Good characterization matters. In most cases, characterization is the most important element of any form of entertainment whether it be for a movie, a book or a video game. Great characters can make or break a good story. It can even make a good story epic. In the case of books and movies, without good characters a movie is a cheap form of entertainment. In books, characters are what drive the story forward and keep readers reading through to the end. It may even lend itself to a book series which isn’t just good writing, it’s also good business practice.
In the world of video games the importance of writing and creating great characters is even more important than what you would expect to find in a book or movie. Great characterization in video games is typically THE driving force behind a successful franchise. Without a believable or sympathetic character that gamers can relate to, a video game is quite literally doomed to obscurity. What makes for a great protagonist in a book or movie? One that has “human” qualities both good and bad. They have flaws, weaknesses, strengths and downfalls, as well as several redeeming qualities, and you spend much of your time with them learning things about either themselves (you) or the world around them, which typically includes people they are surrounded or supported by or have to interact with.
A successful video game encompasses all of these elements and more depending on what type of game is being developed. In this case I am referring to games whose play centers on a protagonist that you play as, who has a background, a problem to solve and various things in his or her environment that will help him/her move forward to a conclusion. Ubisoft discovered the subtle yet powerful driving force of great characterization when they introduced Ezio Auditore to the Assassin’s Creed universe and the gaming community at large. Ezio’s story was so compelling that by his influence alone, two more titles were released with him as the lead role in both Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and Revelations.
What happens when a company ends a popular characters’ story? Well…. Assassin’s Creed III is your answer to that question. And it’s not a good answer – at least not where Ubisoft developers are concerned, nor the fans for that matter. AC III was disappointing at best, a complete and utter failure at worst. After all the commercial hype that Ubisoft poured into the AC III title, fans were sorely dismayed at the product they received after all was said and done. Sure they had improved combat, added cool boats to sail around in, there was weather like snow that you had to navigate – which was a nice touch, wild animals who “could” and usually did, manage to kill you if you weren’t smart, but overall the game itself was a bomb.
Why did AC III do so badly? Well I’ve played all the titles to date and for me and I’m guessing many others, the problem wasn’t with the game or the game play. But had everything to do with the lackluster main character, Connor, and his completely boring background and lack of depth. He was probably the most uninteresting, stereotypical character I’ve yet come across in games – but that’s not what made it a bad game, lots of games have that trouble – it was the fact that it was an Assassin’s Creed game, a franchise that many fans had come to expect great characterization from which was utterly lacking in this title. And who paid the price for this bomb? Developers and fans. Some fans were so disappointed by this title they stopped being fans, and in an effort to gain them back Ubisoft had to release a new game on the heels of AC III that somewhat made up for the failure of it, but not by much.
I enjoyed AC IV: Black Flag, but in my honest opinion, it still does not compare to the success of AC II. Which brings us back full circle to my point. If you’re going to design, craft and write a game that depends on the strength of your protagonist, you have to take the time to write compelling backgrounds and characters that have enough depth whose story allows players to easily identify with on some level. If that’s missing, you may as well be designing a side scroller like Angry Birds or a smart phone app like Candy Crush. Without character depth and well thought out background development, you’re going to drown yourself AND your game and no amount of beautifully rendered, artistic environments or compelling “action” driving game play will ever be enough to save you or your story.