I had a conversation last week about the nature of character personalities in video games.
This is kind of a complicated topic because it's a huge mix of cultural norms, assumptions, and practices adopted from other mediums. I had to think for a while before I could write something short about it, and even the "short" thing is still quite long. Sorry!
First let's talk about the fundamental reason characters exist: they exist to get the audience to care about the situation. Even if they drive the plot by acting, their actions are designed to make the audience care about the new situation. Primarily, they seem to appeal to the audience in three ways.
1) The character is fun to watch.
2) The audience cares about the characters, and therefore the things that happen to the characters matter. This includes villains, of course: "care about" can mean "hate" in this case, or any other significant emotion.
3) The characters judge the situation, and the audience therefore understands how they should feel. This doesn't require the characters to be important to the audience, but it does require that the character be easy to read.
These uses are often mixed into each other because of the dynamic of how stories get told, but they are different facets. You can see a clear example of this in children's films, where close-ups are often used to show the character's emotional response really clearly. This is true in nearly every children's film, but the easiest example might be shonen anime, such as Dragonball Z: they frequently cut to every hero's face in turn, so that you can see their terrified or amazed expression. In turn, the children understand that something scary or amazing is happening.
This is used in video games too, of course. The King in Katamari Damacy judges your work at the end of each stage, and his reactions tell you how well or poorly you did in a way that carries a lot more emotional power than simply giving you the numeric rating. So, in the case of video games, the character's reactions can actually make us care more about the gameplay. We don't necessarily feel the same emotions as the characters, of course - we're just informed by their emotions. The King's ridiculousness softens his judgments so that even his harshest condemnation is not actually going to depress us.
In Kerbal, the reactions of the astronauts don't actually reflect any kind of reality - they're always just amazed or scared, regardless of what is happening. Despite this, their expressions do add a lot to the feel of the game, giving it a bright and vibrant human feel even though it's entirely about hurling large chunks of metal through the air. Even though they are not linked to the game in any significant way, their gaping mouths tell us that whatever is happening is amazing. It works.
Not every closeup or emotion is used to tell the audience how to feel. In many cases it's used to make the character important to the audience, so that when things happen later, we'll care about whatever happens to them. There are a lot of theories on how to maximize emotional investment in a character, but things are complicated by the way games regularly cross between story and gameplay.
For example, a game designer might develop a character using movie mechanics - cutscenes where the character is shown in a positive light, with touching background music and cheerful humor. However, this can be ruined in five minutes if the character then gets a really annoying gameplay segment, such as an escort mission. Alternately, a character developed by movie methods can still fall into the background if other characters are chosen in the gameplay segments.
There's a temptation to reduce the characters' gameplay effect to very minor positive elements, such as Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite. This allows you to develop them in a movie fashion without much interference from gameplay distractions. Personally, I think that's a bad habit, but I'm not sure how much detail I'll go into about it. Basically, it's something we've developed by relying on what we already know and not pioneering anything new.
The last thing characters accomplish, fundamentally, is that they are fun to watch. This is really common in movies and comics, of course: bizarre, cute, or hilarious characters are used to make the movie more interesting to watch. The "comic relief" character is an example. So is any sexualized character, although of course that only appeals to a subset of humanity.
The use of these characters (or scenes) in movies is an art form, used to tweak pacing and control emotional pressure. In games it's not very carefully done, although it is still used. For example, the ridiculous King in Katamari Damacy, or the background events in Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan.
Video games can do a lot more with this, though, and it's starting to show. Dressup is a growing part of many games. Interior decorating, too - they're cousins. Whether we're talking about dressing up your badass warrior or your cute little animal person, this is something that games can do that other mediums have a hard time with. I'm sure that this can be gracefully integrated and perfectly paced, although I haven't seen it happen yet.
These three elements are the core things that characters do in something like a movie, but games have the concept of an "avatar". Characters that do what the player tells them to. And this is where a lot of our assumptions and fears arise.
I mentioned that you can make a character cool in the cutscenes and then screw it up in the gameplay. That and the reverse are a million times more true for an avatar.
For example, in Mass Effect 3, there was a self-insert ninja character that the devs reaaaaaally got off to. To make him seem like a badass villain, they had a lot of cutscenes of him dominating the player. The problem was that in the process, they had to make Shepard reaaaaaaaally suck. So we got a lot of scenes of Shepard standing around looking confused, missing easy shots, sauntering into obvious pitfalls, and so on. In addition to not making me care about Ninja Fanfic Boy, it really made me lose respect for Shepard. They spent dozens of hours getting me to respect Shepard's power by letting me use it, and then ruined it in five minutes by showing Shepard being totally useless.
Obviously, this dislike is easy to accomplish by making the character do really stupid stuff related to gameplay, as mentioned. However, there's a sneaky second problem: if the avatar and the player feel differently about a situation, there is the risk that the player will begin to dislike and disrespect the avatar.
Because of this, we've hollowed out our avatars: they aren't allowed to feel anything other than smoldering determination. No matter what the player feels, the avatar's emotions are neutral and do not clash. The avatar also makes no judgments. The avatar has no political leanings, no unusual moral stance, no thoughts on the ethics of the ruling class. They can only make absolute mainstream standard responses, and even then they have to be very mild.
Even in situations where there is a judgment to be made, it will normally be made by another character, and only adopted as a cause by the main character when the secondary character dies. It's safe for an avatar to decide to help a friend, but not safe for the avatar to actually make an ethical choice. Well, unless the ethical choice is mainstream and purely reactionary, such as rescuing drowning puppies.
Some avatars have been given personalities, but normally they are joke personalities. This allows us to dismiss the avatar's judgments when we disagree with them. For example, Guybrush's often-bizarre preferences and self-destructive behavior can be waived away as zaniness, as can Sam and Max's screwy behavior.
Another option is to give them "wrong" personalities - that is, set them up as believing something that is obviously wrong, and the obvious character arc coming down the rails is that they'll grow out of it. This is most common with characters that start out on "team obviously evil", but can also apply to characters like Laharl, who believes that love is poisonous.
Either way, these approaches allow us to dismiss the character's views as being wrong when we disagree with them.
But I'm not sure this is necessary.
That's a tactic born out of fear, fear that the player will hate their avatar for disagreeing with their personal worldview. But the problem is that the game itself has a personal worldview. Even if the avatar is an unspeaking empty vessel, the very world shouts out the opinions of the creators.
The most prevalent example is sexism: a lot of games have extremely sexist universes. Even if your personal avatar is never overtly sexist, the universe itself is. Every time you run into another mostly-naked lady love interest, it reminds you of this.
Even the actions of your empty avatar reflect the assumptions of the game devs. How many times have you wished that the empty avatar that "embodies" you would actually do what you would want to do in the same situation? The empty avatar allows us to form our own emotional responses, but then prevents us from actually acting on them, and instead forces us to go along with whatever the universe was scripted to do.
My thinking is that an avatar with a personality would be a better choice, because it would allow us to have a more aggressive, judgmental, active character. The character's emotions would help the player understand what actions would be suitable in-world, and the character would of course be scripted to allow for those actions.
Basically, since we devs are injecting ourselves into the game world anyway, we should do it in a powerful and authentic way instead of a fearful way.
There is a risk that the player will hate the avatar, that's true. However, I think this fear is overblown, and I also think there's a few powerful safeguards we can use.
First, we can be careful to explain the foundations of each emotion and judgment. This is a character we're playing, so seeing inside their head is acceptable. If we know that the character's parents were killed by the king's knights, we won't get upset that they are badmouthing the military. This requires a fair amount of insight into your own presumptions, though - often, devs will write in judgments without even realizing that they are judgments, such as the utter lack of nonstandard romance options.
Second, we could allow the player to choose between several different personalities, perhaps with only minor differences between them. Giving the player a choice means they'll be more accepting of things that seem to descend from that choice.
Third, we can provide support from non-avatar characters. The two basic kinds of support we can offer are to agree and to disagree.
Characters agreeing with the main avatar's choices will provide peer pressure against the player's own judgments, and may reduce the severity of their gut reaction.
Characters disagreeing with the main avatar's choices will provide an outlet for the player's own disagreements, while their acceptance of the avatar's leadership even through the disagreement will help the player to see the avatar as someone who should be respected even through disagreements.
In both cases, there is a risk of characters becoming annoying or marginalized because their own opinions or actions fall into the trap that the avatar would have fallen into without their help.
Well, I can't claim I know the perfect route. But I do ask that we stop acting out of fear.
Let's write some characters that have emotions! Let's use our characters in a lot of different ways and make games feel deep and interesting!
No more empty avatars. Let's find something besides "smoldering determination".