This is Part 2 of a multi-part series that discusses how to write effective characters for video games. Find Part 1 here.

In my previous blog, we talked about how we could write better video game characters and identified the four major components of a well-written character. We also discussed the first component – Backstory – by looking at two characters that shared similar roles but differed in their quality of backstories.

Continuing on that topic, we will now explore the second component of a character – their motivation – through a similar process.

What are Character Motivations?

Character Motivation is what defines a character's reasoning for what they do in the game itself. What decisions they make throughout the game's story are defined by what they consider important, which motivates them to continue the plot in a way that makes sense to them.

These reasons can come from many sources: their backstories, their interaction with the character, or their interpretation of events throughout the course of the game.

Motivation is an important component for any NPC. If you see a character doing something that you think they should not be doing, it brings you out from the world. Believable character motivation is an important aspect of immersion and a great tool to colour your character with personality.

To analyze what makes motivations believable or not, let's look at two examples: Frank Fontaine/Atlas from Bioshock and Lance Vance from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Atlas - Bioshock

Atlas is one of the most memorable characters from Bioshock, and it is for a good reason. He is an example of a character that starts out as a friend – but reveals himself to be the true antagonist in the end.

Atlas is the first voice the player hears when they enter Rapture, the underground city that is the setting of BioShock. Over the course of the game, he will guide you through Rapture and help you navigate its strange and messy corridors. Why does he do this? It's simple: he just wants you to find his wife and kids and return them safely to the surface.

But Atlas is not what he seems. While playing Bioshock, you hear hints of a guy called Frank Fontaine, who wants to overthrow Rapture's overlord, Andrew Ryan. You hear that he has disappeared and that maybe he is plotting a return. It is only when you go up to Ryan and beat him with a golf club do you realize the truth. Atlas is Frank Fontaine, and you just have been duped into giving him the power he has wanted since the beginning – control over Rapture.

Ryan reveals to you that you are his son, which is why you could bypass Rapture's lockdown to get to Ryan – a feat Frank couldn't do because he did not share Ryan's DNA. Frank has also brainwashed you into obeying anything that follows the phrase "Would you kindly..."; words you realize he has been repeating over and over to get you to do things for him.

What makes Frank's character motivations believable?

  • His decision to pretend to be a well-meaning Samaritan who just 'wants his family back' hides his real intention: to control you with the phrase "Would you kindly?" He knows that pretending to be a good guy will blindly make you believe in him.
  • His goal is clear. He wants Ryan dead. He only helps you because it gets him closer to Rapture's domination. You never question why he helped you once he is revealed as a villain. He needed you specifically, so you understand why he needed to be your friend.
  • He has no intentions of ever revealing his identity to you. He would have kept manipulating you with the Atlas persona if Ryan had not spoken to you. Frank only takes off his disguise when Ryan reveals the truth. He doesn't just say his real name and plan out loud for no reason like a comic super-villain. He only does it after his hand has been forced.

Now, let's look at our other example.

Lance Vance - Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Lance Vance is a good comparison because he fulfils a similar role to Atlas in Vice City – a friend that turns into an antagonist. The only difference is that Lance does not have believable motivations.

Lance is the brother of Victor Vance. These two form the drug-dealing duo that the protagonist of Vice City, Tommy, is buying cocaine from. They lose the cash and the drugs when their drug deal gets ambushed. Victor dies during the encounter, and Lance partners with Tommy in Vice City to find out the ones responsible for the theft of his drugs and his brother's death.

Throughout the game, Tommy works with Lance as a dear friend. Countless missions have you both placing your lives in each other's trust to get revenge on Diaz, the person who ambushed you at the beginning of the game. Eventually, Tommy and Lance control the entirety of Vice City – right until Sonny comes to get his money.

In a strange turn of events, Lance then joins Sonny and betrays you to join him. And the reason for this is that... he feels like you don't pay him enough attention? What?

What makes Lance's motivations to betray you unbelievable?

  • Lance is not pretending to be a friend to gain your trust throughout the story for a selfish reason. Your friendship with him is genuine and built upon shared suffering, so it doesn't make sense that he would turn into an antagonist.
  • Lance's goals are very unclear. Why he joins Sonny, in the end, is not explained through his character traits. If he does not like that he is in a partnership with Tommy and feels he is being stepped on, why would he choose Sonny, an even bigger stepper onner, as his partner?
  • It does not make sense why he reveals his true affiliation to Sonny at all. It is almost certain that you will prevail over Sonny, but Lance feels the need to reveal his betrayal to you and die for Sonny. Lance is not suicidal, so if he wanted to betray you eventually, he would see that the only way out is to join you – not barge into you head-on.

How to Write Believable Character Motivations?

We can outline a few things that make a character's motivations believable from the two cases discussed above.

  1. Ensure that what your character does throughout the course of the story matches their relationship with the player. If they are your friend, there should be a reason for that alliance.
  2. Characters need to have clear goals that do not change randomly based on where the story moves forward. Whether their goals remain consistent or change as the plot progresses, it should serve their character's true motivations and not defy basic human logic.
  3. If your character's motivations have to change significantly by the end of the story, that change needs to have a significant reason to occur. Usually, people don't change their entire reason for existence in a few minutes.

I hope these observations help you understand how to make your characters feel like real people.

Thank you for reading! Tune in next time as we continue this series and talk about how to make your characters more memorable by making them unique with a gimmick.