Creating Emotional Connections Between Players and Video Game Characters
I remember the first time I cried playing a video game. It was a bit later than many gamers, who probably shed their first tears over Final Fantasy VII’s Aerith. For me, it was toward the end of Uncharted 2, when Nate thinks Elena is dead. I knew she was alive beyond a shadow of a doubt, but it didn’t matter. The way Nate cared for her, and how poignantly the game got this point across, moved me so deeply that logic simply had no say in the matter.
It feels a little silly to talk about it that way, but fictional characters have long been the sources of our irrational sympathy, and video game characters are no exception. In fact, in games, our investment can be even greater because we can interact with them directly, and our interactions drive the story. Though the worlds we explore with them may be virtual, their fates in that world are tied with ours, making us feel close to them in ways that can seem very, very real.
Linear Stories Use Scripted Drama for Maximum Emotions
How games make us care about characters varies from game to game. While it might seem that games where you interact with characters through dialog options would be the most effective at encouraging emotional connections, that’s not always the case.
Troll and I, for instance, is an excellent example of how linear narratives centered around memorable, sympathetic characters can be just as effective at creating true player-character bonds. From the bottom up, this game is structured around friendship—you play as Otto, a young boy, and Troll, his mythical troll companion, as they trek through the Scandinavian wilderness to avoid hunters on their trail. They need each other to survive, as each possesses skills the other doesn’t. Together, they can overcome obstacles that would normally halt either one of them in their tracks.
The power of this style of storytelling is seeing how essential Otto and Troll are to each other. Their investment in one another feeds your investment in them. By tying their friendship so closely to both gameplay and story, Troll and I succeeds in creating emotional connections not just between these two characters, but between the characters and the player as well.
Choices Drive Emotional Connections in Dragon Age
Games with branching narratives—where you can influence which characters are your friends and enemies, for example—encourage emotional connections differently. In games like this, such as BioWare’s Mass Effect or Dragon Age, you’re more likely to see players develop intense emotional connections with certain characters rather than the whole cast. It comes from humanizing these characters with real, believable flaws, as well as giving the players agency to shape those relationships.
Take Solas, a particularly divisive character from Dragon Age: Inquisition. Without spoiling what makes him so controversial, Solas causes a divide in Dragon Age fans because he’s multidimensional. An elf, a mage, and ardent proponent of accepting Fade spirits as a natural part of life despite their potential danger, Solas represents many of the most oppressed groups in Thedas while still being judgmental, himself. While he treats female elves rather nicely, especially as a romance option, his remarks to members of other races can be downright offensive. Yet he’s no more flawed than any of the game’s other characters, and perhaps all the more intriguing for his questionable morality.
Because players can choose how they interact with characters like Solas, they can cultivate deep, complex relationships with him. While my Qunari rogue wasn’t a big fan of the egg-headed elf, a lady Lavellan is more likely to find some common ground with him. These characters are richly developed, neatly folded into the story with maximum potential for headbutting with others. When it comes to emotional connections, it’s hard not to feel something for characters like these, though the exact emotions they elicit may vary wildly from one player to the next.
Light, Inconsequential Narrative Still Encourages Character Attachment
Interestingly, a game doesn’t always need a strong narrative for players to form emotional connections with its characters. It helps, of course, but games that inspire player loyalty can often get away without having a highly detailed story if it’s supported by a truly intriguing cast of characters.
Take Overwatch, for example. Despite having very little in-game story (in fact, the game’s events have almost nothing to do with the actual plot), it does have richly developed characters. It just so happens that most of that characterization takes place in supplementary shorts and comics, not in the game itself. In a game with so many character choices, it’s natural that players will pick favorites, but what’s interesting about the case of Overwatch is that players are becoming emotionally invested in characters whose backstories largely take place outside of the game.
There is some fan speculation involved in determining the personalities of each character, but the interactions between heroes, as well as the supplementary material, provide plenty of context to allow players to form ideas about characters’ identities that are clear enough to latch on to. It’s hard not to get invested, for instance, in the motherly discussions between Ana and Pharah, or the antagonistic banter between Tracer and Widowmaker, especially after watching the shorts. Even when you don’t know the complete backstory, these small interactions, the structure of the game’s counters and balances, and personal attachment to aesthetics and mechanics can still result in emotional attachments despite the vague story.
Emotional Investment is Universal
Emotional moments with game characters are not tied to just one type of gameplay or storytelling. Because they’re interactive, games have the ability to make us feel like we’re part of the story, increasing our emotional investment with these characters even though we know their responses and story beats are pre-programmed. Though I had no control over the events of Uncharted 2, the time which I had spent interacting with Nate led me to sympathize with him as I would a real human being, despite (obviously) not knowing him in real life. As in any storytelling medium, fully fleshed out characters have the power to suspend our disbelief so effectively that the bonds we form with them, though fictional, still feel utterly, unforgettably real—perhaps even more so in video games because of our influence over their fate.
Troll and I is a character-driven game supported by thrilling combat and tricky puzzles. Preorder your copy today!
Lead image source: Angel Knives via YouTube