Physical Evolution Of Game Characters Throughout A Narrative

When Square Enix decided to revamp Lara Croft (inexplicably one of the most recognisable characters in gaming history) they had one concern – getting away from the sex appeal that designers had been attempting to forcibly inject into the character since her inception. The art director for the new game, Bill Horton, explains it like this:

We wanted to make a girl that was somewhat familiar, yet had a special quality about her – something in the way her eyes look and her expression in her face that makes you want to care for her. Her skin is still bare on the arms and there are going to be rips and tears on her clothes, but it won’t be about being revealing. It’s a way of saying that through these tough situations, there is a beauty and vulnerability coming through.

There is a different tone we are going for across the board, and Lara Croft as a sex object isn’t our goal. No unlockable bikinis. She isn’t going to be as tall as the men around her – about a head shorter. This reinforces the feeling that she’s against all odds. The relative proportion is more important than the actual height (about five foot seven inches), making her feel like a scrapper of sorts, even though she will always find a way through her self-determination. She will find a way to survive even if she doesn’t have Amazonian proportions in the game.

The new Lara will have a costume that moves away from the traditional hot pants shorts she wears in her other incarnations, instead wearing layered tank tops and cargo trousers. What’s interesting to me is that these clothes will become dirty and ripped in the course of the adventure, not to show more flesh on the new incarnation of the character, but as a narrative aid. The further into this adventure the character goes the more damaged the costume shall become, reinforcing in players minds that the character really is going through hell. On top of these costume changes Lara will also be visually beaten up as she gains bruises and scrapes in her adventure. It’s a simple trick and has been used by many games in some form or other to show the evolution of a character in a very short amount of time and it’s also the focus of this article, the third in an ongoing series, which focuses on evolving game characters throughout the course of a story.

Take Batman, one of the most iconic characters of all time. In the absolute beauty of a video game that was Batman: Arkham Asylum he had a single night of hell. Facing up against several of the worst villains from the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery as they rampaged around the asylum it was no surprise that the game punished Batman physically by having his costume damaged. The first wound from a falling elevator caused his chest plate to get a rip while his cape was tattered by the end of the night. Yet still Batman saved the day and kept on going despite being continually beaten down in such a way, even managing to triumph over two of the more gigantic villains in the mythology – Bane and Killer Croc.

By using this technique of damaging Bats’ costume at certain set pieces the game allowed us a way to identify just how much crap he was going through at a glance. Combined with this, his stubble grew over the course of the night giving us a subtle, almost subconscious, visual clue of the time spent trying to capture these villains again. It’s a wonderful way to do things but does have some very large limitations. Playing the game again you’ll notice that Batman receives the exact same damage to his costume at exactly the same places in the game and for exactly the same reasons. While no-one knows enough about the new Lara Croft game to be sure, I’d venture that the exact same thing will happen there too. After a while it gets predictable and this feature that heightened the drama the first time you play the game becomes little more than a distraction that you wish were more dynamic.

Dynamic Damage As A Gameplay Element

Unfortunately games seem to be running in the opposite direction with more scripted events taking the place of dynamic ones. A good example of this is the Resident Evil series. There’s a very specific moment in Resident Evil 4 where Leon, the main character of the game, gets into a knife fight with an old enemy of his. The knife fight is portrayed as a series of quick button presses during an interactive cutscene with each miss meaning certain death and even if Leon survives he doesn’t come away entirely unharmed as he receives a small cut on his right cheek. There comes a moment later on in that game where the player will be turning the camera looking for something and they’ll notice that Leon’s character model has been changed for one with a small cut on his cheek to reflect his injury in the knife fight. Considering this game came out in the last generation of console when these things hadn’t been thought of before that’s a hell of an innovation, until you compare it to previous games in the series.

In earlier Resident Evil games the characters were presented as characters going through a night of hell, but the technology wasn’t there to show their injuries accruing over time. Instead the characters had health bars and, as their health was eroded by attacks and poisons, the characters would slow down, starting to limp and even needing someone to hold them upright in some entries to the series. This sort of dynamic damage system allowed for great story telling potential within the confines of the game as characters would take damage and show it all the time – until they were healed, that is. When characters managed to limp their way to safety and could use first aid then there was nothing to show their injuries anymore and whatever problems they’d had would magically go away.

At one point in the story of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater the main character loses his eye while being tortured. Being possibly the toughest son of a abitch to ever appear in video games he still goes on with his mission, covering his latest wound with an eyepatch.

This scripted wound changes the gameplay too as players would find that their aiming was slightly off and they’d have to compensate for the lack of an eye while trying to shoot people in first person view. Even if they got used to that there was a shadow on the right hand of the screen to portray the loss of part of the character’s field of vision, and that could make all the difference in some tense situations.

This was a problem that was on the minds of game designers for a while and when Metal Gear Solid reached the third game in the series the developers decided to do something about it in their game. Every injury that the main character, Snake, received in the game had a different effect on him. Damage to the arm would result in him being unsteady with guns, damage to the legs would make him limp, while head damage would cause screen to swirl with colours occasionally and blur the player’s vision, and cuts would make him lose health constantly. On top of this, each injury would chip a little away from Snake’s recharging health bar, stopping him from being able to take as much damage as he usually could. To counter this the player could treat his wounds, making splints for broken bones, bandaging lacerations to stop bleeding, using ointments on burns and spinning around to induce vomiting so they can rid their system of any poisons they’ve ingested. This changed the gameplay as the players constantly used the environment to collect items they could use to keep themselves going if they were injured, and would take care of their wounds as soon as possible to prevent getting ambushed while not at their best and the game turned from a regular stealth game into a survival masterpiece, especially on the harder difficulty levels.

Metal Gear Solid 3’s type of damage system affected the way the game plays in a much broader manner than having the characters limp when damaged in the early Resident Evil games, yet the point remained the same – characters in the game performed differently when they were injured. Unfortunately not many games continue to use these sorts of systems when it’s much easier to use the improved graphics that newer systems are capable of to show off lasting damage.

Evolution Through Training

Of course there are other ways for characters to evolve throughout the course of a game and these ways have actually become much more dynamic over the years, in contrast to the damage systems. Certain games increase the physicality of a character when their strength rises. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was one of the better examples of this as the main character C.J. responded to the way he was played. If the player spent a lot of time using melee weapons C.J. would become more buff over time and eventually go from a skinny teenager to an imposing wall of muscle walking down the street. If the player wanted to cause more damage they could even take C.J. to various gyms around the world and play a minigame to build his muscle up.

Appearing less than a month after Grand Theft Auto we had the first instalment of the Fable, a series based around the idea that the protagonist of the games looks different depending on how you play. In that game someone who focuses on melee weapons would have more defined muscle while someone who wanted more health would find their character would become wider and more burly. Characters who focussed on ranged weapons like bows would find themselves becoming thinner and looking more like a Robin Hood style character while those who learned magic would soon find their eyes and hands shining with power. Unfortunately this morphing system was toned down and changed over the development cycles of the next games in the series but it was made more automatic until the latest game had these things happening entirely depending on the actions of the player.

Of course these sorts of changes had a pronounced effect on gameplay as well as showing physically. In both games a muscled character would do more damage when unarmed or when using melee weapons. Other changes were enabled in these series as well. If the San Andreas character spent a lot of time driving then they would find that cars started to respond to their maneuvers more effectively. It’s subtle at first but by the time you’re halfway through the game you’d find that you could outmaneuver other cars much more easily. In Fable those players who concentrated on raising their Guile would find that they not only had access to the various stealing skills but they were less likely to be noticed by enemies and had a better chance at talking merchants into giving them a discount at stores. This combination of changing the gameplay as well as evolving how the character looks is what makes these games stand apart from other similar games and is something developers should take notice of.

One real problem with this sort of system is that it tends to be a quite linear path with the characters travelling one way along each stat and then coming back along it. The only real diversity to characters is given by the particular combination of morphs present on a character. Unfortunately most players use systems like this not to create their own characters, but to become as powerful as possible, meaning the character will end up having all possible morphs at once and they all end up looking the same. A truly evolving system would encompass all of the decisions they’d made in their life evolution would not only allow for characters to change over time, but would allow for those changes to be reversed. However, when the change has been reversed the system would take the character to another place than they would have gotten to if they hadn’t changed in the first place. An example would be a character that gets fat from eating too much. When the character lost weight they wouldn’t return to their original lean self – they may have gained bone density, have stretch marks or even hanging skin to show the previous change. Of course this is an extreme example, but there are more subtle ways to show changes. The basic idea is that while a person can go from A to B, they can’t get back to A again and will instead get to C in that particular aspect. This requires the developers to put more stats in that need to be monitored by the game and more physical changes that can mix together, but I believe the change would be worth it for that genre.

Who You Are Is How You Play

There was a time not so long ago that this next element we’ll be discussing was the fashionable thing for games to do. Quite simply the idea is that the sort of person you are should be reflected on your character in the game. Systems were built to allow the player to make decisions (usually black and white, good or evil decisions) and then those decisions would move a marker on a morality scale. People who made more evil decisions would find that their characters started to be more pale or grew horns (depending on the game) while good characters would be more attractive or angelic looking. Unfortunately that’s about as far as the system went with most games and it soon fell out of favour.

More recent games that have used it included Mass Effect 2 which starts with your character, Commander Shepard, receiving massive surgery. Due to the fact that the scars from that surgery haven’t fully healed when the game starts, the facial scars heal better as the player made good decisions while evil decisions would leave them as gaping wounds on Shep’s face that show off the cybernetics underneath. This could be bypassed by completing an early quest and buying the technology needed to effectively turning this feature off. In Fable’s (the only game series to still have this as a key feature) case these morality based changes have come to be shown in two main ways. Your purity of character is shown on the character by how pale and sickly looking they are while during combat or certain interactions the Hero may show their true self by sprouting ethereal wings. I am a fan of this sort of feature but I never seem to find one that has gone far enough. Rather each seems to be either a tacked on last minute idea or something that never quite reaches its potential. They concentrate on fantastic effects like wings and horns rather than using more subtle effects to write a character’s history on their face. Rather than breaking out the particle effects, a morality system that shows changes to the character’s features would be a good fit for these sorts of games. Someone might have narrowed eyes if they constantly con people or be wide eyed if they’re pretty much an innocent. Their cruelty may be shown in their thin lipped mouth or their kindness in their expression. A few of these pieces that slot together and allow for a character’s morality to be shown would be a great fit with the morphing systems of the previous section and could allow for deeper customisation of characters.

As has hopefully been shown in this article, there are several good ways to advance a character along the scope of a video game narrative, no matter if that narrative lasts for a single night or several years, and to show those changes physically. Whether it’s the dynamic damage of the upcoming Mortal Kombat game (with each blow scored against you in the one on one fighter causing physical damage that stays throughout the fight) or the hero’s hair turning pure white in Magna Carta 2 after a shock, each physical change to the character has its own place in the story and can evoke memories of high points in the story or close shaves with creatures that almost took us down. Combined with a good character creation system (these systems tend to stand apart from character creation systems due to the work involved in both) these systems for evolving a character could create some of the most memorable moments in video game history if they were all used to a degree. Of course, in this generation it’s unlikely that this will happen as developers seem to have hit the limit of what the hardware allows them to do, but there’s always the next generation to come and, with it, the hope that developers will abandon their pursuit of more realistic graphics and will start using more and more systems together that can increase the impact of the story.

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15 thoughts on “Physical Evolution Of Game Characters Throughout A Narrative

  1. I don't play many console games at the moment, but yes, I did enjoy the article! It was very well written and interesting. Good work! :up:

  2. Whenever I read one of your gaming posts, I think it's about time I played one again… :DThis post is interesting… Not long ago I read an article about game graphics and how too real looking characters freaked people out because they… well looked too real.

  3. It's true, as graphics improve over time we're reaching a plateau where characters will look too realistic. Of course that only applies to being shown truly realistic characters who don't act realistically (facial expressions being a bit off or movements being a little stilted), and if these evolutions are applied gradually enough that all the other systems in use with them manage to keep up then it shouldn't freak anyone out as they'll have seen it coming, so to speak.In the end though, we'll reach a place where graphics simply can't get better (probably within my lifetime) and developers will have to concentrate on other methods to bring in users, giving them something different. Hopefully by then they'll look back on these historic posts and see that there are better ways to make interesting characters and that a few pioneers have been doing so for years.

  4. Interesting post thank you Mik- although I haven't played any of the games featured and doubt if I ever will. I like the idea of dynamic damage though…

  5. It's posts like this that make the names games I've not played in 20 years appear on the tip of my tongue…and refuse to emerge :irked: I think some of this stuff was done to a limited degree back when graphics were a lot more limited (not so much on the actual avatar but on character sheets on other screens). Also depends on the type of game, of course.

  6. I used to like the Doom versions & stuff – I just like blowing things up, cutting the opposition down with a chaingun the size of a VW Golf, that sort of thing :lol:Alien Arena has everything I can actually be bothered with, in a game. And it's instant, a 10 minute rocketfest with some like minded idiots on the other side of the planet is exactly what (and all) I need, usually :up:

  7. Mart, you should see me writing them. The amount I leave out because I can't remember the name of the game is ridiculous, which is why some of my examples aren't the ones I'd originally wanted to write up.Nick, I'm not usually a fan of first person shooters but the recent Bioshock series is one I love. There's a sense of freedom throughout that not only applies to how you battle, but whether you're the aggressor or not.Kitty, Bioshock also has dead cats that can be hurled at enemies with telekinesis. :yes: The perfect game. :devil:

  8. Originally posted by Pussy Cat:

    Wolfenstein

    now you're talking _ I used to enjoy that 😆 The chainsaw was a good one for dogs :up: Perhaps we need to collaborate on Bioshock, and save the Cats 😆 Mik – That's interesting, although I must say that I have enough trouble fitting real life into 24 hrs a t m, there's no room for electronic games, to be honest 🙂 Maybe later in the year… :up:

  9. There's a sister post to this that is currently an entry in a writing competition for a games journalism website. Once the deadline passes (the start of next month) and I find out how I did, I'll be uploading it here as another part of my epic look at gaming. It's a shorter article like this one as they started out as the same post, but I just couldn't seem to naturally marry the two subjects, no matter how similar they are. It deals with character creation in the past, present and future.Does anyone know of any decent free e-book authoring software? I've had a look through my gaming posts and I think I could release them combined when the series is done.

  10. If you only need something to convert between file formats, you can try Calibreit's a bit bloated, but it seems to handle most formats, even the obscure ones that nobody uses anymore. :left:.

  11. I've got Calibre handling my library already. It works but not very well. I'm after a way to author my own, preferably with a WYSIWYG interface as I just can't learn another manual formatting style without getting things mixed up between them all. I'm going to be collecting the larger and more interesting posts and possibly the comments too, into a book, separating the posts into distinct chapters, and maybe sending a few signed copies out to my friends to celebrate the final publishing. Thing is I want to do a test run as an e-book first.

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