5 Steps to Responsibly Designing Morally Difficult Characters

This week at GDC 2015, Dan Nagler, a game designer at Gigantic Mechanic, gave a talk about designing characters entitled, "Designing Morally Difficult Characters, Responsibly," as part of the Game Narrative Summit. How players make moral choices was also discussed at GDC this week. Nagler began his talk by mentioning work he and his company did on a State Immersion Module for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. The game was a way for high school students to see how life would be like in the 1800s and make decisions about real laws, including difficult subjects like slavery.  He spoke about how difficult it was to create morally reprehensible characters like slave-holding senators for High School students to play. One thing that you must remember to do is think of any groups of real world people who could be offended by your character's actions before beginning. Bring in outside sources to help you test the waters of how your character might be perceived. According to Nagler, there are essentially five design steps when starting to design these types of characters:

Create a Safe Space

The game has to make it explicit that the players are not their characters. Make sure the players have a chance to accept the chance to role-play as the character. By doing this, you're giving them a safe place to role-play. "To make players feel comfortable playing a morally gray character, the game has to make it explicit that the players are different than their characters because their characters are morally suspect," Nagler said. "To do this, it helps to design a kind of dividing line moment early in your game – some point where players consent to moving from out-of-character to in-character. It's a point where your player agrees to say, 'Look, I'm not my avatar, but I promise to act like they would temporarily, so long as nobody judges me for it.'"

Create Factions

Create complex factions where your characters can have some of the same morals with other characters in their faction. Making them part of a unified group, like a faction, can give your players a "moral category or team" to identify with. Create factions who's views aren't always black or white, or right or wrong, or always strict on a single moral view for a more realistic experience. The character has to feel like real person, otherwise the player won't take your character as seriously as you'd like them to. They should also always have someone on their team or faction to look up to or aspire to be. Another reason to create factions is to be able to get the part of your audience to actually partake in the narrative by giving them gameplay rewards if they respond to situations like following their faction. Characters will also have motivations that aren't directly related to their faction because, just like in real-life, we don't always 100 percent agree with the people in our factions.

Link Character Motives to Game Goals

Give your players points for sharing character motivations.  If you give your players points by doing things the character already would do, then they'll be more apt to follow your narrative, even it they're usually someone who skips every cut scene. Motivations should be based on your characters subjective goals or what they think they're aspiring to. Which means if your character is actually morally suspect, some of these should be perverse incentives in disguise. "In other words, keep giving them honor and resolve points even when they're slaughtering the forces of good," Nagler said. "They will still think instinctively that they're being honorable and resonant just like their characters, unfortunately."

Everyone's Human

Make sure to always give your characters a human side or a bio, even if they don't relate to a gameplay mission. This makes it more possible for the the player to humanize the character and understand what they want to do and why they feel the way they do. Things like personal histories, family members, secrets, or quirks that have nothing to do with the game will help players humanize characters, even without game value. Make sure they're not plot developments in disguise, however. These details are also distractions of your character's morally reprehensible characteristics.

Let Them Choose...Then Reflect

Let your players act like their character, voluntarily. You want to be responsible as a designer. According to Nagler, if you don't help your players realize they're being immoral, they might come away from the experience thinking that their character is just a cool person, which isn't what you want. "Shock them out of role-playing," Nagler said. "Break the fourth wall if you have to. Address them out of character and ask them what they think of the decisions that their character made while they were acting in the moment." Let your player judge themselves, do not accuse them. They will probably, hopefully at least, realize that they're character has done things that they would be uncomfortable doing in real life. Nagler says that getting the player to reflect on the decisions they've made is the most important part of designing a morally corrupt character. Through the video game platform, they'll be able to see how simple it was for them to act in an "evil" way if they had the wrong set of motivations driving them, which is an important life lesson.