Subtle Characterization in Games


I’ve been playing Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon for a little over three months now, and while its far from a perfect game, I have come to love playing it. From its gothic visuals, to its growling narrator, to its brutal mechanics, the game masterfully weaves a tone of despair and darkness, while still giving the player enough hope (or enticing them through greed) to continue playing.

There’s a lot to talk about with darkest dungeon, but I think a lot of it has been already said (this isn’t a particularly new game). What I want to focus on here is the way that the game gets the player to emphasize with characters that have little dialogue or traditional personality. The characters in Darkest Dungeon (the adventurers you control, that is)  don’t speak very much, and they only do so in speech bubbles. Most of the time they only speak when they are very stressed, or suffering from sort of affliction. Occasionally, one of them will add a snappy one-liner after killing an enemy or making a critical hit. While I enjoy Darkest Dungeon for its tone, I did have a hard time getting into it because I usually want strong characterization or narrative – that’s just my preference. It wasn’t until I was looking through the game’s TV Tropes page, looking for Easter eggs and such, that I realized that many of these characters do have wonderful characterization – its just very subtle.

The comment that really tipped me off was a comment about the Hound Master. This was one of the adventurer classes that I didn’t use very much, its supposed to be a versatile jack-of-all trades class, but I just couldn’t figure out how to use it effectively. Reading the post, someone remarked that, moreso than any other character, the Hound Master is the most heartwarming character. Everything that the Hound Master does is in service of his companion. Need to reduce stress? The Hound Master hugs his hound. The Hound Master takes damage? His animation is him protecting his dog from the attack. He also has one of the most heart-wrenching death lines in the game (I wont spoil it though, because it can only come from fighting the final boss). Part of why the Hound Master is so well characterized is because, well, he’s technically two characters, and you constantly get to see them interact. But seeing this has made me realize how other characters have personality as well – its buried in the mechanics of abilities, in the names of powers and abilities, in animations. When a character becomes an alcoholic because the player makes them drink stress away – that adds a level of characterization to an otherwise stock character. When a Jester heckles one party member to the bemusement of the others – that’s characterization. When an Abomination comments on the torturous nature of his existence – that’s characterization. When a Hellion overcomes stress to become virtuous, inspiring the other heroes around her (“You’re making it out of here – ALL of you!”) I almost tear up.

The thing is, all of these character archetypes have the opportunity to do the same thing. One Bounty Hunter has all the potential of another, but it is the experiences you go through with a character that allows you to impart a personality onto them. Every character has a bit of personality to start with – snarky quips, a grim outlook, unfaltering faith – but when you play with them, these puzzle-piece personalities come together and change the player’s perception of the characters. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this works so well in Darkest Dungeon – it may just be a side-effect of the way the tone and mechanics merge so well – but I would like to find more games that manage to pull off this subtle form of character development.

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