quickly lunged for the closest member of the herd he could find, and dove underneath it.  He rolled out the other side of the animal just in time for it to start panicking, running into the bulk of the herd.  He held his position long enough to see the first musk ox coming right at him.  The snow flying up around its legs looked perfect.  He snapped another picture, and quickly rolled away as the beast tried to gore him.
             "Last shot, big ugly," he yelled.  "Better make this one count for me."
             Jake was getting tired, but he knew he had enough stamina to make it into the herd one more time.  He ran as fast as he could toward the other musk oxen.  Many were now standing in a circle, keeping others shielded within.  There were still a few panicked stragglers running about, but the circle was what he wanted.  He knew that no matter how close he got, none of them would move.  This was the shot he strove for.
             As Jake came within a few feet of the circle, hearing the heavy snorts of the pursuing beast behind him, he cut to the right and dove to the ground.  Immediately, he flipped to his back and watched as the angry musk ox plowed into the circle, causing the receivers of the hit to drop back.  The tremors of the impact sent the other musk oxen into a snorting fury.  Jake snapped the last picture on his roll of film.
             "Beautiful, my friends," he said.  "Now what will we do for March?"
             The angry musk ox recovered from its missed attack.  It looked back at Jake and lowered its head.
             "I like your ambition, but it's just not going to work for me anymore.  Gotta go."
             Jake quickly jumped to his feet and ran as fast as he could.  Maybe his adrenaline would get him back to his rented jeep.  If not, hopefully his camera would at least survive.  After something like a full minute of solid running, Jake turned around.  The musk ox didn't bother to chase him.  Instead, it stood around with the others and wagged its tail.  He thought that was great because two full minutes of breathing this icy air would kill him.
Figure 2.1: An excerpt from my short story "Lightstorm." ©2000 CFD Entertainment

Normally when we think of photographers, we think of quiet people who like to take pictures of flowers and stuff.  Later in the story, we find out that Jake thinks of them the same way.  So, why is he the exceptional one?  Why should we find him more interesting than the guy who takes pictures for Martha Stewart?  Because he's not what we expected, is he?  And neither should the knight who vows to slay the dragon.  Wouldn't it be more interesting if the knight taunted the dragon to come to him?  Just a thought.

It seems we're on a role now, but what else can we learn?  If we have a character with secrets, and if he or she is beyond our expectations, is that all we need to know?  Yeah, for the most part.  But, it doesn't hurt to try to take our characters as far as they'll go.  For example, how will they interact with others?  How will they interact with objects?  Even with an interesting character, we still run the risk of having a boring world.  One of the elements that makes Lolsidothaldremobine interesting for more than what we'll find in its characters is what the characters make of the world.  Because the people were extremely intelligent, they had to balance out the world by being uncreative.  Thus we have an entire country that's named by the mashing of its seven provinces.  We also have locations that are only known by the purposes they serve rather than by creative names.  This in effect gives our characters an additional trait to deal with.  As we later find out, the dumber they got over the years, the more creative they became.  This makes for a better grounding to change their world.  For example, where before their intelligence may have permitted them to know everything there was to know about the world and accept it and leave it all as it was, now they have an excuse to experiment with the few elements they're stuck with to see what they can accomplish and find out about.  In a sense, their need to survive changes with their mental status.  After all, knowledge may be power, but what good is power if the character won't tinker with it?  If they can't adapt to their world, then the story has to go in a different direction, regardless of what the plot demands.

There are other methods to adopt for designing our characters, but the choice is entirely up to us.  We can use the above mentioned ideas, or think of other ways to introduce them, just so long as there is a reason to have them, or a reason we should want to experience what they experience.  Without a firm foundation for our hero and those around him, our plot will never take off the way we and our gamers would like it to.

And so we arrive to part three of the writing topic.

__ _ _ __ __ _ ___ _ _ _ _ __ __ _ ____ 

Part 3: Those Who Are All Talk

Of course, to fully round out our character's foundation, and the plot that surrounds him for that matter, we have to pay attention to the final piece of writing, which is the dialogue.  Now, before we dissect the fundamentals of dialogue, I suggest you take one more break so that you'll be refreshed enough to get through it.  And yes, we're almost finished.  Thanks for sticking with it this long.

Assuming you're ready for the final push, let's take some consideration to what dialogue is for.  Naturally, without dialogue, we would have no idea what the characters are saying, or what the purpose of the plot happens to be.  Any literate person knows this.  Anybody who can build an NPC should know this.  So, why is it that most of the games that come out anymore have such horrible dialogue?  Don't we know that uninteresting dialogue reflects uninteresting characters?  I think deep down that we do, but it seems most of us don't know how to avoid such an obstacle.  Well, first off, it's not an obstacle.  It's part of the natural process of writing.  Secondly, it's really not that hard if we have a remote idea what we're doing.

But, it must be hard if so many people can't do it, right?  Nope, try again.  The problem isn't that most of us can't write good dialogue.  The problem is that most of us don't choose to.  Too often we are so focused on plot that we ignore the natural flow of dialogue between people.

Lesson 3: The Encouragement of Friends

So, how do we fix this problem?  Realistically we want our plots to work, right?  Even if our characters display every trait that could possibly make them interesting, giving them a natural flow of dialogue might mean moving our stories away from our projected plot line, right?  Yes.  Odds are that our plot may not go the way we intended if we let our characters speak for themselves.  And this is exactly the way it should be.  Let's look at another example, shall we?

His name is Louie.  His girlfriend confuses him.  His two friends-one a daytime talk show host of a guy, and the other a metaphor freak, try to convince him to give her a second chance to stick around.  He doesn't want anything else to do with her though.  The question is who will win the battle of logic?  Read on to find out.



 
 

             "I don't get it," said Louie, "first she runs away because she hates me, then she comes crawlin' back like a puppy dog when I have nothin' to say.  What's the chick's problem?"
             "Maybe she likes you," said Kyle.
             "Maybe she's a donut short of a half dozen," said Alan. "She always did have a taste bud for the crazy."
             "You both suck.  I don't want her to like me, you psychos.  I wanted her out of my life.  Why's that such a hard concept to comprehend?  I dumped her.  The chick did not dump the jock.  The jock dumped the chick.  There's nothing hard about that to understand."
             "Come on, Louie," said Kyle, "we're not suggesting anything against you.  It's just that she's always watching you with intimacy in her eyes."
             "Ugh, don't give me that crap.  Don't you have any consideration for a man's meal?  She's just high on something."
             "See now you're projecting your own fear that maybe you love her."
             "You've been watching talk shows again, haven't you, Kyle?  Don't make me shove my foot through your crack.  You know I can do it."
             "Did someone wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?" said Alan. "You're acting like a banshee who just had tape ripped from her mouth."
             "What're you saying I'm the chick now?" asked Louie. "I'm not the chick.  I don't have feelings.  I don't buy dozens of shoes and ask which one goes best with my boxers.  I don't get giddy every time that freak from Titanic yells 'I'm the king of the world.'  And I don't care when she walks out on me.  She can walk out on me all she wants 'cause I can just get another one.  But she's the one that can't get enough of me."
             "Maybe that's what you're afraid of," said Kyle. "You're afraid of her coming back because you don't know what to offer her.  Deep down you want to give her the world, but you just don't know how."
             "Oh yeah, that's it.  You found me out.  Ooh!  Let me write my book now.  Go milk a cow or something, you fruit."
             "Louie," said Alan, "You can't be angry with her or Kyle because it doesn't add any years to your life.  I mean really, life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know…"
             "Don't say it, Alan.  I know what I got.  I got a psychochick on my back who has no idea the existence of the words 'it's over.'"
             "So this is her folly of the mind and crime of the century?"
             "What?  Alan, I have absolutely no clue what you're getting at.  Why don't you go flip the cheeseburger of life or something?  I'm sure if you hurry; you might be able to get a life.  After all, the early bird gets the worm.  Right, Alan?"
             "Bite me."
             "Why don't you just tell her how you feel, Louie?" asked Kyle.  "You can get a lot of aggression off your back."
             "Because she gets all sentimental on me.  She thinks if I tell her why I don't like her, it's expressing my feelings and then she feels closer to me.  She's really backwards."
             "That's why she's from Venus," said Alan.  "You have to go backwards to get there.  Women are the retrorockets of life.  You fire her off; she goes exactly where you don't want her.  You try to get her to Mars…"
             "But she just lands right back in my lap."
             "That's the nature of a relationship," said Kyle.
             "Actually," said Alan, "that's not quite what I meant.  What I mean is-"
             "Forget it," said Louie.  "I'll just marry her.  Maybe that'll scare her into staying away for good.  Thanks, guys.  You two rock."


Figure 3.1: From my short story "Three Clueless Guys." ©1998 CFD Entertainment

As chaotic as the dialogue may seem, we still find out that Louie thinks he's the one who's right about his psychotic girlfriend, even though Alan and Kyle make some reasonable points in the girl's favor.  If this story were about bringing Louie into an understanding that his girlfriend is harmless and that she wants a decent relationship meant to last, there would be an extreme temptation to direct the dialogue in such a way that gets him agreeing that she's good for him, or something to that extent.  However, Louie's character is convinced that she's crazy, perhaps for more reasons than just for her constant return to him.  So, to force the dialogue into a different direction may go against Louie's natural character.  Such a betrayal to our characters would help our storytelling skills lack credibility.

Now, this is in no way saying that we can't try to swing the dialogue in favor of the plot we've created, but we still need to be aware that we may have to direct the plot in a different direction if the story is ever meant to work.  It all really depends on our characters.

But, natural conversation isn't the only thing to consider when writing dialogue.  We also have to watch out for how we narrate our stories.  Let's first analyze what this means.  To narrate a story means putting an omnipotent voice into the game's text.  We usually do this to set up the story and to conclude it.  Occasionally we may want to throw it in the middle of the game here and there to create a chapter effect.  Typically though, those are the only places we should dare to use it.  Wait, did I just say, "dare to use it?"  Yes.  And I mean it.  Narration is a great tool when used appropriately, but a horrible curse when it's not.  How is it used inappropriately?  Think about this.  How many people walk up to us on the street and say, "and so your quest must begin, right now, or your fate will have such sufferings that you cannot bear."  If they do, we think they're a bit dramatic, right?  Here's another example.  The knight delivers his prized chicken to the king.  The king in all his majesty says, "This chicken was raised and cherished by you, but today it is mine to have cluck around the castle and be the source of laughter."  I think Artmaker describes this problem best in his article "Things to Avoid in Writing" for RPG-Online, where he talks about the "'We Are All Androids' Syndrome."  Essentially, the characters should already know the obvious, so they need to talk like they do.  No one wants to talk to someone who tells him a bunch of stuff he is well aware of.  It's awkward and a waste of time.  It's not even exciting.  It's like reading the newspaper.  The problem with narrating in the wrong place is that we risk utilizing such a syndrome, and why would we want to do that?  Do we really want our characters to be known as the Legion of the Dry and Obvious?  I hope not.

The last thing we want to be aware of when writing dialogue is our choice of voice.  If we go back up to the above example, we will notice that Louie is a remarkably different character than Alan or Kyle merely by the way he talks.  Alan and Kyle are calm and hippie like, but Louie is angry and chauvinistic.  There is no action to enforce these major differences.  It's all in the text.  The best characters are those who are notably different from others, ultimately standing out on their own without the author's influence.  If anything, this should be the only difficult thing about writing.  That's why I recommend practicing dialogue in an exercise similar to the example I used above.

So, is there anything else to say about dialogue?  Yes, just one more thing.  As good as our dialogue may get, it is vitally important that our players can read it.  The best way to ensure this, besides the obvious need to write it down, is to make it both legible and properly spaced.  Even though many of us have already gotten better about spelling and grammar, we still have a huge problem with putting too many lines of dialogue in one text box.  The engine can store up to 32,000+ boxes for our text, so we need to use them.  A nice rule to live by is limiting our characters to one line of dialogue per text box, and no more than three characters saying something at a time.  Here are two examples to show this-one is the irritating way, and one is the pleasant way.
 

The painful way to read dialogue:


Figure 3.2: Scene from Memoria

See if we examine the dialogue closely, we'll find that it has some decent character interaction, as well as reveal something about our hero-which is obviously that he hates mowing lawns.  But, the fact that both the father and the son have two lines of dialogue each devoted to the same text box, and that there is no line spacing used anywhere, makes it overwhelming to read.  For older games such as this one, using text in such a way is tolerable since I think the number of boxes allowed back then was a thousand.  But, now we have the blessing to get crazy with text boxes, so there is absolutely no excuse to abandon line spacing.
 

The nice way to read dialogue:


Figure 3.3: Scene from Lolsidothaldremobine

Ah, now this is more pleasant to read.  All new games would be much better off adopting this use of aesthetic dialogue boxing.  It really doesn't take a lot of extra time.  None of us should be so lazy about linking boxes together that we simply avoid writing nicely.  Consider it.

Also, here's another little writing trick to think about.  Exclamation points are rarely necessary.  If the dialogue is good enough, the character's emotions should be evident.  Reread the above example about Louie and his friends to see what I mean.  For all that difference of emotions, only one exclamation point was used.  Limiting exclamations will change the quality of your drama into something more realistic and enjoyable.  Try it.  See if you like it.

Now that we've finally come to the end of this incredibly long chapter of a text book, let's look at one more example to show how all of these elements can come together to make something entertaining.
 

Lesson 4: Innocent Use of Grocery Store Items

Before I give you the last example, I would like to point out that this is one of millions of possible plot, character, and dialogue combinations that anyone can come up with.  Even though that's stating the obvious, I bring it up because it is unnecessary to think that one character or one location is the absolute best option for every work.  If you like stories about knights and castles, then write it.  But, if you think colorful insects or a floating fish must save the world, then bring it on.  Whatever we choose to do, we should try to incorporate all the important rules of writing so that our game's story will shine.

Anyway, here is the final story example.  Read it if you want, or skip down to the end.  The choice is yours.



 
 

             Barry reached into his pocket to pull out his wallet.  He opened it to find fourteen dollars and some credit cards.  That was enough to buy three cans of soup and a roast turkey.  He placed the wallet back in his pocket and looked down the aisle.  Many varieties of cereals, coffee, and breakfast treats rested on the shelves.  He grabbed at a box of Cheerios to check the label.  The vitamins were essential, but he wasn't sure if it was in his budget.
             Barry saw out of the corner of his eye some movement down by the Pop Tarts.  A man and woman came down the aisle, each silently looking at every box they passed.  The woman pushed the shopping cart, while the man grabbed at a box of Nutri-Grain bars.  He checked the labels.
             The shopping cart was virtually empty.  Barry noted the couple was hauling around a jar of pickles, some milk, and a frozen pizza.  The man dropped the box of Nutri-Grain bars into the basket.  The woman looked at him with tears in her eyes.  The man shrugged at her.
             The man reached down to the bottom shelf and removed a box of Rice Krispies Treats.  The woman grabbed his arm and shook her head frantically.  He used his free hand to rub her hair back as he nodded patiently to her.
             "It's for the best," he whispered.
             The man opened the box of Rice Krispies Treats and pulled out a small package.  He opened the package and took a bite out of the contents inside.  The woman covered her eyes and cried.
             "How could you?" she whimpered.  "Are my treats not good enough for you?"
             "Your treats are good," he said, "but I want something else."
             "Something else?  I bake for you every night.  That's not enough for you?"
             "I just feel trapped when you bake for me.  You always expect me to hang out after we eat, and I'm just tired of that.  This is all I want."
             The man stuck the box of treats in her face.  Her eyes started to swell, and her cheeks went red.  Barry opened up the box of Cheerios and began to snack on them as he leaned up against the shelves.
             "Why are you telling me this now?" she said.  "I mean, I had big plans for us.  I bought a recipe book the other day because I was ready to cook for you.  Do you understand that?  I was ready for dinner."
             "I don't want dinner," he said.  "I'm not ready to commit to that.  That's a lot of sitting and talking.  I'm sorry." 
             The woman crouched over the shopping cart as the tears fell through the metal holes.  Her back rose and fell in a rhythmic beat.  The man leaned over her, cradling his arms and Rice Krispies Treats around her back.  She quickly rose up and pushed him away.
             "Get your cheap treats off of me right now," she yelled.  "How dare you try to tell me everything's okay when you're holding someone else's treats in your hand?"
             "I'm sorry," he said.  "I'll put them back.  Just don't be mad."
             "Don't be mad?  You already took a bite out of them.  You can't put them back now.  Why don't you just go pay for them now, and then get out of my life?  After all, it's for the best, right?  I don't want a man who won't commit to dinner with me."
             The man dropped the half-eaten treat back in the box and closed it.
             "You're right.  I can't change this.  I'm sorry."
             The woman reached for the frozen pizza and hurled it at him like a Frisbee.  It hit him in the chest.
             "Bake this, you jerk," she yelled.
             The woman reached for a box of strawberry Pop Tarts and lobbed that at the man as well.  It landed on the box of pizza.
             "Why don't you cater to some cheap Pop Tarts too?" she continued.
             "Look, I'm sorry," he shouted.  "I didn't think you'd take this so personally."
             "How can you say that?  How can you treat baking so loosely?  Don't you know how long I waited to bake for someone special to me, just to have him buy manufactured products with brand names?  My pans were clean before you showed up in my life."
             "Maybe I should just go," he said.
             The man cradled the Rice Krispies Treats, the frozen pizza, and the Pop Tarts into his belly, and walked down the aisle.  He eyed Barry as he passed.  Barry closed the box of Cheerios and set them back on the shelf.  When the man was gone, Barry looked at the woman again.  Her mouth hung open as the tears seeped through her closed eyelids.
             The woman slowly opened her eyes.  She reached into the basket and pulled out the jar of pickles.  She looked at it for a moment before the tears fell harder.
             "I was ready to give you my whole jar of pickles," she whispered, "but that would've been too much for you."
 She let the jar roll off her hand as she collapsed into the side of the shopping cart.  The jar fell in slow motion.  It shattered as it hit the floor.  The pickles skidded along in every direction.
             Barry rubbed his forehead a moment.  He quickly ran out of the aisle and approached one of the gum and magazine racks at the checkout counters.  His choices were plentiful, but he grabbed for a box of mint-flavored Tic-Tacs.  He quickly ran back to the cereal aisle, where the woman was still hunched over her shopping cart.  He opened the small box and popped a Tic-Tac into his mouth.  The flavor was sweet.
             Barry adjusted his shirt after placing the Tic-Tacs in his pocket.  The shirt felt like it could be looking good.  He casually strolled up to the woman and leaned over her.
             "It's going to be all right," he said, with a soothing voice.  "Maybe what you need is a man who will cook for you."
             The woman looked up at him from her basket.  She wiped the tears from her eyes.
             "How would you like a roast turkey?" he asked.
             The woman smiled.  She grabbed for the milk and opened it.


Figure 4.1: From my short story "Shattered on Aisle Ten." ©1999 CFD Entertainment

Okay, the story was cheesy, but it gave you all the elements, right?  We have characters, charged dialogue, interactive objects, lots of symbolism (what it symbolizes is irrelevant to those under seventeen), conflict, redemption-well not really redemption, an interesting location, and even a purpose.  Characters weren't compromised.  Dialogue fit perfectly with the circumstances.  If the plot was for Barry to meet a girl at a supermarket, then his goal was pretty much achieved.  If the plot was for him to rob the store, then the character elements would have been awkward at best.  What is there left to say?

So, with that, I urge all of us who are still scratching our heads to sit down and write something.  Write anything, I don't care.  We just need to develop these areas a little more before we put them into our games.  We can make a practice game if we have to.  Or, we can write a short story to get better acquainted with our characters.  Maybe doing individual exercises like the examples used throughout this article will help.  Just as long as we don't waste our talents if we have some to give.

And good luck.  Remember that plot is shaped by every character.  But, also remember that not everyone has to be involved with the story.  Sometimes it's refreshing to take some time out of a dragon-slaying journey to hear some guy talk about his dog who attacked a walrus.  Makes the game more fun.  We'll never know how much better our games can be if we don't dare to be different or experimental.

With that, we can now hopefully throw the last pile of dirt onto this subject of better writing techniques and never need to uncover it again.

__ _ _ __ __ _ ___ _ _ _ _ __ __ _ ____ 

Part 4: The Appendix is Usually for Filler

Now that the article is over, let's see how much we've learned.  This section is designed to test how much we know about story development.  Feel free to send your answers to the email link below.  The best answers (for both the quiz and the applications) will be posted in the design section of OHR Monthly #6 as an additional resource to learn from.

Quiz of Knowledge:

Answer the questions however you feel is most appropriate.  There is no specific right answer.

1. Which element of story development is most important to a game's design?

2. Name three possible ways to begin creating a character.

3. What is the best plot a game can have?

4. How should dialogue be approached?

5. How much of the story should be known before game design begins?

Creative Application:

This section tests your ability to use what you know.  The idea is to get as creative as you can without losing your focus.

1. Imagine a character whose name starts with the letter "S."  His (or her) name is unknown to most, but those who do know it say that it reflects his look and personality.  Write a paragraph or two that develops his or her character as best as possible, keeping appearance, personality, and moral integrity in mind.  Reveal his name in the last sentence.

2. Write a short story that plays out one of several possible sidequests in a game.  Assume the reader already knows the main plot line.  The sidequest may or may not have anything to do with the main story.  The idea here is to see how your story's main character will develop as he or she navigates through the mini-plot.  As an added challenge, try to make the sidequest unique, but clearly related to the hero's ultimate goal.  The story should have a beginning and end, and run shorter than two thousand words.

If you wish to submit your answers for possible publication, be sure to include your name.  If you don't want your answers published, either say so, or don't send them.

Email comments or answers to pepsiranger11@yahoo.com if you really want to.

 
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