How we get to know characters in games is weird, but I love it

The mechanics behind getting to know video game characters

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you

When you think about it, the way we “get to know” characters in video games is kind of bizarre — sometimes it’s about doing special missions for our potential new friend, or being nice to them in the dialogue options, but most of the time it comes down to giving them enough presents until they decide they like us.

I’m not trying to be pedantic here, I just really think it’s fascinating that, in trying to create an immersive experience for the player, we’ve gamified one of the most complicated parts of being alive: human intimacy. We’ve come up with our own solutions as to how best to do this, but it begs the question, how do you turn the infinitely complex, mysterious process of growing close to someone else into concrete game mechanics that mesh with other gameplay systems? Well, plenty of games have certainly tried.

Take games like Stardew Valley or Hades, which simplify this problem by going the just-shower-them-with-presents route. At first glance, this seems a bit strange, as if we’re saying that people can be won over just by giving them gifts. While this is a case for a portion of the population, most people are more complicated than that. If someone just kept pushing fruit baskets at you while never actually saying a word, you’d think they were a psychopath.

Getting to know the characters in Hades with classic video game gift-giving

But certainly, when gift-giving is the name of the game, the gifts have to stand for something more than that. I imagine that yes, you’re giving another character a present, but it really stands for the way you’ve been bonded to that character, and how you feel about them. Games have a shorthand for many other aspects of life, like eating instantaneously, or having time pass more quickly, or allowing you to carry way more items than you would ever be able to reasonably hold, so it makes sense that we’ve found a way to sort of symbolically show the player getting to know characters in the game. At least that’s the way I read it.

Stardew even takes it a step further by having the townspeople react differently based on what you gave them, because they have favorites, likes, and dislikes, so there’s another step of work in getting to know what they might want to receive as a gift. Even so, there’s obviously something missing, because we’re not literally spending that time with the characters, and being endeared to them in the same way that our player character supposedly is.

Winning over the residents of Pelican Town with weekly gifts in Stardew Valley
[Image Source: Reddit user u/hdpinto]
Then there are games like Mass Effect, The Witcher, or any large, open-world game, where much of the process of getting to know another character comes in the form of speaking to them, as well as doing the side missions that specifically cater to something they want or need. This approach feels like we’re getting closer to a more realistic way of getting to know someone, because you’re, you know, actually taking time to show them you’re interested in their life and their own interests.

There is still something missing however. I know that when I personally play these games, I want to be able to have a more intimate conversation with them, even about something small, rather than whatever the universe-threatening stakes may be, or setting up some grand gesture to try and win them over.

A more linear approach also has its own pros and cons. Take The Last of Us for example — that game’s whole point is to get you to care about this relationship between its two main characters. Instead of the player acting as one of those characters, however, Joel is a sort of avatar through which we get to know Ellie. Then there’s the fact that none of The Last of Us‘ gameplay is dedicated to getting to know their relationship better, unless you count those sections where you’re just walking and talking.

Joel and Ellie looking out at an overgrown cityscape in The Last of Us

So the trade-off here is that the player doesn’t have any input in the whole relationship aspect of that journey, but instead we get to see every tiny, nuanced detail of how they grow so close in a way that is hyper-specific to both of their characters. Our agency is taken away in that we don’t get to choose what they say or do, but in return, we get a heightened, highly-curated presentation of a relationship forming before our eyes. This really works for some people (like me), but I know that for some it has been a criticism of the game.

Another one of my favorite games that centers on a relationship is the 2018 indie game Florence. Its runtime is short at only about a half an hour, but it takes that time to make you care for the titular character, and her budding romance with musician Krish, in an unconventional way. Florence is one of the few games I’ve played that I would consider interactive poetry — rather than focusing on giving the player in-depth mechanics or dialogue, it tells us its story through a series of symbolic vignettes.

My personal favorite sequence shows the pair’s first few dates. We see a panel of them talking, and below a series of puzzle pieces. The player must complete the puzzle to progress, and is then presented with the visual of the next date, which is accompanied by another puzzle, only this time, there are fewer pieces. This continues for a few cycles until the player is presented with a puzzle that consists of only two pieces, and a visual showing how the couple has grown closer over the course of their dates.

A couple's connection represented by puzzle pieces in Florence

It’s a really simple mechanic, but it has to be one of the most effective depictions of getting to know someone I’ve ever seen in a game. As we’ve seen so far, it’s been difficult to pin down the feeling of forming a close bond in an exact one-to-one recreation, which is why Florence‘s approach feels so elegant. It’s stylized, it’s metaphorical, and on top of that it’s emotionally moving, which does more work to make me care about them than some stale dialogue and a fetch quest.

There’s no right or wrong way to make the player care about fictional characters in a game, but as the interactive medium continues to progress, I’ll be delighted to see the different solutions designers come up with. Hell, we might even get to a point in the next few years where we can effectively implement AI that reacts to us with more realism, rather than giving predetermined responses to predetermined answers. One thing is for sure, though — I will never stop being delighted by giving an NPC a gift and watching a little heart pop up over their head.

Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.

Noelle Warner