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I recently asked a question here on a different stack about how to write strong characters given the limitations of the RPG genre. After all, even in an RPG, which is somewhat story friendly, many gamers just want to get on with the game. I understand the impulse and have no desire to punish the players of my game for just wanting to play my game.

The Goal:

I want to create a character driven ensemble cast jRPG/cRPG with strong characters that the player begins to know and love.

The Problem:

I don't want to shove story or backstory or dialogue down peoples throats when they just want to fight battles and level up and complete quests. Especially when this can get very repetitive when a player is 'stuck'.

Current Solutions:

  • Skippable Dialogue and cutscenes: This feature will often be used by players and can cause problems of its own. Many people will skip the important parts. Then you need to make the important bits unskippable or keep a quest log to hold their hand.
  • Characters make predetermined choices: This is the thing I can use the most. But I need to also allow the player to make some decisions too. Need might be a strong word; I want. I also don't want to define my characters by a string of choices they made throughout an adventure story.
  • Blank Canvas: This is where the character is just a representation of what the player makes of them. Their dialogue, their actions, their appearance and personality are all given to them by the player, not the game designer. This doesn't work for me. I have multiple characters. Plus I don't feel strongly that I can develop a game that facilitates the player projecting themselves onto the character, and that is a different skill and style.

The Question:

What are some game mechanics that can facilitate character development. My Writing question was how do I write within the above constraints. My question here is: What other game mechanics are available to seamlessly integrate character development into my game?


My question is not a dupe of How can I make my players interested in the game lore of my MMORPG?. While we have similar problems, I am working on a single player jRPG which allows for different approaches to story and character than an MMO. I am also not looking for just back-story to develop character. For instance, one of the answerers to my linked writing question mentioned a characters battle-cry as an opportunity to develop their personality, which is decidedly not story.

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You basically want to achieve two things:

1.) You want to make the player experience the story. This is very easy to solve, don't let them skip story parts and you'll be certain they've seen it all.

2.) Don't make the player sit through unnecessary cutscenes if they don't want to. There's an easy solution to this too: make every cutscene skippable.

These two options may seem like they can't be in the same game at once, but pay attention to the wording. You don't have to have cutscenes necessarily to tell a story.

As an example, look at Oxenfree. It has a medium sized cast of characters and you can get to know them better even during regular gameplay through conversations they're having. The game even makes sure to be the least intrusive it can get with those lines. If the player character does something that stops the conversation (e.g. shouting something), the other players can semi-naturally continue their lines by adding small half-sentences before them ("anyways, ...", "so, what I was saying...", etc.).

Firewatch avoids cutscenes very well too, even though it is a story oriented game. The main character speaks to other people through a walkie-talkie.

This approach certainly has it's limitations though. For one, you can't avoid cutscenes if you need the player character to stand at a specific location. Same thing if you want to make the main character do things the game mechanics don't allow (e.g. custom animations), but I think it's a good starting point.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Or make cutscenes part of the gameplay itself like The Last Guardian did using pre-scripted events for one of its main characters. This is by no means a perfect solution either since players can mess up during key scenes and break the flow of their experience, but it does come with the advantage of making the experience more fluid when it works. \$\endgroup\$ – Pleiades Mar 7 at 2:04
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Make Story Delivery Unobtrusive

If you're creating a JRPG, chances are your story will be delivered through text. There are many techniques to make text less annoying. You should absolutely have an easy to find text speed option that allows the player to make text appear faster or even instantly - slow text crawls are painful and feel like a waste of time to fast readers. Write your dialogue snappy and compact - avoid drawn-out mandatory conversations where possible. Try to separate essential information and story progression from flavour and side stuff and make the essential compact and condensed. Then...

Present Non-Essential Story as Offer, Not Obligation

All the nice stuffing in terms of character and story that the player doesn't absolutely have to know (even though they should, because it makes the game better) should be shown as an offer they can accept or ignore.

For example, if an automatic conversation is triggered, because something important is happening, deliver the essential in a few lines, then present dialogue options that let the player ask further questions or end the conversation. Allow the player to initiate conversations with their teammates on their own terms instead of triggering it automatically, possibly subtly alert them if teammates have something to say - a single "Can we hurry up? This place brings up bad memories..." is quickly ignored, but also sets a mood and lets the player know that there may be a conversation to be had. If you have voice lines, Philipp made good points about them on the Writing.SE and this is one more possible use for them.

Put background information into dialogues with NPCs or items descriptions in the world that the player can seek out if they're interested. Side quests are also allowed to be more wordy, because the player can ignore them. Put breaking points into long swaths of text where the player can choose to continue listening or walk away from the conversation. If the few mandatory things all players will see are presented in an engaging way, players who may at all care will seek out more depth in their own. Small but tasty appetizers and a ticket to the buffet.

It's important for these things to be easily accessible as well. Show the player they can talk to teammates in the tutorial, but keep the conversation short. NPCs and books/items are enough of a genre convention that most players will expect and know how to deal with them. Besides flavour about the world and characters, consider making some of the extra information useful in game - not in a way that makes it mandatory in order to be successful, but hinting at secrets is fair game.

It Is Possible to Allow Self-Expression Within the Constraints of a Character

If you look at games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or The Witcher series, the main character is clearly defined, but there are still dialogue options for them to express different feelings about stuff. Many of these may not even have consequences in the game beyond a different answer from the conversation partner. However, these small choices still allow the player to feel a closer connection to the character. For example, in Human Revolution Adam is asked how he feels about the extensive modifications done to his body without his consent. His answer doesn't really change anything, but this allows the player to consider what they would feel in his shoes and develop empathy.

Of course you can bolster such decisions with in-game consequences. You could, as is often the case in JRPGs, implement a relationship score for your party members that may influence their powers or unlock new conversations and/or something like Mass Effect's companion quests. You can give better rewards for quests if you treat people kindly, find secret solutions or understand people's needs and desires. You can reward playing a character the way you have written them by giving better rewards/relationship points/stronger powers when adhering to their given personality. But you don't have to. Even a small conversation choice with three options and three different answers to them and nothing else can help the player grow closer to the character, as long as the option is well placed and written, i.e. makes the player actually think about the characters.

Intertwine Mechanics and Characters

This is sort of the holy grail of video game design and there are lots of approaches to it.

In terms of a JRPG, you could for example develop the trope of personality reflecting skill sets (brash fire mage, gentle healer etc.) and have characters react to their abilities. A gentle character may feel uncomfortable having destructive abilities and relieved to learn supportive ones. There's a world of difference between a voice line of "I'm sorry I have to do this." and "Burn, baby, burn!"

A typical shounen protagonist would probably think conjuring a big firestorm is awesome as hell while a more subtle power is lame and boring. However, learning how to use such powers may also change their ways of thinking and influence their personality in turn. Not to mention that it makes perfect sense that to master a certain skill you have to actually understand it, which may require character growth on its own. Think of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the scenes in which Zuko attempts to learn to bend lightning, but his inner turmoil keeps him from achieving the necessary control. Later, Zuko grows as a character but loses his firebending powers, because they're fuelled by rage, and he goes out to learn a new, more stable style of controlling fire, that is based on understanding fire as source of life instead of destruction.

Character development that makes your characters more powerful and your playstyle more fun (always remember: numbers are boring, options are interesting) incentivises players to follow the story, who are otherwise more interested in gameplay. Just try not to present the story as a necessary evil or price to pay to get to the fun stuff.

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