GDC Notes: The Six Layers of a Great Game Character

29 May

I’m almost afraid to post this; this talk was given by David Freeman, a man who is apparently one of those Robert McKee types from Hollywood who has had a hand in coaching an obscene amount of script writers.  As per usual the videogame industry gets sloppy seconds (but we’re not complaining).  His sessions have been attended by people like David Jaffe, Lorne Lanning, Chris Metzen, Mike Morhaime, and Scott Miller.

During the talk he wanted to make sure nobody was recording, which leads me to believe that reproducing his gospel in any way will result in my throat being slit while I sleep.

But really, he seemed like a nice guy, so I’ll take the chance.

His talk at GDC Canada seems to have skimmed the surface of what would normally be a several day long workshop, but the fundamentals he touched on were still interesting, and I think I learned a few tricks.

As is the case with all these GDC notes, they are in point form — I’ll do my best to stretch it out, but what you’re getting here are the little bits I thought deserved some ink, and not much more:

To start off he explained his techniques create “emotional depth” and “scene deepening”.  This as opposed to other methods of attack that don’t focus enough on the right spot — that spot is characterization.

These are the aforementioned “Six Layers”

6. Character deepening

5. Empathy techniques

4. Character arc

3. Quirks and eccentricities

2. Character diamond (a character trait graph)

1. Truthfulness (accuracy, profession research, etc)


The character diamond is a four pointed graph in the shape of a diamond that simply helps visualize the rough number of necessary character traits needed for a character and how they jive (and to clarify, these are not for player characters but for NPCs.)  He notes an NPC should have a minimum of three traits and a maximum of five.

Traits are clarified as character-defining descriptors; for example a character’s favourite beer tells us nothing about his character, so it is not a trait.

You don’t want cliche traits, you want unexpected traits that go together.

He cites the princess in Ico (Yorda) — she is a vessel for powerful magic, but she is also weak because she cannot control it.  Now you have an original character because she contains two traits that are seemingly at odds.

It is also possible to make a cliche character with one unique trait, thus making him or her familiar but original.

Traits can be manifested without dialogue such as with actions or through a fighting style.  My own observation of this is in the downloadable Watchmen game: Rorschach fights with a loose, rough-and-tumble (brutal) wrestling style, while Night Owl fights with a stiff karate style that seems to minimize damage done, like Batman.


His showcase example was of the Oracle from The Matrix film, which he classified as a Gandalf character, an example of taking a familiar cliche and tweaking it just a bit.

Here he used a pentagonal graph with these traits at the points: Serenely powerful, revolutionary, insightful/prescient, wry wit/ironic, motherly.  So she’s effectively a fortune-telling Gandalf disguised as the stereotypical wisecracking old black woman.


He notes a very comforting problem with developing non-cliche characters — it will always be hard to hear their voice in your head while you’re writing them.  That’s not because you’re a failure, it’s because the character is original and you have no basis for a voice.  While you’re writing the character the voice should eventually develop, and you’ll start naturally hearing this sub-vocalized voice that has developed along with the character.

For those unfamilair with this sort of writing quirk, often writers will sort of sanity-check their dialogue in their head by repeating the line mentally with the “right” voice.  If you’re writing a line for Gandalf you’ll try to make sure the line sounds like something a wizened old man would say.


Now, when he said you need to put uncommon traits together he did not mean to put opposites together.  That doesn’t fly.

The princess from Ico is not Timid/Brave.  She is Timid/Powerful.

What you want to achieve is “skewed opposites”.

Here is Batman:

Just/Good, Powerful/Frightening, Graceful/Weird


He calls all of this “emotioneering”.  Emotioneering adresses the subconcious.  

For instance Yorda cannot control her powers, but when she is led to a gate a crackling energy escapes and opens the gate.  Later on the player gets a weapon with the same crackling power running through it.  It just makes sense to the player.

The better your work is, the less people will notice it.  The more natural everything will seem.


On to Quirks.  These are little things that make the character interesting.  They are not traits, although they could be tied to them in some way, such as a character’s clothing reflecting their emotional state (ie. a goth girl).

This is unrelated to the character diamond, and they are not traits manifested in action.


Something called a “Slam” is a character’s confrontation with their own character flaw.

Indiana Jones in the snake pit, etc.

There are lots of different ways a character can respond to a slam.

Unless they are a tragic character, they can overcome the slam.


Empathy techniques.  Here he cites the obvious Wall-E references; how they surround this inhuman robot with human things and giving him human habits and needs, and human traits.  He’s lonely and he wants to hold hands, etc.

Everyman techniques are used to make you liken him to a person; he has normal human frustrations.

A standard up/down, good/bad plot graph shows how building a plot with consistent dips and spikes helps to build emotional attachment with Wall-E.

He talks about turning empathy upside down by making the audience/player empathize with the villain.

An example is the lovable killer, the hitman who loves kids, the environmentalist who wants to destroy everyone to save the world, etc.


Character deepening.  He didn’t go very far into this; I assume this is the bread and butter you would work with at one of his workshops where he has more time.  What you can take it to mean here is that these are some of the paths you can develop to attach people to a character, make them feel natural and involve the audience/player with the plight of the character.

1. Pain

2. Humiliation, shame, regret

3. Aesthetics

4. Understated or angled spirituality

5. Wisdom/insight

6. Responsibility

7. Self-sacrifice

8. Mystery

Visit David Freeman’s site here, so I don’t get my throat slit.

One Response to “GDC Notes: The Six Layers of a Great Game Character”

  1. David Freeman August 17, 2009 at 2:49 am #

    Thanks for the nice write-up! You must be a very quick note-taker. 🙂


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