Do you have a favourite video game character? I'm sure most of us do. Be it RPGs, RTS games, battle royales, MOBAs, or FPS shooting galleries, the most popular games are full of colourful characters – playable or otherwise – that make them stand out. You might also have played games with poorly written characters that you forget about the moment you close the game. Good writing can make or break a character.

So, when working on your own game, you will have to consider who your characters are and what they stand for – else, you will fall into the same trap. Apart from a character's design, which is a different topic, I believe that a well-written video game character has most of these following traits, if not all of them.

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  1. Interesting Backstory
  2. Believable Motivations
  3. Memorable Character Gimmick
  4. Story Significance

We will look at the Interesting Backstory component in this blog post.

Remember that these are not critiques of the games themselves. Some games can be really fun without well-written characters, but bad writing has never made a game better. If you enjoy these games despite how their characters are written, then that speaks to how good the rest of the game is instead.

Why Backstories Are Important

Backstories are important because they help the player understand the story's setting and the people who live in that world. All video game worlds have a hidden history that is gradually revealed through character backstories and world-building.

To analyse what good and bad backstories are, let's look at two examples: Alduin from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Connor Morgan from Homefront.

Paarthurnax - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

If you've played Skyrim, you probably remember Paarthurnax. Paarthurnax was a dragon who, instead of supporting the draconic conquest of Tamriel, decided to help the men and mer of Nirn to stand a fighting chance in epic rap battles against these fire/ice/lightning breathing monsters.

Paarthurnax is the brother of Alduin the World-Eater, the main antagonist of TES V: Skyrim. These brothers don't really see eye to eye most of the time, especially since Alduin is destined to destroy the world and Paarthurnax is a pacifist. Paarthurnax believes that Thu'um – the language of the dragons – can be used for peace instead of war. Therefore, he sits on the top of a mountain alone and isolated from the rest of his flock, hidden as the true leader of the Greybeards, until he reveals himself to the Dovahkiin (Dragonborn), our Dragon-blooded player protagonist.

So, what makes the Paarthurnax backstory good?

  • His story is not a rug pull. His backstory exists in an already well-established world that doesn't introduce a new concept to justify his existence. His introduction is genuinely surprising without requiring a leap of logic to understand why he exists.
  • His character and purpose match his backstory, as he is a kind-hearted dragon that does not like conflict because of what he has seen in the past. So logically, his role in Skyrim is to try to guide the Dragonborn to peace instead of violence.
  • His personal conflict is similar to the player. The Dragonborn struggles with having a dragon inside of a non-dragon body, and Paarthurnax struggles with having non-dragon principles while being a dragon.
  • There is depth to his backstory. It cannot be simplified without losing important nuance to his position. There is no other dragon like Paarthurnarx who can help the Dragonborn; therefore, he is difficult to forget.

Now, let's look at a bad example of a backstory.

Connor Morgan - Homefront

In a North Korea occupied Montrose, Connor Morgan was the leader of the rebel Resistance against the Korean invasion of the United States. In the game, he rescued the protagonist of Homefront, Robert Jacobs, from a prison truck to kickstart the American response to this invasion force.

Connor is described to have a long history with the Resistance, most notably being at odds with another rebel leader, Boone Karlson. He is a cocky character who does not seem to care for the well-being of his soldiers, in stark contrast to another leader called Rianna, who's a sweetheart. His shallow existence in the story ends when he sacrifices himself to defend a rebel base from a large scale attack at the end of Homefront.

Here's what makes Connor Morgan's backstory a detriment to the game.

  • He is introduced with an illogical set of circumstances. He rescues Robert Jacobs without knowing if he would join the Resistance. There is no reason for Connor to even attack the envoy.
  • His story does not match his character and setting. There is no way a free rebel uprising would choose a cocky and careless leader when another person, Rianna, is clearly the better choice. His purpose in the rebellion is confusing.
  • He has no personal stakes that get challenged in the main story. He has no history of trusting strangers, but he trusts Robert instantly – only to further the plot. He suddenly starts caring about things just because he meets the player.
  • His backstory is extremely cookie-cutter, with no details separating him from the rest of the rebel soldiers. It has no impact on the game, and he exists only to serve as a generic "leader who is sometimes an asshole" stereotype.

How to Write a Good Backstory?

From the two cases discussed above, we can outline a few things that make a backstory well-written.

  1. Do not rug-pull important characters and their backstories. Important characters should feel like they have existed in a world without the player, not created out of the blue for plot purposes.
  2. Ensure that a character's backstory matches their character and role in the story. A character who has been hurt in the past will be careful in the future. Someone who is described to be a pacifist won't start fighting without good reason.
  3. Add personal stake for important characters in the main plot of your game. Whether they help or harm the player should be explained from their backstories or the through the story's events.
  4. Add unique and interesting quirks to a character's history to make sure they stand out while still being believable. If their backstories don't stand out, it should be a justified decision that gets addressed later on.

I hope these observations help you understand how you can make a character's backstory more engaging.

That's all for now! Tune in next time where I will be discussing how you can use character motivations to give personality to your video game haracters.