The Importance of Character Arcs for World Building

[Originally published June 13, 2016]

A narrative needs characters, and characters need arcs. This is not a bold statement; rather, it’s an establishment of fact. Our brains like it when characters change and grow and progress. It’s like leveling up in a video game – there’s just something the human psyche intrinsically enjoys about the sensation of gain. Unlike movies, however, games are filled with more than critical-path plot. They have collectibles, side content, and other pieces that don’t lend themselves well to delivering an arc. The problem is that arcs are kinetic. They represent a ‘moving forward’ of a character, but side missions don’t always have the same narrative momentum. Unfortunately, this failure ripples outward, affecting not only the strength of a game’s characters, but the presentation of its world as well.

I’ve been playing through Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst recently. Good game, bad story. For a title so mechanically concerned with momentum, you might think it’d take a similar approach its characters. Not so, unfortunately, and the game suffers for it. The side missions are typical ‘world building.’ An NPC hands you a package pertaining to the state of the world and its characters – hey, take this contraband McGuffin to Dogen, cos you knowhow bad of a duder he is. I swear, this is the setup for over half the side missions in Catalyst. Then… that’s it. We don’t see how Dogen reacts. We don’t see his business change or flourish. We’re essentially just given a list of facts. Okay. Cool. I can list facts too. Microsoft likes money. Bethesda killed it at their E3 conference yesterday. Major Nelson joking-but-not-joking about Snoop smoking a dopalicious fattie is low key one of the best E3 moments of all time. See, these set up game culture, but they didn’t do anything with it. There’s no forward momentum. There has to be a response. World/character traits are best learned through the actions of an arc, not spoon-fed by unimportant, tangential characters that never show us the fruits of our labor. The packages we deliver have no tangible effect on the world around us. Sure, that fits in with Catalyst’s themes of futility, but we don’t even get some sort of message to tell us that our efforts were all for naught. It’s annoying, quite frankly. Game writers are often afraid of changing their world with side content – as though it will break down the integrity of their critical path. It’s a silly fear, and it makes for aggravatingly mundane side content. There’s never an arc, despite the setup for one. Motivation, action, then… nothing. It’s an unfinished sentence, cut off before it has the chance to

See what I mean?

Now, you can have meaningful arcs in side content, and they don’t need to have some grand, sweeping effect on the world, either. Take Dead Rising, for instance. The survivors you save have arcs, dammit, and it makes for more memorable characters and situations. It’s part of the reason that game is so full of life and personality. One of the first survivors you come across in the game is a woman named Leah. She’s just lost her baby to the horde, and has a leg injury. She doesn’t want to come at first, preferring to join her child in death. Frank asks her if she really wants to die, and she overcomes her despondence to join his merry gang. Hey, lookit that. An arc. Setup, payoff, characterization – of both the NPC and the player character. It’s an incredibly small moment in the broad scope of that game, but it’s one I still remember to this day. I have many other memories of survivors from Dead Rising, as many of them also had similar arcs. That game is proof that you can fill a game with meaningful, satisfying narrative side content – no matter how small in scope.

Other titles have slightly different approaches. I would argue that the Mass Effect series is comprised almost entirely of character-based side content. I also think that’s why it’s so fondly thought of. Sure there are giant robot bugs that wanna turn humans into juice, or something, but the things I really latched on to from those games were the little character moments. The way my relationships with my crewmates shifted and grew. That’s why the Citadel DLC was so popular – it was pretty much just a concentrated nougat of character interactions. Arcs, y’all. They’re important.

Now, some games encounter legitimate structural roadblocks when it comes to implementing arcs. Last week’s Crate and Crowbar included a brief discussion of the Hitman franchise, and its total lack of a plot. Those games find their strengths in iconic yet disparate levels, and it’s almost impossible to justify Agent 47’s travels while maintaining any sort of coherent narrative. Okay, so we need to move 47 away from this motel, how do we do that? I dunno, sexy assassin nuns show up? That’s why the best Hitman levels embrace the cheese and accentuate it with caricatured representations of life in each setting. Southern plantation life? Alright. Witness protection suburbia? Sounds good to me. Heaven and hell themed sex orgies? Sure, fine, why not. It’s also hard to create a compelling villain, as you’re always killing your targets. Yes, there may be an overarching Big Bad, but you’ll rarely – if ever – directly interact with them. As such, it’s almost impossible to establish an antagonist’s arc. That’s why Blood Money’s ending worked, despite its flaws. You got out of your coffin and just killed everyone. The indiscriminate massacre fits with Hitman’s focus on anonymous, ultimately insignificant villains. Here is your murder playground, Video Game Player, have fun.

Now, all this comes back around to Catalyst, and its failure to fully realize its world. It’s not a game like Hitman, so it can’t really rely on exaggerations. Tonally and structurally, it wouldn’t work. Instead, its best hope is to go the Dead Rising route, and fill its world with interesting characters that have small, meaningless arcs. Not only does this result in more compelling side content, but it also fills in the gaps of the world. You can tell a lot about an area from the people that live in it. New York. L.A. D.C. Three fairly distinctive areas, all with their own local charm. World building is a visual art, but it’s also reliant upon good-old-fashioned character arcs. Learn about the people, learn about the place. It’s an important piece of game structure, and it’s important to keep in mind that worlds are just as much about their inhabitants as they are their visuals.

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