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Article - 'Sympathy and Empathy for Characters' by Xanqui

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Aug 9, 2003


How to instill sympathy and empathy into the player via dramatic characters in your games


Many of us cried when Aeris died in the middle of Final Fantasy VII, or at the end of Final Fantasy X, and even when Emma died in Metal Gear Solid II: Sons of Liberty. We also freaked out at the end of the first disc of Final Fantasy VIII, when it seemed that Squall had been killed when the spikes of ice passed through his chest. But what makes us care so much for these characters? What is it that makes us fall in love with a nonexistant character? The answer is sympathy. To go along with the cliche of GamingWorld tutorials, here is the definition of SYMPATHY:

n. pl. sym·pa·thies
1. A relationship or an affinity between people or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other.
2. Mutual understanding or affection arising from this relationship or affinity.

In other words, the characters in these games are your friends. Better yet, they're a part of you. These characters are so meaningful to you that you've developed a need for them. To you, these characters are real, and they've become an important part of your life. You worry about them, protect them, and enjoy their presence. Okay, now that you've got the idea of what sympathy is, how do you force the player of your game to feel the way about the protagonist as you felt about Aeris?

Step One: Give the Character a Background

Your character comes from a certain place, has a certain family (or lacks one), and has lived an individual life before the character even makes his or her appearance in the game. The character is also part of a certain race, and has known certain people. Of course, there are some exceptions for this, like characters who were born at the start of the game. But for now, I will disregard those. If your character is born during the game, then go to step two.

As I've stated in every other tutorial I've written, backgrounds are important. The backgrounds to specific characters are no different. This character could have lived a miserable life, which alone gives the player sympathy for him or her. If the character strives to become a better person than he or she already is, the player will have sympathy.

Step Two: Determine the Character's Personality

There are plenty of other tutorials dealing with personality, so I won't bother listing the different types. Using the background you've developed for your character, you can determine their personality. If the character is just a jerk for no reason, fine, but don't expect the player to cry if he or she dies. Now, if the character has suffered for many years while living in a trash can eating nothing but the gum found on the sidewalk and is beaten ten times a day with a belt, and is the sweetest person you've ever met, the player will definately show sympathy if the character is killed off. Also, the character could have had their family killed off and they strive to get revenge, but fail miserably, it will make the player sad that after all that has happened, the character is ultimately killed.

Step Three: Types of "Lovables"

By lovable, this can mean several things. Here are some different types of "lovables"

1. Friendly - Since the character is so nice, other characters even enjoy their presence. Everyone likes to be around this person since he or she never gives up hope and is always willing to put a smile on everyone's face. (Example: Aeris FF7)

2. Pathetic - This character is always unlucky, yet never gives up. The player looks forward to this character finally succeeding at one point. (Example: Scrat from Ice Age)

3. Sadistic - Usually the villain, this character is loved because he or she constantly kills or does bad stuff that makes the player just like him or her. It's hard to tell why exactly you like this character, but you look forward to seeing this character on a killing spree. (Example: Kefka FF6)

4. Rude - This character can be either good or bad, but I've seen this character to be mostly good. Although helpful, the player or other characters get annoyed whenever he or she appears. The character makes rude comments, pokes fun at everyone, but you know you need this character in order to complete a task. This character, however, can be lovable to the player. (Example: Harle from Chrono Cross)

5. Just There - This is the character that really doesn't have much of a personality and is usually an NPC. This character gets you through the game, and never really insults or compliments anyone. If this character were to die, the only thing you'd really think is: crap, now I'll have to beat that boss on my own. (Example: Cid Final Fantasy VIII)

That should be it for lovables. If there are any other, please PM me and tell me what they are.

Step Four: What to Do to Make the Player Feel Sympathy

So how do you make the player cry, laugh, or scream? Killing off the character is an obvious way to cause sadness, but so is making this character fail in his or her goal. There are plenty of ways to ruin the character's life, and any movie or video game can show you one. Putting the character in comedic situations is also helpful. Any way to exploit the character's lovable personality is a way to increase the player's sympathy meter. Make tense life-or-death situations for these characters to frighten the player and to cause the player to worry and wonder whether the character will live or die. As long as the character is lovable, sympathy will always be possible.

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