Character building for games isn’t easy, and it requires a lot of effort, especially when it comes to companions. I’ve had the good fortune to work on a variety of titles with strong support characters over the years, and I enjoy writing them a great deal. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this (don’t cut me off, Feargus).
There are a few guidelines I try to follow when designing companions (some of these are dependent on the engine and franchise).
- Combat/Challenge-viable. Any companion that can’t hold their weight and help support the home team in some fashion isn’t going to last long in the hearts of players (well, maybe a very forgiving few). This is something I learned way back in Fallout 2 when it became clear that Cassidy was far preferred over Myron, for example (and not just because Myron was an ****, which factors into another point below). It’s also a lesson I picked up while playing Final Fantasy III – every character needs to contribute to the mechanics and challenge mechanics in some fashion (whether combat or stealth or whatever the game’s challenge is).
- Companions should be optional. Whenever possible, the player should never be forced to take them or in the case of true psychopaths, even let them live. The golden rule is the companion should be a support character or a walking/breathing slab of target practice if the players don’t like or want anything to do with the companion.
- Next, assuming the players like the companion, the companion should serve as a sounding board for the theme of the game. It’s not mandatory, but there’s no better way to reinforce the narrative than someone who is walking beside the player for 70-80% of the game. This worked well with Kreia in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, it was the spine of most of the companions in Planescape: Torment, and it worked well with Kaelyn the Dove in NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer.
- The companion needs to ego-stroke the player in a variety of ways. Sometimes this can be romance, sometimes this can be simply reactivity (either brief barks or conversations about the player’s actions), or any of a variety of methods. Ultimately, however, any companion that simply sits around bitching, complaining, and haranguing the player isn’t someone you want to drag into the nearest dungeon to help clear it out… you may simply want to throw them in the dungeon and lock the door.
- A visual and vocal/audio hook. This may be the result of many, many years of comic books, but whenever possible, I try to suggest a variety of “visual ego signatures” that can be integrated into the character design, and audio hooks as well. For example, when doing the Fallout New Vegas: DLC, Dead Money, the visual signatures were Dog/God’s bear trap that was still clamped on his arm (along with his name carved in his chest so it could be seen in reverse in a mirror), Dean’s dapper lounge singer suit to contrast with his ghoulish appearance, and even something as simple as Christine’s throat scar (which we had to position carefully so the bomb collar wouldn’t obscure it). All of these things serve to tag the character and helps make them stand out. Each had their own vocal hooks as well (Dog/God’s voice would change based on his personality, Dean had the drippy smooth singer voice, and Christine’s vocal hook was she didn’t speak at all).
- Speaking of Kaelyn, companions are also a great means of foreshadowing as well. Kaelyn’s relationship with her deity and his role in the Forgotten Realms ended up being a nice way to subtly build on the end game without directly hammering the player over the head with exposition.
- Reactivity, not just to player’s actions but to the environment and events taking place. The Mask of the Betrayer’s barks for when companions would enter certain areas, for example, did a great job of showcasing their personality and also a bit of lore/rumors about the location you were visiting. If we’re able to do the same with game mechanics and combat, that’s an ever better bonus (“aim for the eyes!” “Knock him down again!” “Good one!” “Did Dogmeat just knock down that super mutant?!” “I’m doing the best I can with this crappy knife you gave me!”)
So in terms of companions for Project: Eternity, the process works like so:
- Establish the game mechanics for the title, and when possible, link that into the lore and narrative while you’re doing it. What’s the central system mechanic of the game? (For example, in Mask of the Betrayer, the soul-eating mechanic and basic combat were the two principle systems the player was interacting with.)
- Design characters that support that game mechanic, and if it’s been properly integrated with the lore and narrative, make sure they discuss that angle as well, either though exchanges or reactions to it taking place in the environment.
- Next up, figure out exactly where that character shines in terms of the game mechanics – why would a player bring this companion along? Are they a tank, a healer, or perfect for sniping enemies from a mile away? This shouldn’t overlap with another companion’s specialty if you can help it.
- Build a barebones background. Were they once a scout, an assassin, a merchant, a Sith Lord, a smuggler, a bartender, etc.? What led them to that… and what led them to where they are today in the world? I say barebones, because I prefer to leave wiggle room for exploration and fleshing out the background while writing the character – the most likely avenue a player has to discover a CNPC’s history is through talking to them, so I let the CNPC do most of the work and try to focus on giving the details there and then.
- Gather whatever reference art you can that you feel capture’s the hook of the character (for example, in Dead Money, Dog/God’s reference art often revolved around Mr. Hyde from Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comic) and sit down and discuss the “whys” of each piece with the concept artist. I am fortunate to work with Brian Menze and he’s done a lot of the companions for Obsidian and Black Isle over the years, and seeing what he takes from the brief character descriptions and runs with them is really nice to behold (for example, Darth Nihilus). The important thing about Brian’s approach is he takes a lot of time to delve into the visuals of each franchise he works with and makes sure he’s capturing the art direction as well – and it really served us well while he was designing Kreia, Atton, and the other heroes/villains of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II.
- Build a tone. This starts as soon as you start writing – and sometimes, the tone surprises me once I actually start writing. The cadence of how the character talks, their slang, the subjects that interest them – I start a conversation with the character and try to imagine what I’d like to ask them about as players… and often, I try to steer the conversation into game mechanic help, gifts, new perks and skills to learn from the companion (which we used a lot in Torment, KOTOR2, and Dead Money, for example). The player should feel that they are gaining something of value from the interaction, even if the interaction isn’t mandatory – exploring a character’s personality should be as much fun as exploring a dungeon.
- Keep the theme in mind. As mentioned before, I try to keep the game’s theme in mind while writing (the nature of the Force in K2, the suffering of the spirit in Torment, the idea of “letting go”/obsession/greed in Dead Money) and try to find ways to weave that into the character’s conversation and their history. You don’t want to hammer it home too much, but you want to include enough hooks so when the player thinks back on the conversation, it’ll start to sink in and all click into place once the game enters its final stages.
That’s a bit about characterization – in future blogs, I’d go over a bit about constructing game stories and narratives, discuss some of the companion mechanics we’ve used over the years (influence, reputation, etc.), and anything else you guys would like to read. Thanks for reading!