The Psychology Behind Crafting Memorable Video Game Characters: Strategies for Engaging Players
- October 6, 2023
- Michał Dębek
Is there even a single game developer in the world who doesn’t dream of creating a character that players will talk about and remember for years? We don’t think so. Is there any game publisher who wouldn’t want a character from their game to become a recognisable brand? We have yet to meet one. Instead, we met many game developers and publishers, our clients, concerned about creating characters that resonate with players who struggle with this challenging subject matter.
To help you navigate these dark, psychologically muddy waters, we created a short series of articles on how you can develop compelling, attractive, and memorable characters. A good character in a game is created not only by great context – an exciting setting, engaging story – or its appearance and physical attributes (although that is also important). We are certain that the psychological underpinnings of character creation also make these virtual beings compelling and relatable to players.
We’ll explore some key psychological concepts that inform the creation of video game characters. We’ll also take a closer look at some of the most iconic characters in recent gaming culture and show you how their creators used psychological principles to bring them to a successful “life” (whether consciously or not).
We’ll cover everything from understanding player motivations and emotional connections to exploring archetypes. Whether you aim to create relatable heroes, intriguing villains, or memorable NPCs, this guide will help you craft characters that leave a lasting impact.
First, if you’re wondering which characters are particularly liked and disliked – we’ve got you covered. Thanks to our ongoing proprietary research, we can provide insights into each of the characters and delve into the reasons behind players’ preferences for some and aversions to others.
Second, it’s essential to grasp that the concept of psychological identification plays a pivotal role in determining the likability of your character. It’s the core process of associating the self closely with the character, crucial to understanding the subsequent psychological mechanisms that drive players’ preferences and decisions.
Third, let’s take a look at the phenomenon of projection – the process of transferring one’s thoughts, experienced situations, behaviours, and viewpoints onto game characters. Why does it hold such significance in the realm of gaming?
Fourth, we will look at probably the most well-known compensation phenomenon – even if it is not always so professionally called. Players would like to be like some characters and not like others. Why? What are the implications of this?
Fifth, every gamer remembers a character with whom they deeply empathized. We’ll explore how to effectively evoke these emotions and whether it makes sense from the perspective of a game developer or publisher.
Sixth, we understand that every gamer desires agency while playing their favourite games – we enjoy shaping our reality. Have you ever wondered what would happen if it were taken away from you at a crucial moment? We will present theories on the impact of the player’s free choices and non-linear in-game storytelling on their emotional involvement and identification with the character.
Finally, our exploration will turn to the concepts of archetypes. We’ll show the psychological sense of constructing characters around these prototypical ideas and symbols, offering insights into their strategic use to avoid falling into the trap of clichéd storytelling.
Each psychological concept will be illustrated using well-known characters from games that are recognized worldwide. Perhaps these games have earned their recognition due to their brilliantly crafted character development?
Whether you’re a game designer looking to create more engaging and realistic characters or simply a gaming fan curious about the inner workings of your favourite virtual heroes and villains, this series will provide insight and inspiration.
So strap in and get ready to delve into the fascinating world of psychology in character creation, focusing on the psychological aspects that make characters truly resonate with players.
The characters that gamers like
In September 2023, we launched the “Gaming Sense™ 2023: Characters” study and asked more than a hundred of mid-core and hard-core gamers from our playtester base to gauge their preferences for game characters. The top ten most liked characters, as spontaneously declared by our participants and ranked in order of the number of recalls, were:
- Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher series)
- Arthur Morgan (Red Dead Redemption 2)
- Ezio Auditore da Firenze (Assassin’s Creed series)
- Dante (Devil May Cry)
- Commander Shepard (Mass Effect)
- Aloy (Horizon series)
- Nameless (Gothic series)
- V (Cyberpunk 2077)
- Nathan Drake (Uncharted series)
- Lara Croft (Tomb Raider series)
- Kratos (God of War series)
These were recalled and labelled as “liked” by at least 6% of the gamers’ sample, with the Witcher named by 33%. No respondents didn’t like Geralt (which is unsurprising as we asked Polish gamers, and he is treated as a Polish national asset and heritage).
Geralt emerged as the most favoured character also when we asked gamers to assess the characters one by one on the list curated by the Try Evidence team before the study began. The list comprised 69 playable characters, selected to encompass both contemporary and well-known video game humanoids that PC and console gamers discuss worldwide.
The Witcher scored 94 on a scale from -100 to +100 (based on gamers’ answers from “Dislike very much” to “Like it very much”) and decisively won the rank. The top 10 aided awareness list appears as follows (in order of scores from highest to lowest):
- Geralt of Rivia (The Witcher series)
- Arthur Morgan (Red Dead Redemption 2)
- Ciri (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt)
- V (Cyberpunk 2077)
- Joel Miller (The Last of Us series)
- Connor (Detroit: Become Human)
- Max Payne (self-titled)
- Ellie (The Last of Us series)
- Clementine (The Walking Dead series)
- Courier (Fallout: New Vegas)
Why Geralt, Arthur, and Ciri? Let’s deconstruct them a bit and take a closer look.
Geralt – a hero by chance
Geralt is a complex hero (or – to be precise – a blend of hero/warrior/dragon slayer and the outlaw). His personality is multifaceted and remarkably human. He’s generally multi-dimensional. That’s why he is close to gamers’ selves and reaches a broad audience – everyone can find something of their own in it. It’s relatively easy to identify with him.
Geralt is also undeniably handsome – whoever thinks the opposite cast the first stone! Geralt’s character design, voice acting, and overall aesthetic appeal contribute to his likability. Geralt’s has been well-crafted, and thus, due to the halo effect, gamers view him more favourably than other characters. Indeed, in our study, he was assessed as the fourth most attractive character after Ciri, Lara Croft and V.
Lastly, as a skilled warrior and expert monster hunter, Geralt is powerful. Assuming his role provides players with a profound sense of empowerment as they navigate challenging encounters and overcome formidable foes, which can be psychologically rewarding. Moreover, embodying Geralt involves helping “good people”, protecting them from malevolence and monsters (in most cases); being a saviour is rewarding for most of us.
Arthur Morgan – a good outlaw
Arthur is yet another character of profound psychological depth. He shifts between being friendly and threatening. Psychologically, it keeps players engaged and on their toes. This dynamic creates tension and unpredictability in the narrative, leaving players uncertain about Arthur’s reactions in various situations. Gamers like this kind of unpredictability, as it breeds challenge, and overcoming a challenge brings pleasure.
The anticipation of pleasure, or the “chase” after it, captivates us. It triggers the release of chemicals such as dopamine, and as a result, we feel euphoric. Moreover, uncertainty often comes with many emotions, including excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. This emotional rollercoaster can be thrilling and pleasurable, ensuring continued engagement and emotional investment in the eventual outcome.
In terms of archetypes, Arthur melds the qualities of a hero and an outlaw, much like Geralt the Witcher, and this duality is thoroughly compelling. Moreover, the player influences which aspect of his nature will dominate by the gameplay or story choices. Psychologically, such a combination can be refreshing and thought-provoking. When characters break away from the classic (super)hero archetype, it surprises and intrigues the audience, encouraging them to reevaluate their preconceptions. It creates a form of tension, a cognitive dissonance.
This prompts gamers to reevaluate their beliefs and adjust their understanding of heroism. Many players find characters who don’t conform to strict notions of heroism more relatable and realistic, as they mirror the complexities of real-life individuals.
Arthur embodies qualities and experiences that resonate with players. His moral dilemmas, the ongoing struggle with his own past, and the in-game choices allow players to project players values and emotions onto him, fostering a deeper relationship. That’s probably why Arthur secured a sixth spot in the player identification with the character category, trailing behind Geralt but outpacing Ciri.
Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon – a strong female
Ciri embodies the essence of an independent young woman, clearly determined and poised for adventure. At the same time, she is empathetic and caring, even devoted particularly to her loved ones. She also possesses magical abilities and a sharp intellect. Determined to shape her fate, she refuses to be controlled. Not surprisingly, Ciri’s character aligns seamlessly with the psychological traits sought after by modern players.
This young witcher (or the empress of Nilfgaard) undergoes significant character development as she grapples with her unique abilities and responsibilities. Players appreciate witnessing her growth from a vulnerable young woman into a formidable warrior, fostering a psychological connection. Additionally, her story is closely intertwined with Geralt’s history, and the emotional depth of their relationship is a significant element of the plot that emotionally engrosses players.
It is also worth mentioning that Ciri was the character rated highest out of 69 on the physical attractiveness scale (outstanding 95/100 points). This attractiveness correlated significantly, albeit moderately, with her overall likability, which is not always the case in every character we’ve studied.
The characters that gamers dislike
Among the disliked characters, two led the way: Abby Anderson from The Last of Us Part II and Micah Bell from Red Dead Redemption 2. Abby was the only character in our set where gamers declarations of ‘dislike’ or ‘very much dislike’ outweighed statements of liking.
Spontaneously, gamers declared 193 disliked characters to us, with only Micah Bell identified by more than a few people (10 precisely). The other characters were indicated only by 3-9 people. Ranked in descending order of frequency, the declarations of disliking were as follows:
- Micah Bell (Red Dead Redemption 2)
- Trevor Philips (Grand Theft Auto V)
- Big Smoke (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas)
- Ellie (The Last of Us series)
- Abby Anderson (The Last of Us Part II)
- Chloe Price (Life Is Strange series)
- General Shepherd (Call of Duty series)
- Lae’zel (Baldur’s Gate 3)
- Professor (The Witcher)
- Roman Bellic (Grand Theft Auto IV)
As previously noted, with the exception of Abby, there were no characters in our list-assisted compilation for which players’ “dislike” declarations outweighed the “like” statements.
Anyway, the list of “less liked” characters looked like this (in order of least liked):
- Abby Anderson (The Last of Us Part II)
- Ethan Mars (Heavy Rain)
- Jason Brody (Far Cry 3)
- Nameless Boy (Limbo)
- Isaac Clarke (Dead Space)
- The Sole Survivor (Fallout 4)
- Aloy (Horizon Zero Dawn)
- Dragonborn (TES: Skyrim)
- Alan Wake (self-titled)
- Corvo (Dishonored series)
What contributed to these characters’ relative unattractiveness when compared to the others? Let’s analyse them a bit.
Micah Bell – an evil outlaw
He is a ruthless individual. Immoral, unpredictable, and disloyal, widely disliked even in the Wild West’s gang (!). Micah is one-dimensional – universally repulsive. With little exploration of his background or motivations, he is no more and no less than a walking evil. Such personas are generally disliked, both in gaming and real life.
The lack of depth in Micah’s character makes it challenging for players to empathise with or comprehend his actions. He is consistently portrayed as an antagonist, and players have limited opportunities to see any redeeming qualities or moments of vulnerability in his character. This one-sided portrayal leaves little room for player sympathy.
Now, we arrive at a pivotal psychological phenomenon. Micah embodies the archetype of the ultimate anti-hero, in direct opposition and conflict with Arthur Morgan. Since players have a strong positive affect towards and identification with Arthur, it becomes a psychological inevitability for players to develop a strong dislike for Micah. Otherwise, they would have to deal with cognitive dissonance towards their morality – that would be very difficult and aggravating.
Abigail “Abby” Anderson – when vengeance doesn’t pay
She is not a bad person per se. The situation is psychologically interesting because Abby had morally sufficient reason to hate Joel and even hurt him. After all, he killed her father – the doctor who would kill Ellie in search of a cure for cordyceps. However, the motive of ‘sanctified’ revenge could not outweigh the sympathy and empathy towards Joel – a father who had already lost one daughter and was about to lose another child.
The players had been used to Joel for a long gameplay time, forming a deep identification and empathy towards him. This connection was so strong that they appeared to have either forgotten or, at the very least, rationalised his crime.
Trevor Philips – the core of unacceptable evil
Trevor was portrayed by game developers as a violent and psychopathic individual, even by GTA standards. In his introductory scene, he kills a man (the widely liked protagonist of GTA IV DLC “Lost and Damned”) by stomping on his head and proceeding to unceremoniously scrape the remains of his boots. He engages in brutal and chaotic acts of violence, including torture, murder, and kidnappings. Some players may find his actions disturbing, off-putting or even disgusting.
Trevor lacks a clear moral compass and often acts without regard for the consequences of his actions. His unpredictable and erratic behaviour can make him a challenging character to connect with, especially when contrasted with the game’s two other, more sensible protagonists. Players may find it difficult to sympathise with or relate to a character who can go from a humorous moment to a violent outburst in the blink of an eye, lives a destructive and chaotic lifestyle, and possesses many widely unlikable traits, such as misogyny, vulgarity, drug abuse, a general lack of empathy and warped sense of justice and morality. These traits can make players uncomfortable or disinterested in him, as most of us, humans are quite the opposite creatures. It’s hard to identify with such a deviant, which we also evidenced in our study – Trevor was the most difficult for players to identify with (-82/100); he was lower on that scale even than Agent 47, the cold-blood professional, intentionally dehumanised assassin (!) who scored -59/100.
It’s important to note that Trevor’s personality was intentionally designed in this extreme way. While most of the players dislike him, some may find his character intriguing and entertaining precisely because of these controversial elements – in fact, we know such individuals. Ultimately, player preferences for characters in a game like GTA V can vary widely based on individual tastes and moral sensibilities.
In this introductory post, we’ve touched upon the psychology behind crafting memorable video game characters featuring iconic figures like the skilful Geralt of Rivia, the flesh-and-blood Arthur Morgan and the liberated Ciri. We’ve also brought closer to you the characters that failed to capture gamers’ hearts, earning them the dubious distinction of being among the most disliked and memorable for all the wrong reasons.
These aforementioned psychological underpinnings of character creation, including identification, projection, compensation, empathy, sense of agency and archetypes, play a significant role in making virtual beings compelling and relatable. Creating personas that truly resonate with players is a challenge faced both by game developers and publishers.
That’s why, as we progress in this series, we’ll strive to provide a more in-depth exploration of the psychological principles behind crafting characters that leave an indelible mark on players’ memories. While we’ve offered just a glimpse of what’s to come, we encourage you to stay tuned and follow our blog for the forthcoming articles that promise to delve deeper into this fascinating subject.
Want to quote thoughts from this article? Do it elegantly:
Dębek, M., Król, M., & Zagórski, D. (2023, October 10). The psychology behind crafting memorable video game characters: Strategies for engaging players. Try Evidence. [link]