Raw Cartridge: The importance of character arcs

raw_cartridgeSometimes an idea presents itself just crazy enough to work. Peanut butter + chocolate = Reese’s Pieces, body-building + no acting ability = Arnie and rawDLC + Dusty Cartridge = Raw Cartridge. Welcome to the future of content swapping between our sites.

In this virgin piece we reintroduce you to rawDLC podcast regular Dusty Cartridge’s Mark Ankucic, whose love of solid storyline led him to muse over what makes a protagonist unforgettable and how many developers completely miss the point and fail to engage their audience. Enjoy.

If you don't care for Lara, who will?

If you don’t care for Lara, who will?

As I put down the controller after experiencing the first three hours of Tomb Raider, I was extremely disappointed. For too long, I’ve heard developers talk about how much they ‘love’ their protagonists – Arkane loved Dishonored’s Corvo, IO Interactive loved Hitman’s Agent 47, and Crystal Dynamics loved Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft to the point where every media outlet was repeating their catchphrase of ‘you WILL CARE FOR LARA’ ad nauseum.

I would beg to differ – I would gladly say that the developers idolised their characters, but never loved them. It’s quite easy to be enraptured by the idea of a character, what they represent, what feeling emanates from them, but it’s much, much harder to love a person, because people change.

Change within a character is called a character arc – simply put, the experiences that a character faces, the way they react to those experiences, and what kind of person it ultimately makes them, is the character arc. Depending on the game, it is simultaneously the most and least important part of narrative.

Chicks dig me for deep personality

Chicks dig me for my (balls) deep personality

We didn’t need a character arc in Duke Nukem, because his role was to act as the jeep through the hilarious safari of an alien-invaded world. Portal 2 proved that the protagonist barely needed a personality at all for character arcs. While Chell’s persistence and bloody-mindedness simply mirrored your own efforts, it was the decline into insanity on both Glados’ and Wheatley’s part that truly emphasized just how intrinsically hard her will was.

Whether or not a game needs it, or is particularly important to the point of the game, it does give a game a ‘soul’, an avenue by which you can derive empathy, or a personal connection, or a reflection. One particular title that found failed miserably at this attempt to create a soul was Tomb Raider. To be fair, my only experience with the title was a three hour long preview, however, in that time she goes from ‘grieving killer of wildlife’ to ‘mass murderer of men’. When consoled about her first man-kill, she says that it was ‘easier than she thought’ it would be. Her quest from that point on has the added subclause of ‘genocide’.

It doesn’t necessarily make the story bad, but it makes the character weak, and completely undermines the emotive power of confrontation. When Lara killed the deer and apologised, I felt something. When Lara killed her would-be rapist, I felt something. When Lara then went on to kill more people than I personally know, any sympathy or empathy I had with her died. If Crystal Dynamics had instead inserted a montage of Lara killing people with ‘I’m the best, around!’ playing I probably would have been able to take this transformation more seriously. An arc has an obtuse curve – Lara’s curve could be used to pierce a brick wall.

Arguably, the best way to smooth the obtuse curve of the character arc is to use subtlety, an incredibly powerful tool that couldn’t be used in Tomb Raider after she threw a gas canister and shot it mid-air. Strangely enough, it was an even more over-the-top game that used it brilliantly, though sadly, only once in the one scene. DmC: Vergil’s Downfall saw Vergil watch as his former partner Kat was being chased down by a monstrous demon. Aside from his tactical coldness, Vergil did hold affection for her, and as Kat calls his name while the beast is closing the gap between them, Vergil pauses before responding.

This conversation, and friendship, is over

This conversation, and friendship, is over

That pause meant everything.

We were no longer dealing with a man working under the same ideas or pretenses. No matter how gravely idiotic his original plan of world domination was, his intentions were more or less good – helping humans by enforcing his own rule. Whatever it was that originally forced him to fight for others, whatever sympathy he had for humankind, was vanishing, and that split second showed the beginnings of it.

If we were to believe David Cage, this subtlety could be largely attributed to the current technology available, but I think this provides an easy cop-out for games without the same budget and also detracts from those who have made great characters in spite of their technical limitations. Warcraft 3 is a great example of this – a top down perspective, bright, childish like graphics, and barely any facial animation would have (by these standards) left almost no room for players to connect to the characters.

In spite of this we were presented with Arthus, a young, bright commander slowly turned to madness over the course of a multiple hour campaign. Not only does his each and every decision grow harsher, his friends continually react and comment to his actions, with silence, reprimand and concern. They, like you, notice that his actions completely defy what you knew of him and what the supporting characters know of him.

So now that we have our attempts to capture a ‘soul’, and a connection, how does a game manage to avoid coming off as cliché? While some games fall completely flat on their faces within minutes (Dragon Age and Tim Curry who starred in ‘Dragon Age: the most obvious beginning game betrayal of all time), there are other titles who manage to redeem themselves through a strong character arc surrounded by trite plot development.

Pew pew!

Dude’s got a lantern through his nose… seems legit

Ni No Kuni, for example, was an incredibly lame game. The protagonist was always believed in, faced little to no suffering, and was generally cheered onto victory with nary a doubt in anyone’s mind as to his inevitable success. Oliver would have been a boring character had it not been from the changes that occurred within him; not so much from ‘crybaby’ to ‘hero’, but from boy to man, from follower to leader. In the outset of the game, Oliver is easily led and is completely captivated by his new-found friend, Drippy.

As his journey continues, his politeness and intrinsic honesty earn him praise and trust. By the end of the game, the trust and respect he has earned has given rise to his confidence to the point where he starts to take the lead, and communicates directly to both his friends (of any status) and to his enemies. From boy to man, follower to leader – Oliver reflects on his supporters and his own abilities, and grows in reaction to them.

The main reason character arcs should be seen as important in the industry is twofold: firstly, it greatly improves emotional connection, it further reinforces that games are more than just a child’s plaything, and that there is art to be had in the area of entertainment. Secondly, it is financially viable. Having made the connection, the player now wants to see more of that character, and see them change and react to new and different situations, further cementing the bond and so on.

Enough from me though – what’s your favourite character arc?

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Dave Kozicki

Shotgun Samurai

Video game reviewer, presenter and enthusiast. Film and TV-aholic. Pop culture geek. T-shirt and sneaker addict. All around nice guy and one hell of a sexy beast. Writer for Official PlayStation Magazine AU, AusGamers, Hyper Magazine and Australian Penthouse.


  • http://www.facebook.com/TheChad813 Chad Wheeler

    Interesting topic to write about.

    I’m not going to mention Bioshock: Infinite as everything about that game has already been said so the next game in recent memory that managed to have me care about the main characters is Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead, they did quite a good job developing the characters over the course of the story. I can’t think of words to describe my feelings other than to recommend playing the damned game yourself. Nothing I can say would do it justice.

  • Mark Ankucic

    Thanks Chad! I’m yet to play The Walking Dead, but I hear it’s amazing. Will have to get onto that!