Relationships Between Characters
Love, hate, sympathy, jealousy, empathy, pity, disdain, indignation. The list of emotions the main and secondary characters of your story can evoke in your player could go on forever. To achieve this, you have to make the other characters and their personalities tangible for the player so that they can build a relationship with them. This does not mean that you will have to recount a grand tale of love and betrayal. In most cases, some additional words or one more sentence are enough to breathe life into your characters and give them depth.
Each character should be unique and different from all others not only in name, gender, and age. Upgrade your characters by giving them a biography, a motive, or a special trait, behavior, or attribute.
Relationships With Minor Characters
The hero is being approached by a beggar-woman? Then have her scratch her arm occasionally during the conversation to show that she is unkempt or suffering from a disease. Make her address the hero in a distinguishable way, like calling him “sonny” or “sir”. Maybe she reminds the hero of a late relative, or she is not begging for herself but for a sick neighbor. The old woman could have been left by her husband or might have lost all her worldly belongings to a fire that was caused by the hero. She could find him attractive, see him as a protector, or someone whom she looks up to with awe and fear.
Make frequent and varied use of such minor characters. For most of them it is enough to appear just once in the story and to limit their interaction with the player to a few words, actions, or decisions. But even then each of these characters should linger in the player’s memory because the encounter was moving, funny, or just interesting.
Certain minor characters can also reappear at a later point. This makes for a stronger connection to these characters, especially if you are using variables and reference the earlier decisions of the player. Just make sure that you do not get carried away and that you bring each encounter with a minor character quickly back to the main path of the story.
Relationship With a Companion
A classic example: The player character is a young police officer, fresh from the academy. His partner is an old, cynical cop who has just a few months left until retirement. Due to the many interactions between them, your player will build a relationship with this companion. You should make use of this and amplify it.
The old cop could naggingly criticize one of the hero’s decisions or mock him with a cutting remark. But he could also treat him like a foster-son and try to protect him. During the course of the story, the hero can learn why he behaves the way he does. Maybe just too many of his previous partners have died on the street. Or he wanted to make a career in the police department but this was denied to him because of his unorthodox methods.
Provide the companion with a distinct catchphrase like, “During my training, we actually had to learn stuff like that.” Or let him give the hero a nickname like “Sir Lancelot” or “smart ass”. Equally interesting would be some kind of phobia, for example of dogs or heights, or any other character quirk.
But take care not to overload the companion with character traits. His personality should follow some red thread, otherwise the picture you are trying to create of the companion will dissolve into some blurred, intangible form.
Relationship With the Antagonist
Darth Vader from Star Wars is one of those characters who fascinates us the most. This is down to the fact that the opponent of Luke Skywalker seems to be full of contradictions. Outwardly he appears incredibly powerful, strong, and ruthless. At the same time, he is hiding his face and thus his inner being with a mask. This hints at vulnerability and a break with his previous identity. Furthermore, Darth Vader is only the executive organ of the evil Emperor who remains rather shallow as a character. Thus, the supposed power of Vader is called into question on several levels, allowing us to have empathy with him and understand his conversion to evil, but also his return to the good side right before his death. Also – and this is important – Darth Vader is just cool. We do not approve of what he is doing, but it is full of black humor and menace when he is choking his subordinates with the power of the Force instead of arguing with them about his orders. You do not have to like Star Wars, but there is a lot that can be learned from Lucasfilm when trying to create clear and distinct characters.
Think about what this could mean for the antagonist in your story. Do not just make them evil by default, but have them follow a distinct philosophy. Jesus sacrificed himself to save man. Would it then be far-fetched if someone tried to sacrifice man in order to save the world? Can immortality and limitless power not lead to depression and madness as well?
Feelings of guilt, jealousy, and inferiority complexes are excellent motives as well. In the movie “The Prophecy”, Archangel Gabriel provokes a new war in Heaven because he feels neglected by God who is focusing all his attention on man. Gabriel is not simply evil, he is just fighting to maintain and restore his world. Brutus is a similar kind of opponent. For his murder of Julius Caesar, history has branded him as an assassin and betrayer. But is he really that different from Caesar himself who sacrificed hundreds of thousands for his own goals? Might his intentions, to safe the republic, not even be the more noble motive?
So, by all means, depict the opponent of your story as very powerful, but also give them many additional facets. How much empathy you want your players to have for them, is up to you. But many different layers and moving away from any black and white thinking will help your players to also muster interest, curiosity, and fascination for their adversary instead of just disgust and fear.
Responses to the Player Character
Apart from the personal development of the characters, there are other ways to rouse your player’s emotions. A simple and important tool that is unique to interactive formats, is to have other characters respond to the player’s actions and the events resulting from them.
If the hero fought bravely against the dragon, it should not only be his companion who gives them praise. Have the city guard treat them with more respect now as well, have the woman at the market chuckle at them and give them meaningful glances, and have the king shower them with glory and treasure. Did the hero, however, flee from the dragon, they should be feeling the townsfolk’s disappointment . The city guard might want to check their documents, the innkeeper could spit in their mug, and their companion could reproach them for their cowardice.
Instead of having many characters react to one of the player’s decisions, you can also determine one character’s reaction to many different decisions. In repeated dialogues with his love interest, the hero might be able to choose between different manners of speaking. He can flatter her, insult her, flirt with her, be distant, or joke around. Each of these decisions will have an influence on the respect value of the other person that is being recorded as a variable. At a specific point in the story, you can then check this variable. If its value is above a certain threshold, the player was successful and the hero wins the heart of his beloved, the trust of a witness, or the favor of a politician. If the value is below this threshold, negative events will take place instead.
In the RPG “Mass Effect”, the protagonist has numerous companions to whom he can talk in between missions to learn more about their past and gain their loyalty. By picking the right answers throughout a series of such dialogues, companions will not only gain new abilities, there will also be new side quests available. A great incentive for players to get to know these characters better.
But “Mass Effect” is also brutal in that regard. At the beginning of the game, the hero is accompanied by a recruit as well as the daughter of the former instructor of the hero, building relationships with both of them. Only to be suddenly confronted with the difficult decision that only one of them can be saved. The character rescued will survive through the rest of the story, but the other one is lost forever. A dilemma that saw many players despair in front of the monitor – an almost perfect emotional experience which contributed to the huge success of the game. It is still considered as a milestone regarding the design of companions and the depth of the character relationships the player can have.