What you believe in is what makes you who you are. It is what informs you of your opinions and dictates much of what you perceive as real. The games we make are no different. From the characters that we control, the world they live in, and how the player interacts with each, if the core beliefs are consistent and persistent, that will be felt on an incredibly deep level. In fact, you could even call it the heart and soul of a game. That sort of special x-factor that helps to make a game feel more alive than even a bigger budget game sitting next to it on the shelf.
But like having beliefs in real life, it is a double edge sword. As soon as those beliefs are called into question, your entire reality can become questionable. The deeper or more core to the person or world the belief, the further everything can come crashing down the moment they are betrayed.
But, when we are mindful of those beliefs, we can not only plan on where to implement them, but also use them to inform us of priorities in everything from game mechanics to which assets require the most polish.
The easiest place to establish a belief system in your game is with your characters. It can be as simple as a black and white moral code (good or evil, life or death) or something more gray (political beliefs or spirituality). In either case, just mentioning them on a base level can make the character infinitely more identifiable to the player. But it is when you can weave them into the actions and appearance of the character that you will have the most success and payoff.
Left 4 Dead does a great job of having character designs that instantly informs the player of where the main characters fit into society before the zombie outbreak. And from that, we can make assumptions of what they believed in, compare that to what our own personal beliefs are, and find the one that matches us best. That makes the horror of an outbreak feel all the more real, because not only are we confronting the monsters in the game, but our own internal fears about what we would do in that situation.
After appearance, motion is the second step towards visually identifying someone’s beliefs. Getting into those beliefs of a character and how it drives their actions is what animation is all about. The idea of giving truth in the motion means more than just its physical believability. It is what is emotionally driving that physical movement that truly defines the character and makes them believable. And those beliefs will help drive the player forward as well.
Knowing that Kratos enjoys dismantling his foes and feels no remorse reinforces the brutal animations and gameplay of cutting through waves of enemies. As the player you relish the chance for a large mob to appear that you can dissect in the cruelest manners possible. Contrast this with Nathan Drake, who values life in cut scenes, yet mows down enemy after enemy in game with little care. This disconnect can betray the sincerity of those beliefs and even be comical when honestly examined. The same can be said of John Marston, who complains about doing the right thing and being his own man in cut scenes, yet without hesitation guns down the rebels you have been helping because someone from the other side tells you to. Very quickly his motive and actions turn hollow, and many people feel that when playing through that portion of the game.
All three are recognizable and memorable characters, but only one allows the player to practice what he preaches.
For games where the avatar is meant to be more of a blank slate, that allows the player to inject their own beliefs or choices, it becomes all the more important for the supporting characters of the world to have strongly held beliefs. Mass Effect 2 does this brilliantly, and many of the most emotionally compelling sequences stem from this. Be it Thane’s deep religious values that conflict with his profession, Mordin’s almost absolute belief in knowledge and science over emotion, or Jack’s inability to believe in anyone except herself, those characters are strong because it feels that their convictions come from an honest place. When those beliefs are challenged by either the player or the world is when they become truly alive.
A big part of establishing this belief system and maintaining it is through an exhaustive character bible. Beyond just model sheets and reference for movements, really think about what drives the character forward. What has lead them to the point they are at when the game starts, and where do they draw the line in their world, as to what they believe in. Do their beliefs change or grow as the game progresses?
Do they mind getting their hands dirty or are they reluctant to do so? Both can allow for the same overall gameplay and creation of assets, but being aware of what they believe can make what happens before, during and after all the more meaningful when the animations or dialog matches those beliefs. This goes for not only the character, but the player. In fact, going a step further, this is how we can even begin to color the player’s beliefs, and make them question their own values versus those of the characters in the game.
Approaching morality and beliefs in this manner requires a level of intellectual investment and involvement by the player that can exceed the binary wheel of good or evil many games use. It also removes the need for an in game win/lose state which can blunt the moral impact for the player, when they care more about the reward or win than the emotion or morality of the decision. Giving the player choice in the outcome of their experience is what sets us apart from other forms of media. But when you force them to not just watch, but play in the life of a character they morally oppose or disagree with, the effect can be incredibly moving.
You can also take those beliefs of a character, and inject them into the gameplay, beyond just moral decisions. Valkyria Chronicles goes so far as having a character’s beliefs actually affect their abilities. Each character has a set of special abilities that gives them different buffs in battle. Often times they are directly tied to their upbringing, sexual orientation or racial beliefs. So for example, Dallas Wyatt, a female engineer, is attracted to women and dislikes men. To convey in game that she has a strong attraction to girls (one in particular), pairing her with female soldiers will cause her to start fighting better in order to impress them. Conversely, she is given a fighting penalty in-game where her stats will go down when near male squadmates. Other characters have a strong bias against other factions or races, which can directly impact how useful they are in battle when around those groups. It adds an emotional complexity to the battles that fosters actual bonds between the player and their preferred team members. Add in the perma-death feature, and very quickly, as a player, you begin to take each battle and move of your troops personally. I’ve talked to people who have played the game that actually forsake using a higher tiered character because their beliefs were against their own. They actually chose to make the game harder for themselves to stand firm of their own beliefs. That is the power of merging beliefs into game systems.
Once the beliefs of the main characters have been established, showing how the world reacts to those beliefs is a natural way to show how strong their convictions are and to what lengths they fit in with the world. One of the main moments that sticks out to me from Beyond Good & Evil is when after fighting to expose the conspirators of the world, I go back to the city hub that I had traveled through many times before. But this time the town was rioting, and tearing down the propaganda they had bought into up to that point. Seeing my actions translate to the world resonated with me in a way I hadn’t really experienced before. My actions and Jade’s beliefs made that world re-evaluate theirs. It is the type of thing everyone dreams about: making a difference and having everyone understand what you believe in. It isn’t something many people get a chance to feel, on that level, in real life. It would be a shame to squander that opportunity when it is possible for everyone to feel that in games.
L.A.Noire reinforces the beliefs of Cole Phelps on multiple levels, from art to design. The little touch of him stepping over the body at a crime scene helps to ingrain his level of respect for the job in a much deeper way for me than anything he says in a cut scene. Having the amount of damage I cause to the city, pedestrians or police car tallied at the end of each case and my partner yelling at me every time I hit something reminds me of the laws I am sworn to uphold more than any of the monologues being spouted. So much so that for the first time in an open world game, I actually paid attention to the stop lights and obeyed traffic laws. And if I was going to disobey them, I used my siren. The game required neither of me, but because it had honestly established what the characters believed in, I wanted to carry that narrative forward through my play style.
I contrast this with my experience in Grand Theft Auto IV. When Niko starts the game reluctant to kill anyone, I instantly felt drawn to his story. His beliefs were established up front, and I really appreciated the effort. When he quickly falls back into the crime lifestyle thanks to his cousin, and is forced to kill a man, I was excited when he cursed his cousin’s name after it happened. I couldn’t wait for him to verbally cut loose on his cousin, if not physically cut him for it. Yet, when Niko got into the car, and sat next to his cousin, all he said was, “It’s done.” I felt so betrayed that I took the disc out.
That is how powerful we as humans are in our beliefs and how attached we can become to those of the characters in our games. As with any belief system, if it isn’t respected, it is going to cause a person to lash out. Having your own beliefs and knowing others is a special gift. Let’s make sure, as game developers, we are not only aware of our character’s beliefs but that we also take note of what the player’s may be. Neither are easy to tap into, and if done half assed it can cause more harm than good. But when done right, it can be felt in a way that everyone involved in the experience will deeply appreciate.
Define the beliefs of your game. Identify the parts of your game that speak to those beliefs, and shine a light on them. Root out the moments that betray it, and remove them or change them to match. Doing so will not only give you a chance to say something, but it will allow those playing it to honestly listen.