Last November in Forum Ludorum (where else), we've discussed the topic of characters in video games, but only recently have I rediscovered my old notes from that meeting and compiled them into a coherent essay.
In general discourse, a "character" is any fictional or fictionalized person. A video game character is thus any entity in a video game that represents a person – or, more specifically, any entity that the player chooses to interpret as a person. Because the concept of "personhood" is defined differently across cultures, which entities are considered persons is thus entirely subjective to the player. Developers often imbue their characters with human-like characteristics (distinct appearances, voice-overs, embedded characterization and relationships with other entities, limited agency via artificial intelligence, etc.) to persuade players to interpret these entities as persons. Players can also, however, recognize character in entities that lack such characteristics (like the long bar in Tetris), as well as in ones that don't actually exist as objects within the virtual space (Doug Rattman in Portal).
Video game characters can be categorized by placing them along several axes, all of which are spectra, rather than hard binary categories. In following, the term "player" refers primarily to active human participants of gameplay, not to behavior-governing AIs.
Relation to the Player
A character is playable (a.k.a. a "player character") if they serve as the interface between a player and the game state. More formally, a player's interaction with a playable character is mediated only by the game's extradiegetic controls. Because playable characters are themselves a part of the game state, this also means that the player exerts agency both through and on them.
A character is non-playable (a.k.a. a "non-player character" or "NPC") if their interactions with a player are mediated by other diegetic entities. As such, player agency is typically only exerted on them, not through them. In turn, NPCs can have their own agency and exert it upon both players and playable characters.
Mixed cases would include characters that alternate between playable and non-playable, like Thomas and Ray in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. Edge cases of player characters would be a falling block in Tetris and the mouse cursor in most top-down strategy games.
Narrative Complexity and Purpose
A character is flat if they have little characterization and static if they have no character arc (see Aspects of a Narrative). Flat static characters typically serve as devices to advance the narrative and to flesh out the game world.
A character is round if they have extensive characterization and dynamic if they have a character arc. Round dynamic characters typically drive the narrative with their actions and decisions.
Flat characters are rarely subjects of character arcs, since they rarely have enough depth and characterizing traits to warrant the required narrative space. Round static characters, on the other hand, are commonplace.
A character is mechanical if they have a utilitarian relationship with the player. They facilitate the player’s mechanical (systemic, ludic) interactions with the game.
A character is narrative if they have an emotional relationship with the player. They facilitate the player’s sentimental (narrative) interactions with the game.
Most characters in games fall somewhere in the middle of this axis or constantly shift towards one end or the other during gameplay.
Degree of Designer Control
A character is player-controlled if all of their actions are directed by a player, although the developer still restricts the range of actions available to them. An example would be Chell from Portal.
A character is computational if their actions emerge at runtime from a combination of parameters embedded into the game by the developer and the actions undertaken by the player. This includes most interactable NPCs, as well as characters with context-sensitive idle animations, etc.
A character is fully embedded if all of their actions are directed by the developer. Such characters exist mainly in cutscenes, scripted set-pieces, and environmental storytelling.
Degree of Player Subordination
A character is a canvas if a player both defines (most of) their characterization and directs their gameplay actions, e.g. the Vault Dweller in Fallout.
A character is a companion if their characterization is predominantly embedded by the developer, but a player directs some or all of their gameplay actions.
A character is a support if their characterization and behavior are embedded and align with player goals. Most vendors and quest givers in games are supports.
A character is a mob (from "mobile") if their characterization and behavior are embedded and contradict player goals. Most enemies and bosses in games are mobs.
A character is a prop if their characterization and behavior are embedded and serve predominantly to flesh out the narrative and the world.
The term "non-player character" was appropriated by video games from tabletop role-playing games where it refers to side characters controlled by the game master (GM). However, modern understanding of the GM as a fellow player with a different set of responsibilities and gameplay goals rendered the term obsolete, therefore many contemporary designers prefer to use the terms "game master character" (GMC) or "game master player character" (GMPC) instead. This is ambiguous, too, however, since "GMPC" can also refer to a character created to be the star of the narrative, like the non-GM PCs, but controlled by the game master. Either way, the term "NPC" is much less problematic in video games, which can simulate characters without the need for human role-playing.
The categorization of characters in flat/round and static/dynamic comes from literary theory and is applicable to any storytelling medium, not just video games.
Combining ludonarrative function and player relation axes results in following categories (the terms "puppet" and "vehicle" were coined by Worch 2011):
|Mechanical||"Puppet"||Generic vendors and mobs|
|Narrative||"Vehicle"||Named and plot-relevant NPCs|
A considerable overlap is observed between the designer control and player subordination axes. Both player-controlled and fully embedded characters are directed by outside forces, and only computational characters display an agency of their own at runtime. Companions and mobs are typically computational, while supports can be either computational or fully embedded.
Canvasses are rare in modern games, since they require the designers to cede a large portion of their authorial control to the player while simultaneously validating their characterization choices through gameplay. Franklin 2019 calls canvasses "role-playing characters" and contrasts them with "avatars", who are essentially companions, because even though the player directs their actions, their characterization is up to the writer/designer (cf. Worch's puppets and vehicles). Franklin also coined the term "role-flexible" for hybrid characters whose characterization and, occasionally, actions are partially controlled by the player and partially, by the designer: examples would include Geralt in The Witcher, Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and the Misthios in Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
As an example, let us examine the Portal duology from Valve Corporation and categorize characters according to the above framework.
- Chell is a playable flat static mechanical player-controlled companion. Chell is an almost ideal example of a player-controlled companion because, while her characterization (however little) is provided by the devs, every single action she undertakes (except crying out in pain when shot in the first game; this computational behavior was removed in the sequel) is controlled by the player. This framing also prevents her from having an (embedded) character arc, rendering her static by default, which is typical for most player characters in challenge-based games.
- GLaDOS is a non-playable round narrative computational mob in both games. While she is definitely rounder in the sequel, the fact that the first game reveals her villainy only gradually attests to her extensive characterization from the start. The sequel also gives her a character arc and makes her switch sides, so while she is static mob in the original, GLaDOS becomes a dynamic mob-support in Portal 2.
- Doug Rattmann is a non-playable round static narrative fully-embedded support. Rattmann is fully embedded by the virtue of not existing in the game world: Chell only discovers traces of his presence in the first game, but they are enough for the player to piece together his extensive characterization. The fact that his writings help the player to figure out GLaDOS' villainy makes Rattmann a support rather than a prop.
- Weighted Companion Cube is a non-playable flat static narrative computational companion. While the Cube fulfills a primarily mechanical purpose in the original game, it is positioned by the devs (and received by parts of the fanbase) as an associate for the player to develop an emotional attachment to. Because everything it "does" in the game is directed by the player via the portal gun's drag-and-drop function, it is a companion, rather than a support.
- Wheatley is a non-playable flat dynamic narrative computational companion-mob. Wheatley's characterization is flat because all of it stems from his function as an "intelligence dampening core". Nevertheless, he also manages to have a character arc through his rise and fall as the late-game villain, becoming a rare example of a flat dynamic character.
- Cave Johnson is a non-playable round dynamic narrative fully-embedded mob. Arguably the star of the sequel, Johnson is presented posthumously in a collection of pictures and audio recordings (therefore he is fully embedded), but undergoes a minor arc (from enthusiasm to disillusionment) in the course of these recordings. A case can be made that he is actually a prop, since he isn't active in the game proper, but as the mastermind behind the construction of the old Aperture test chambers, he plays an antagonistic role to Chell.
- Caroline is a non-playable flat static narrative fully-embedded prop. While presented in the same way as Johnson, Caroline (if considered apart from GLaDOS) displays a lot less characterization, character evolution, and agency.
- Turrets are non-playable flat static mechanical computational mobs. This is a classic combination for enemy NPCs/monsters.
- Defective turrets and personality cores are non-playable flat static mechanical computational companions.
- Atlas and P-Body are playable flat static mechanical player-controlled companions, much like Сhell.
As mentioned before, the recognition of an entity as a character (fictional person) is entirely subjective, and a case can be made for treating e.g. the portal gun as a character distinct from Chell since neither game starts with it in her possession. On another side note, we observe that while these two games provide examples of almost every category in the framework, they contain no canvasses because all three of their playable characters come pre-loaded with characterization. This is probably owed to the series' genre, as canvasses are mostly featured in role-playing and open world games.