Designing Character-Driven Games

Petri Lankoski
Lecturer in Game Design and Production
Aalto University/School of Art and Design/Department of Media

Single-player character-driven games are a popular contemporary genre. These games typically involve action (action as in action movies) or exploration. Notably, use of social relations between characters in (big budget) character-driven titles have been marginal. Recently, games (such as Sims series, Baldur’s Gate series, Dragon Age, Grant Theft Auto IV Mass Effect series) include romances and friendships. Importantly, how these romances and friendships develop depends on player’s choices, but the execution of these social relations is rather simplistic. The approach of modeling social relations as gameplay in these games is good to add flavor to the game, but it might not be enough to bear as the main content. I believe that it is possible to develop games revolving around social relations. Exploring possibilities of gameplay of social interaction between game characters in single-player games is a challenging but worthy goal.

In my doctoral dissertation “Character-Driven Game Design: A Design Approach and Its Foundations in Character Engagement” I propose that game designers can learn from the writing methods from the dramatic writing, especially from Lajos Egri’s character-driven method. However, games and drama differ. To utilize the Egri’s method, we must understand where it is usable and where it is not. For Egri, the conflict originates from the natures and goals of the characters. He asserts that characters needs to want something so badly that there is no room for the compromise. Clearly, this conflict design part can be applied to the game design, but to apply it to game design we need to understand how games reveal and communicate the personalities of game characters. Especially, we need to understand how player-controlled characters do this. I propose that, in addition to perceivable features (such as face, voice, body) of player character, how the game set goals and action possibilities of the character are important in constructing the personality of the character. Importantly, these all are implementable from the character-driven design.

My study includes a design experiment Lies and Seductions. The role of the game has been two-folded. First, the draft version of the character-driven game design has been used in the design, and the experiences are used to refine the approach. Second, the ideas of implementing social conflict in the level  of game system have been tested with the game. Even if the game is based on the novel Dangerous Liaisons, the design approach including character design, has been utilised in the design process.

I claim that games can invade new territory by utilizing nonviolent character–character conflicts. There is much unexplored design space there, and I hope that design space will be in use in the future.


Lankoski, 2010. Character-Driven Game Design: A Design Approach and Its Foundations in Character Engagement. D.Arts dissertation, Aalto University, School of Art and Design. Available at (as printed book and free PDF).

Lies and Seductions,

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