This is the final part of a multi-part series that discusses how to write effective characters for video games. Find Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Continuing our Writing Characters series, today we will discuss how to integrate your characters into your story well.

What is Story Significance?

Story significance is a loose term that defines a character's role in the story and whether their writing and place in the story match that role.

A character's backstory, motivation, and gimmick are like a colour palette to a painting, and the significance in the story is the final painting itself. A well-written character can go utterly wasted if they are not well-integrated into the game's plot.

Bad story significance is common in video games. However, video games have the unique ability to retcon and reuse the wasted potential of a particular character by giving them prominence in later games or by creating an exclusive spin-off. The best-case scenario is still using them in the original game itself, but things like time constraints or a thinning budget can lead to great characters being cut from games during development.

Let's look at how story significance can make or break a character by looking at two examples: Caesar from Fallout: New Vegas and Charles Rockwell from The Outer Worlds.

Yes, I know. Both are "Villains" from Obsidian RPGs.

I believe that comparing two antagonists written by the same game studio helps us understand what makes one character work and the other, not.

Caesar - Fallout New Vegas

Caesar is one of many Fallout: New Vegas faction leaders. He usually serves an antagonistic role based on what the character chooses to do throughout the game. He is the leader of Caesar's Legion, the post-apocalyptic version of the Roman Legion, where he also draws his namesake from. Caesar is not a "true" antagonist as you can decide to join him in his quest for Hoover Dam.

Caesar is amazingly written. Caesar has all bases covered, from his educated background that made him worthy of being a leader to his motivation to capture Hoover Dam. His gimmick is also novel and interesting – an intellectual that leads a "civilised" army that is actually more barbaric than bandits, with delusions of grandeur of him being the Mojave's only saviour.

These collectively form a character that is also placed well in the story. Let's look at the most significant aspects of his character in the story.

  • Caesar's fort holds the lock to the Platinum Chip key, which means that in order to actually use the item that nearly got you killed, you need to confront Caesar. This means that no matter what you decide to do, you have to meet and talk to (or kill) Caesar to progress the story forward.
  • His name is common across the Mojave, as he instils fear everywhere he goes. From Joshua Graham to the pacifist Arcade Gannon, all have thoughts and opinions on what Caesar is and does. This adds to how important of a character he really is.
  • You can kill Caesar as the game progresses. This leaves a power vacuum in the legion, but it still continues to be Caesar's army, even after his death. Ironically, when you kill Caesar, the man, his legacy solidifies him as a martyr. The Legion lives on under an even crueller ruler, Legate Lanius.

Now, let's look at Charles Rockwell, a similar type of antagonist in The Outer Worlds.

Charles Rockwell - The Outer Worlds

Charles Rockwell is the CEO of Universal Defense Logistics and the Chairman of the Halcyon Holdings Corporate Board. Halcyon, however, is running out of food, and Rockwell's master plan is to wipe almost every colony off the face of the world and preserve a few people that will make the most out of these limited resources – which is why he is usually an antagonist. You can still join him by siding with Sophia Akande, who serves as his Adjutant.

Rockwell is also an interesting character. Although his backstory is not shown clearly in the game, he is hinted at as an egomaniac with similar delusions of grandeur to Ceasar, as he views himself as the galaxy's saviour. He is prone to anger issues and resorts to the cruellest of ways of solving the world's problems.

All this, however, is wasted. Chairman Charles Rockwell is not well utilised in the story.

  • You don't even have to interact with him to beat the game. You communicate and see videos of him once or twice, which makes him very forgettable. Even his wiki page is smaller than Sophia's, as she serves as the antagonist for most of the game. He only appears in the flesh if you kill Sophia.
  • You see posters of Rockwell all over the galaxy, but no one really talks about him. Characters who should hate him don't even mention him, and his omnipresence as the Chairman is not felt through the game's writing.
  • You can also kill Rockwell as the game progresses, but only at the end of the game. At this point, nothing you can do can let you see what his death would cause or if anything would happen at all. This is after the fact that you have to kill Sophia to even approach him in the final confrontation. He is completely replaced by Sophia in the game's narrative.

How Can You Make Your Characters Significant?

Looking at these characters, we can underline some key points of how we can make our characters significant parts of our video game plot.

  • Ensure that the player character has to spend some time with your interesting character, no matter what they choose throughout the story. Even if they are villains, allowing the player to interact with them will encourage a deeper exploration of your villain character through alternate playthroughs.
  • Your character also needs to be present in the game world, not just the story. Their role must match how often they are discussed or brought up in the game. A leader will be talked about often. A nobody will rarely even be recognised.
  • Any plot points involving your unique character should also have interesting consequences. And, you should be using your most interesting characters to set things in motion. They should not be replaced by other characters if the plot demands someone important.

If all else fails, you still have another chance in sequels and spin-offs! Make sure you don't repeat your mistakes there as well.

So concludes this series on writing video game characters! I hope you learned a lot about this craft through my explorations and examples. See you in the next one!