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The Importance of Good Characterization

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So, I’ve been playing some old games recently. I thought it was a good time to revisit some of the classics and try some new things, but I came across a problem. At least, it was a problem to me.

Game designers routinely require certain characters or party members to be present in video games; I understand this completely, I do. The problem, however, comes from when you can’t stand these characters, but you’re forced to use them thanks to either story constraints or party balance, gritting your teeth every time they appear on your screen like your own personal Jar-Jar Binks. If it isn’t a party based game, they’ll continually appear in the story, constantly being an annoying bothersome pest. Like constantly calling you and asking if you want to go bowling, eh cousin!? Sometimes, that’s the point of the character, like our good friend Claptrap in Borderlands.

Now, personally, I despise that little robot, but that’s kind of the point of Claptrap. He’s supposed to be this super annoying robot that no one ever wants to talk to in-game. So while I rolled my eyes when he showed up, I know that it is part of the character and I have to roll with it. It’s actually good characterization, like most things in the Borderlands franchise. Now, let me introduce two other characters: Hope, from Final Fantasy XIII, and Nanami, from Suikoden II.

 Good Characterization 2

Hope is a young boy and one of the party members in the game. He’s got the highest magic stat, so he does massive damage in a game where you need it, but he’s also the only character for 99% of the game who can heal your party and buff your party. The recommended party by so many people going through the game is Lightning, Hope, Fang, because Hope’s just that good and fulfilling those necessary party roles that you need to survive. The other decent synergist (The buff class) doesn’t have heals, and the other decent healer doesn’t have buffs. And yet, for so much of the game, Hope is the whiny little kid that you just hope falls off a ledge. He lacks the strong personality of the other party members, and while he does eventually see a little growth, he just isn’t as compelling. But you’re going to end up using him, because you’re just gimping yourself if you don’t.

Of course, Hope pales in comparison to Nanami. After hearing so many good things about this classic RPG, I have it a spin and I loved it…except for Nanami. She doesn’t do as much damage as most party members. Her personality leaves so much to be desired, being a very annoying hyperactive, overprotective, and endlessly needy big sister character. Even as you finally get a permanent place to stay in this game, she’s shares your room. The game also has quite a few “But Thou Must” moments, where you’re given a choice but only really have one option, but none bother me as much as Nanami. Numerous points in the game give you the “option” to leave Nanami behind, but it either results in the endless dialogue loop or her ignoring your wishes and joining the party anyway.

[SUIKODEN II SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH; SKIP IF YOU DON’T WANNA KNOW]


The game forces Nanami on you because she has story elements, but it’s also in an attempt to get the player attached to her for the plot sucker punch: at a certain point in the game, Nanami can die. The best ending has her being saved, but I was so ready to get rid of this girl that I went out of my way to ensure that she died, because ironically, this information was spoiled to me. I did this just on the off-chance that she’d recover and come to the final dungeon or whatever with me, and this meant I never had to deal with her again. Screw the hero, I’d rather he be traumatized and sad than I ever have to read another text box from her.


[LA LA LA LA LA OH HEY WE’RE BACK, SPOILERS OVER]

Claptrap, yeah. I’m supposed to sigh when I see him, but why would anyone force characters on your players that are just unlikable, or at the very least aren’t as personable as other characters in the game? At best, you’ve done it intentionally and are hopefully trying to move this character into meaningful development, as Hope eventually (sorta) got. At worst, you think this character is super likable and don’t see how anyone would dislike them, showing an example of poor writing quality. Good characterization drives a story just as much as the setting and plot. Don’t punish your players with dull or unlikable personalities with no way to escape them.  No one ever told Nanami or Hope to shut up, and that would have made the games for me. When your characters are make the players not want to deal with your game, you’ve made a definite error somewhere. As much as I loathe that little yellow bot, he’s leaps and bounds ahead in the characterization department when it comes to lots of other characters.

What are some characters that you hated but had to put up with for a game? Surely someone is going to mention other Final Fantasy protagonists. Leave your answers in the comments below!

About David A. Reeves

David is a 25 year old graduate with a BA in English, and he's wondering how all of this adult stuff crept up on him. He has a large love of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy, a lack of budget sense during Steam sales, and is involved in an abusive relationship with the MMO genre. Outside of gaming, David can be found reading books with swords and magic, suffering from writer's block on that story he said he'd write, enjoying a hookah or a beer with friends, and trying not to say anything inappropriate despite the overwhelming urge. He's an odd fellow.

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