Meeting Characters – the Dynamic Way! (Part I)

[Currently listening to: Mega Man remixes.]

I’m starting to realize the value of a dynamic introduction.

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Typically, I adopt the Dickensian manner of characters meeting each other: an individual bumps into another individual and discovers a memorable quirkiness about this new acquaintance. These two characters now proceed to quip about their backstory at length (or sink into a tense silence where they hide something important about themselves) and join each other for my convenience as a writer who wants people to meet because plot, that’s why.

But far better introductions are made out of need or a certain character’s motivation. It gives a better glue to the upcoming relationship between characters than if they were just to meet by happenstance.

Video games by rule must pull this off if they want to keep a good pace in gameplay. So over these summer months we’re going to have a look at the ways we can adopt a VG method of character introductions.

(These introductions will mostly include heroes meeting fellow heroes/anti-heroes. I feel like the subject of meeting the villain is a whole ‘nother topic on its own.)

COMMENCE WITH PART ONE!

Part I: Meeting Out of Need
  • Frog & Ayla: Chrono Trigger

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In an attempt to rescue Queen Leene and restore the timeline’s continuity, Crono and Lucca find themselves in a pinch when they’re assaulted by Fiends at a highly-suspect chapel. Just when they think the battle is theirs, one Fiend catches Lucca off guard and assaults her. Is it all over for Lucca? Will she die a brutal death 400 years in her world’s past??

No, because outta nowhere this frog warrior springs in and cuts that Fiend in half (at least, that’s how I interpret the flickering pixels). And he’s like, “Don’t let your guard down, fool.”

And Lucca’s like, “AAH, GROSS, A TALKING FROG.”

And Crono’s like, “…”

The party of three goes on to form a brief alliance based on their mutual search for the Queen, but already we know a great deal from Frog’s dynamic entrance with him having to explain very little:

  1. He is in some way connected to the Queen.
  2. He’s more than skilled with a blade.
  3. His physical appearance is unnatural (revealed by Lucca’s shock upon seeing him).

How would it have been different if Crono and Lucca just randomly bumped into Frog while they were exploring Guardia castle? They might spend a few dull text boxes explaining to each other why they mutually need to find the Queen, then figure out why they should join forces; and if the writer was feeling particularly verbose he could add in a dash of Frog angsting about his appearance.

Instead, since the three of them must meet in the immediacy of a search-and-rescue mission, the introductions have to be brief – and give just enough intrigue for us to wonder how this Frog fellow is going to contribute to the rest of the story.

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Ayla’s introduction is practically identical to Frog’s, but it drives home the same point: introductions made out of need reveal the essentials of a new character. This primal woman can mow down six imposing Reptites. BY HERSELF. Ergo, the player knows right away, “Dang, don’t mess with this chick.”

You know what this post needs? A kick-butt gif.
You know what this post needs? A kick-butt gif.

Her scenario also establishes the setting, as well as many of her own plot points:

  1. There’s man-dinos terrorizing the prehistoric era.
  2. Humans and man-dinos are apparently not on friendly terms.
  3. …I don’t really have a third point. I just like writing things in three’s.

In summary (wow, this went all “college thesis”, didn’t it?), Frog’s and Ayla’s intros play out brilliantly when it comes to setting up their interaction with other characters in the party – as well as drawing the players into their personal stories. We don’t need long exposition telling us who they are or why they’re intent on joining up with our heroes.

Oh, but don’t you dare think we’re done yet. We’ve got to talk about one more character from a different video game:

  • Jeff: Earthbound

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Who doesn’t love this nerd? And why DO we love this nerd? Is it the diverse array of firearms at his disposal? That stylin’ green slacks-and-coat combo? The fact that he can create a beam gun out of a broken harmonica?

Well…yes, actually. ‘Cause that’s all pretty boss.

But alongside all that, he’s a character that arrives out of need, which gives the player a sense of purpose as we lead him toward rescuing Ness and Paula.

Our introduction to him is far different from how we’re introduced to Frog and Ayla. We don’t get to see his interactions with the other characters immediately; instead, we’re brought into his personal world and shown what he must leave behind and face in order to help a couple of strange kids he doesn’t even know.

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We’re essentially drawn into his needs as he tries to respond to the needs of new friends. This is itself a genius move, because it creates empathy without requiring excessive explanation about this new character.


So now that I’ve geeked out for lines and lines on this post, here’s a question for the comments section: what makes a character introduction stick with you?

Next month we’ll look at “Meeting to Establish Motivation”. No sneak peeks at the characters I’ll pick for that topic; you’ll just have to come back to find out!

 

Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.

Earthbound is the property of Nintendo and Shigesato Itoi. You can play it via the Wii U virtual console.

Writing Redemptive Characters – Frog from Chrono Trigger

[Currently listening to: the Undertale OST again. Even after 50+ listens, Megalovania never gets old.]

A common plotline in stories is the redemptive arc: the journey of a character from failure to hope. Think of Thor in the Marvel movie (I don’t read the comics, okay), who is cast down from Asgard and must overcome his flaws in order to be worthy of Mjölnir again. We root for him to reconcile his failures because it’s something all humans confront and desire to conquer.

(Aw yeah, appealing to other geek groups on this vid-ja game blog.)

But what traits in a character make for a memorable redemptive arc? Look no further, all y’all story buffs, because to solve this problem we’re going to delve into the psyche of the GREATEST VIDEO GAME CHARACTER OF ALL TIME.*

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*Blanket statements on “Game & Write” are purely subjective and should not be considered absolute fact. But seriously. This dude.

Believe you me, I’m going to have a lot to say about Chrono Trigger on this blog (Lord willing I keep this nonsense going). So much brilliant storytelling to discuss in that game. SO MUCH. It may have even been the first video game to show me what such a medium was capable of. But I digress. Let’s look at why Frog’s story of failure and redemption is so amazing.

Spoilers abound, naturally.

Even his successes aren’t enough.

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When Frog saves Queen Leene – and we see how capable he is at the rescue – it comes as a surprise when he announces his retirement as her guard. He’s clearly no slouch and was in fact (we can assume) the only castle member to see through the Chancellor/Yakra’s ruse.

Despite all this, he’s in a place of such regret that near-failures are enough reason for him to retreat.

A character’s broken past can affect them in many ways. What I like about the approach for Frog is that he isn’t a screw-up when introduced, so we have no reason to believe he should doubt himself. This character we start off admiring is given dimension through his unexpected self-abasement. He might be more like us than we supposed, and that makes us want to know more.

His struggle is not his whole personality.

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Let me make something clear: I hate strongly dislike sullen characters (and I’m ashamed to say I’ve written a few). In the fictional realm, imbuing someone with too much “sulk” can make for a flat and unlikeable person.

(I’m looking at you, Squall; the Edward Cullen of Final Fantasy.)

But before I polarize this entire conversation – *ahem* – Frog’s brokenness works because it’s not in our face ALL THE TIME. He has hurts that keep him guarded, but he’s still cordial to friends and retains a sense of honor.

He doesn’t blab his whole story.

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Many RPGs have this point where everyone’s gathered together (usually around a campfire – uh, like that Chrono Trigger scene, I guess), and one or more characters decides this is the perfect time to fill twenty minutes with bloated backstory.

Now, I enjoy a good dose of backstory as much as the next person, but a video game should also, y’know, be about GAMEPLAY. A half hour onslaught of character background not only loses my interest, it’s also a sloppy demand that I care about a person just because I’m aware of every experience they ever had.

Frog’s backstory takes, maybe, five minutes, and he never shares it in dialogue. As far as we know, the others on the CT team never heard it from him. The player knows only what’s necessary to understand his internal struggle.

I guess in summary: Backstory should serve character. A character shouldn’t serve his backstory.

His redemption isn’t immediate.

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I suppose this one is dependent on whether you choose to complete the game’s sidequests or not. (And why wouldn’t you?)

Frog’s initial purpose in the grand scheme  (or “dream”; hehe, in-game pun) is to defeat Magus. He bears the Hero’s Badge, can wield the Masamune, etc., so the game writers could very well have said, “Once the Magus fight’s over, Frog’s story is done. We’ll resolve his baggage, make him hunky-dory, and get on to that way more interesting floating magical kingdom deal.”

The great thing about Chrono Trigger is: every character’s story is never quite done, even when their main purpose is served. (Well, our silent protagonist Crono is debatable, but whatever.)

From a story perspective, this is a key element. We’re all works in progress, and rarely are we ever 180-degree changed by one event. Besides which, the CT writers – whether aware of it or not – showed through Frog the difference between a surface action (whuppin’ Magus’ sorry backside) and addressing the inner healing that needed to take place after the surface problem had been dealt with (Frog confronting his guilt over Cyrus’s death and accepting his role as Hero).

His redemption doesn’t come from himself.

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This is perhaps a matter of preference, but…I generally don’t appreciate self-actualization stories. Like: the character who’s got a struggle but ends up solving it because they “discovered their greatness within”. It can work, but a character’s redemptive relationship with only him/herself feels…empty. With Frog, he’s able to heal because of the impact Cyrus’s life had on him.

Which, you could argue, makes him the humble Hero he is instead of one who self-affirmed his baggage away and now thinks of himself as da bomb.

His overall change is subtle.

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Even when he comes to terms with his past and makes peace over his failures, Frog doesn’t become a completely different person. He’s still a bit serious, a bit snarky, and he keeps up the role of honor-bound swordsman. We only know about his change because he finally accepts Queen Leene’s offer of a home and expresses closure when leaving Cyrus’s tomb.

And really, don’t we all keep an intrinsic personality, even when we deal with external change? It’s the nuance that makes Frog’s redemption so relatable: He didn’t have to change himself to receive forgiveness.


Perhaps these observations are less of a guide to writing a redemptive arc…and more just me going full geek while I have you readers at my mercy. But I hope the study at least gave you a little inspiration! If you’re familiar with Frog/Chrono Trigger, what are some other qualities you connect to in the character(s)? Has a different video game taught you the importance of a certain value?

 

Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.