Mommy, Where Do Characters Come From?

Mommy, Where Do Characters Come From?

I really like Role Playing Games. RPGs, and most video games for that matter, tell stories in a much different way than other mediums like movies or literature. Although games can be compared to both movies and books, RPGs just have a way of immersing me into their worlds, involving me with their characters, and engaging my brain in a much different way. The main difference between books/movies is involvement. In the case of an RPG I am not only watching a story unfold I am also manipulating the story in a diegetic context. This is to say that my participation in the story comes through my embodiment of a character within that story, and my actions affect the world of the game from within the world of the game. This is opposed to grand-strategy type games where players assume a more omnipresent type role. [side note]

Almost invariably RPGs tell the story of the player character. After spending some time playing I started to wonder where these characters come from and the context of that character’s origin and life as it pertains to the game’s diegesis. How do they effect the game-world/narrative and what’s the game-world/narrative’s affect on them?

What’s going on with the player character prior to the my intervention in the game’s narrative? Did they exist before I showed up? Where did they come from? What’s my role in their lives? What was/is their role in the world?

After some time I realized that there are really only three (well, two and a half) categories for the characters that we play in our RPGs. Sometimes these characters already existed with their own past and attributes, sometimes they are injected into the world generated with our input, and other times they’re a bit of both. I like to refer to these categories as thespians, newcomers, and divinely created characters.

Thespian Player Characters

Thespian Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate strictly from within the game’s diegesis and the player assumes this role as an actor.

As a thespian the player comes to the game as a character who already exists in the world of the game. These characters have a predetermined history, a set of predetermined abilities, and a predetermined identity. In short, the player has litte to no control over the stats of this character, or this character’s place in the story, and simply takes control at the beginning of the game.

Many adventure-RPGs have thespian player characters: The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007) “tells the story of Geralt of Rivia, who is a witcher – a genetically enhanced and trained human with special powers” where the player acts as Geralt; in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD, 1998) players act as Link, an orphan boy raised by a tree in the Kokiri Forest and destined to save Hyrule; and in To The Moon (Freebird Games, 2011) players act as Dr Rosalene and Dr. Watts who are “tasked with fulfilling the lifelong dream of the dying Johnny Wyles.” In each of these cases the character’s identities and lives have been pre-defined within the game world and the player simply assumes this role like the great William Shatner assumes the role of Shakespeare’s King Henry V.

However, unlike Bill Shatner’s amazingness, the future or destiny of Thespian Characters is not always written in stone. The qualities of a Thespian Character are generally predefined up to the point where the player enters the game world. Depending on how each game works characters can progress and affect the story according to the player’s action. In cases where there are level progression systems or divergent storylines the development of the character is up to the player.

Newcomer Player Characters

The Newcomer Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate outside of the game diegesis and are usually created through some sort of character creation system prior to, or during the early parts, of a game’s narrative.

The character’s back-story and current place in the game’s world is generally as a traveller or passerby or some other type of newcomer with little to no personal ties in the game-world. This serves as a narrative device used to easily inject the character into the world. Here the player comes to the game as a newly generated character who, up to this point, did not exist in the game world.

In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) and Pillars of Eternity (Obsidian Entertainment, 2015) player characters follow the traveller trope. In these games the player character is simply an outsider/foreigner who is passing through a region and is somehow thrust into the main conflict of the narrative (in Skyrim you are arrested; in Pillars of Eternity you fall mystically ill). In both cases the player selects a very vague history for their character by selecting their sex and race. Pillars of Eternity takes it further by allowing the player to not only select their race but also their sub-race, a class, a culture, and a background.

It should be noted that these don’t affect the game-world in any way. These selections simply mould the character towards a player’s playing style and affect the character and the character alone. In general the character is injected into the game world in isolation from it.

It should also be noted that many party-based RPGs such as Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate (Bioware, 1998) contain both thespians and newcomers in their game-play.

But, like most game design concepts, there are exceptions to the rule and of course characters can exist somewhere between being a Thespian or a Newcomer!

Divinely Created Player Characters

The Divinely Created Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate outside of the game diegesis but who are assumed to have existed inside the games diegesis prior to the player’s involvement and therefore can have a complex history, pre-existing relationships, and pre-determined personality.

These characters are like thespian characters in that they exist in the game-world prior to the player’s arrival. Unlike Thespian characters their attributes originate outside the game-world; they are set by the player during a character creation phase at the beginning of the game like a Newcomer character.

An interesting example of a divinely created player character is in Dragon Age: Origins (Bioware, 2009). Here, the player customizes their character by choosing their sex, race, and class but the player also selects an “origin story” for their character. Unlike Skyrim or Pillars of Eternity the generated characters in Dragon Age have histories that are entwined into the game’s diegesis. Not only is their background story already part of the game-world but it drastically affects the player’s (and their character’s) experience at the beginning of the game.

In all these categories the player is embodying a character, immersed into a new world full of adventure and intrigue. Wherever these characters come from; whether we are playing as a thespian, or as a newcomer, or if we are devinely created isn’t always important. It’s not always about where we come from. What really matters of course is where our characters go from here.

Seriously, RPGs are awesome! Do you prefer to play a thespian character? Or maybe you like the newcomer characters? Either way let me know in the comments here or hit me up on Twitter: @adamthegameguy

Disclaimer: I was not paid to mention any of the games in this post. I just really like RPGs!

As a side note: there are instances where the omnipresent player is assumed to exist in the world of the game. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis Games, 2012) players assume the role of XCOM’s new Commander and from that role players manage assets and coordinate missions. Similarly in Medieval II: Total War (Creative Assembly Ltd., 2006) you assume the role of a nation’s nobility. However, in both these cases the player has an omnipresent perspective where they control characters and elements outside of their own in-world existence. For example: in XCOM all the characters are directed by the player, but not embodied by the player. As the commander, I cannot put on an armour suit and join the squad in battle, nor can I navigate through the world as the embodied commander. In these cases, Commander and King serve as narrative devices connecting the player’s actions to the game world. [back to top]


Maybe They Were Trying To Help

When I was in college (the computer-science time, not the music time) I worked as a Java developer at an applied research centre who’s purpose was to develop an open-sourced EMR solution. Long story short, the code base was a mess, the workflow was a mess, the documentation was a mess; the whole damn thing was just a mess. Lots of components doing repetitive or redundant tasks unnecessarily adding to the complexity of the solution. One day, I came up with a way to simplify the software. I spent a lot of time planning and designing and had a little report ready to show my boss with eager excitement. However, my boss wasn’t up for change. My well thought out idea was shot down; and he wasn’t even nice about it. I felt awfully small, and I went back to my cubicle; tail betwixt my legs with an “I was just trying to help” tear welling up in my eye.

I think that’s how Valve and Bethesda must feel today.

It was a whirlwind of a weekend for them. Bethesda and Valve attempted to implement a marketplace for players to give pay for game mods and user generated content. The introduction of a paid mods system did not hit the community well; the backlash was insane. A seemingly innocent attempt at improving the modding community by pumping some cash into it was shot down like a clay pigeon. It turned from an idea and a new marketplace into the gamers demanding to talk to who was responsible for some heinous crime.

And yesterday the people responsible attempted to explain themselves:

// hours later they threw in the towel:


Their model made sense, at least to me. In the past, applying this type of model to user generated content actually improved the output quality and made it better and easier to contribute. To their credit, they did their research and the data showed that this could be a great idea. Sure, there was a bit of revenue sharing between the content creator, Steam, and Bethesda. But as they mentioned in their blog this is a standard practice, and again was a model that proved successful in the past.

Standard or not, we were having none of it.

I can’t imagine that Bethesda was attempting something harmful or malicious to their customers. Again, in their blog they show that income from Steam is only 1% of their revenue stream. In their eyes the past indicated a way for them to make their games, their mods, and their mod developers successful. It seemed to me that they wanted to give a platform for mod-developers to turn their efforts into a revenue stream and become “indie developers.”

But if the past is an indication of anything, we are resistant to change. As the old adage seams to go: if it ain’t broke and you try to fix it, and we’ll run you out on a rail. Even if you are just trying to help.

What do you think about paid mods? Good idea? Bad idea? Was Valve and Bethesda just trying to make a quick buck? Comment here or tweet me on Twitter: @adamthegameguy


Game Score: Not The Number Kind, The Music Kind

Let’s talk about my two favourite things: Games and Music!!!!

In film, music provides scenes with deeper meaning by establishing things like setting, environment, mood, or character. Game music is analogous to film music; in games music is used to give deeper meaning to scenery in addition to game experiences. Let’s first take a look at how music affects film, and then see how those concepts can also apply to game music.

Professor Anahid Kassabian, Professor of Music at the University of Liverpool, gives film music three purposes:

1. Identification

2. Mood

3. Commentary

The musical score in a film has the ability to identify the characters, places, objects, events, plots, and cultural influences in a film through theme, melody, and motifs. The music’s ability to evoke mood is an equally important factor in film music and the ability to provide commentary helps us to properly understand the significance of a character’s actions, or the events that take place within a storyline. Commentary music is similar in effect to mood music; the difference however, as Kassabian notes, is that, “mood is more often associated with [unconscious] identification processes, while commentary often requests reflective evaluation.”

The Cantina Scene from Star Wars is a great example of these three principles. The music, interacting with the scene, identifies the bar as a type of western saloon, where shady and sketchy people may congregate. The mood implied is relaxed; it is a bar after all. The music stops when the band ceases to play, reacting to Ben killing the murderer during the confrontation between it and Luke. When it starts again, the music seems almost uninterrupted, commenting on the type of place the Cantina is, and that this violent behaviour is normal.

With these three processes one can see the purposes of film music.

These concepts easily transfer over to the game world by identifying characters, locations, and environments; and establishing moods and applying commentary in the same way.

Now that we have a purpose, how can designers go about implementing music into games?

There are two broad sources of music in games; and also in film. Music that comes from within the world of the game; things that the characters are aware of and can hear, is called diegetic. Generally, the source of diegetic music comes from a character or an object in the scene. Remember the cantina band from Star Wars (see above)? Or the radios from Portal? Those are perfect examples of diegetic music. Music that characters in the game cannot hear, and that doesn’t live inside the sphere of the game world is referred to as non-diegetic. You can generally think of non-diegetic music as background music.

These terms come from the word diegesis:

The sphere or world in which these narrated events and other elements occur.

But, as I mentioned, these are very broad.

Thankfully Professor of Film Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, Claudia Gorbman, outlines 7 Principles for us which we can apply to games music:

1. Invisibility:

The technical apparatus of nondiegietic music must not be visible.

2. Inaudibility:

Music is not meant to be heard consciously; as such, it should subordinate itself to dialogue, to visuals, (i.e., to the primary vehicles of the narrative)

3. Signifier of Emotion:

Sound track music may set specific moods and emphasize particular emotions suggested in the narrative (See #4 below), but first and foremost, it is a signifier of emotion itself.

4. Narrative cueing:

Referential/narrative: music gives referential and narrative cues, (e.g., indicating points of view, supplying formal demarcations, and establishing setting and character.)

5. Connotative:

Music “interprets” and “illustrates” narrative events.

6. Continuity:

Music provides formal and rhythmic continuity — between shots, in transitions between scenes, by filling “gaps.”

7. Unity:

Via repetition and variation of musical material and instrumentation, music aids in the construction of formal and narrative unity.

Gorbman goes on to say “A given film score may violate any of the principles above, providing its violation is at the service of the other principles.” That is to say that a composer can forgo one principle, such as Inaudibility, if that will enforce the others. To carry on the inaudibility example, music can be prominent to the viewer/player in order to further convey mood and emotion. Music can also act as a referential cue to a character or place if it has a leitmotiv or a theme (more on that later).

Now that we have purposes and principles, we turn to film composer Earle Hagen who has conveniently outlined three categories in which we can implement our game scores.

Source music pretty much sums up what we discussed about diegetic music. Source music comes from within the world of the game. A band in a bar, a radio on the table, an ocarina in a temple. The players and/or characters hear it and interact with it.

A great example of source music comes from the bards in Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011). These character inhabit the taverns of Skyrim regaling its citizens in song. The characters are the source and interact with it using their instruments, and the player interacts by requesting songs. Another great example comes to us from Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008). The player controls a radio on their Pip-Boy, a device bound to their wrist. These examples identify the political tension in the world, the moods of the various environments, and comments on the world around the player’s character.

Dramatic scoring is your non-diegetic music; it is heard by the player only and used to enhance the emotional experience of the player’s game experience. These typically include background mood music, or more prominent pieces that illicit fear or excitement when an enemy is near.

Bastion (Supergiant Games, 2011) has some amazing dramatic scoring, composed by Darren Korb. I found that his score emphasized the atmosphere of the environment. If you make it to the 4 min of this play through video (thank you CoffeeHolic93) you can hear the music change as The Kid transitions into an old saloon, and the music reflecting a sort of western movie vibe.

We can find more amazing examples of dramatic scoring in Jeremey Soule’s atmospheric in The Elder Scrolls IV (Bethesda, 2006) and V (Bethesda, 2011):

Hagen also provides a third category of music, and honestly it was difficult for me to find a gameplay example instead of a cutscene because this one is best related to scripted events, rather than fluid gameplay. The third category is source scoring. This kind of music can jump between diegetic and nondiegetic. Hagen explains, “It follows the framework of the scene more critically and matches the nuances of the scene musically.”

The best example I could find is from The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2002). In this excerpt you can see that although the music is non-diegetic the melody progresses along with the action in the scene. Additionally, each time Link makes a successful strike chords move along a progression. This can also be referred to as Mickey Mousing.

Our friend, Professor Kassabian, gives us three MORE categories to use in our designs: quotations, allusions, and leitmotivs.

She describes a quotation as, “importing a song or musical text, in part or in whole, into a film’s score.” A composer can quote a piece of music in a film to identify time, setting, and even the culture within a scene.

Kassabian describes allusion as, “a quotation used to evoke another narrative.” That is to say, a piece of music is quoted to inflict a certain mood or commentary by using a tune familiar to the viewer. The radio on the Pip-Boy from Fallout 3, and the car radio stations in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar, 2002) are both examples of allusion and quotation.

A leitmotiv is basically a short melody used to refer a film viewer’s attention back to a certain character or a certain scene in a film. Some examples in Star Wars are Luke’s Theme, Leia’s Theme, and the infamous Death Star Chord; played each time the Death Star is seen on screen. These themes identify these parts of the film as important and key to the plot line. A leitmotiv can also identify an aspect as good or evil. Jeremy Soule makes use of leitmotiv in his score for Skyrim, where the same leitmotif is found in the track “Dragonborn” and “The One They Fear.”

Both Hagen’s and Kassabian’s ideas, in addition to Gorbman’s principles, about film music provide deeper meaning in movie scenes by identifying environments and characters, establishing mood, and commenting on the events happening in the narrative. These can come from both inside and outside the world of the film. These concepts are transferrable to the game music world, seeing as so much about video games is analogous to film.


What are your favourite scores from games? Let me know in the comments here, or tweet me: @adamthegameguy


Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music byAnahid Kassabian
Unheard Melodies by Claudia Gorbman
Scoring for Films: A Complete Text by Earle 

Shoutout to Jeremey Soule and Darren Korb; you guys do awesome work.


Referenced YouTube videos were not made by me and footage wasn’t me. It was:

Dan Tharp

Check out their channels, there’s some fun stuff there.

I was not paid to say these things, I legit love these games and their respective scores.


The Stories of My Lifes

One of the best terms I have ever read, heard, or said as a game designer has to be: “Emergent Story.” Tynan Sylvester, in his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences (2013), defines emergent story as:

story that is generated during play by the interaction of game mechanics and players.

Basically, it’s the story of you; the player. These stories don’t consist solely on the “narrative” of a game, although it does play a part. Rather, emergent story is the story of the game and what the player, you or I, experience when interacting with a game. Here’s an example:

Your team needs to rescue the three hostages held captive by the enemy in a barn. Your sniper takes over-watch as you and your other team mates skulk through the tall grass to the structure. You breach the door and throw a flash-bang. Your one team mate takes out one of the enemy units on the ground level and your other team mate fires at an enemy on the balcony but misses, gets hit, and goes down. As you rush to aide him with your medipack before his health runs out your sniper sees an enemy team coming in to trap you in the barn, but swiftly eliminates them from her position on the hill. Meanwhile, your remaining able team mate in the barn takes out the enemy from the balcony and unties the hostages. Your injured team mate survived his injuries, and is rewarded with a medal upon returning to the base.

The narrative written and directed by the designers and writers would be no more than: “the team descends on a barn to rescue the hostages.” The emergent story comes from the minute details in the gameplay generated by the player interaction with the game and its mechanics. In this instance, the designers/writers didn’t script for your partner being shot, or your sniper reacting

Some of my favourite games make heavy use of emergent story, and the best of these have little to no actual written/directed narrative



My favourite types of games are the ones where the story is mostly developed through play, rather than following  a certain story arc. One game that comes to mind, right off the top of my head, is the Sins of a Solar Empire Series. This sci-fi real-time-strategy game has no scripted narrative as you play. Basically, the little narrative you get at the beginning of the game (assuming you didn’t skip the pre-menu movie) simply sets up the conflict between you and the other races. How that conflict, and thus the perpetuation of society as you know it, plays out is completely up to the player. From there, emergent story events come about during exploration and encounters with allies or enemies (or space pirates… yea, I said space pirates).

This is in contrast to games like the Command & Conquer Series or the Homeworld Series. These games certainly have emergent story in them, but through pockets of interaction in between an overarching narrative rather than a “free form” story. In C&C it’s during missions after a cut scene while in Homeworld it’s  between hyperspace jumps.

Homeworld (Classic)

For me, games are all about story, but it doesn’t have to be a written, scripted, or directed story. Through game mechanics players can carve out their own personal stories really well. This not only provides rich gameplay, but can give games great replay value; since each experience has the potential to be vastly different every time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some stories to emerge.

What are your favourite emergent story games? Do you have a good emergent story to share? Let me know in the comments here, or tweet me: @adamthegameguy

Disclaimer: All images come from each game’s respective website and link back to such. These are not screenshots from me. I was not paid to say these things, I legit love these games.

EDIT: Spelling and grammar (March 13 2015)


What do games do?

I had an interesting conversation yesterday which challenged me to really think about why I love games, beyond “they’re a lot of fun!” It lead me to take a step back away from myself and seriously analyze what I do and what I feel when I play games (video or otherwise) and I felt that it lead to some interesting ideas and I wanted to share them with you.

It should be noted that everything here is, in some form or another, something I already knew about games and things I already applied to my designing/developing; the thing is I didn’t know I knew it yet (yay self discovery!). It should also be noted that these design goals and play experiences may not be the ultimate truth for all; I like to think that we all experience games differently and uniquely. Here’s some ideas about how I experience them:

1 – Games can provide an escape

This is the first thing that came to mind when I was posed the question “what do you use games for?” and I think that this is true for many. Games provide an opportunity to remove oneself from the stresses (or boredoms even) of everyday life and step into a whole new situation for a little while; a situation with its own goals, values, characters, and outcomes. This is particularly apparent in video gaming. In design and game reviews we see words like immersive or enveloping a lot. This means to describe the player’s total and deep mental involvement in the experience that is gameplay.

And this idea of an immersive play experience isn’t limited to video games. Any game can be immersive. I remember over Christmas my family was gathered around the dining room table playing Munchkin Adventure Time. During the game we were entirely engulfed in what we were playing; gleefully participating in the unfolding emergent story that was our dungeon adventure (time). For awhile, we escaped into the dungeons of Ooo and cooperatively, and sometime un-cooperatively, made our way to Level 10.

I think it’s fair to say that most game designers strive to create an immersive experience for their players. I know I do.

This idea that one can escape through game and play lead me to my second thought:

2 – A game can provide an opportunity to be somebody else, or be the person you really want to be

RPGs are the best example of this idea. In many RPGs the very first thing a player does is create their character; their representation of themselves in this new world. Through these representatives players move through these worlds interacting with NPCs, environments, enemies, and even other player’s representatives. This provides us with the unique opportunity to become someone else.

Have you ever wanted to be a medieval military general? Here’s a strategy game. Ever wanted to be the ruler of a civilization? Here’s a Sid Meier game! Want to be an astronaut? You can totally do that. Gangster? Thug? Bank Robber? You can be all these things. Not only can we escape into other worlds, we can become other people in those worlds.

But we can also be ourselves. Or better yet, the person we want to be. When I am playing an RPG I often find that I am imposing my own personality and values onto my in-game representative. When presented with a dialogue option I frequently say to myself “I would never say or do that kind of thing!” Or, I will perform grandiose actions based on my own personality.

(This next paragraph may contain a light spoiler, but I’ll try to be as general as possible)

There is a particular moment that comes to mind when I was playing Bethesda’s pos-apocalyptic romp Fallout 3. I had just escaped the Vault and made my way into a nearby town. While chilling at the local tavern, trying to grasp this wasted world around me, I talked to a well dressed gentleman who offered me a large sum of money to do a very bad thing. Here, I was provided the chance to be myself, another person, or something I wanted to be. And I wanted do be a strong altruistic “chaotic good” hero; values I wish to see in myself in the real world. So I shot the well dressed gentleman dead. In the face; so he couldn’t harm anyone ever again. And honestly, it felt good to be good.

I should really clarify that I don’t actually want to shoot people in the face, and if I ever found myself in a similar situation in real life I would probably call the police. The point here isn’t that I want to be a violent person, but I want to be a good person.

My next point kind of stems from the whole shooting people in the face bit:

3 – Games let us make decisions that are, in general, inconsequential

If I shoot a bad guy in the face in a game, nothing is really going to happen to me in real life. That choice was generally inconsequential. That isn’t to say that the choice didn’t have any consequence; there were in-game events that happened. Generally speaking I was presented with a hypothetical situation, which stimulated my mind and value systems, and I made a hypothetical decision. The difference between games and thought-experiments is that in games we get to take “hypothetical actions.” More than just making a decision in our minds, we take action with our game controller (or keyboard or play a card etc) which can lead to visual and audible responses, and “hypothetical consequences” which lead to whole new hypotheticals! And at the end of the day, nobody really got shot in the face.

The best part of these hypotheticals is the fact that these sort of things probably won’t ever happen in my real life, which brings me to my last point

4 – Games put us in situations of our choosing that we generally won’t experience in real life

“Games are a series of interesting decisions” – Sid Meier (Creator of the Civilization series)

I know, I know. There is a lot of contention and debate about this quote (or misquote as some would say). Rather than get into the quote itself (I could probably write a whole post about it) I would actually like to paraphrase it a bit and say:

“Games are a series of interesting [experiences]” – Adam Carriere (Creator of this blog you’re reading)

I’m probably never going to experience the opportunity to fight a dragon with my loud voice, design and fly a space rocket, thwart an alien invasion, or command the elements as a geomancer in real life. But I can certainly experience these things as a player. And that’s awesome.

That’s why I love games.


Why do you love games? Feel free to share your thoughts here in the comments or over on Twitter (@adamthegameguy)!

Thanks for reading! Please note: I did my best to link my game references to their official webpages, but other than Adventure Time Munchkin they should all be available through Steam for you to enjoy (and experience)!