Bringing Characters to Life (Spoilers)

Games fan Tom Richards believes that characters make a huge impact on a story and overall feel of a great game, but it’s where and how the characters interact that the fun happens.

Characters are the lifeblood of a good story. In books, readers develop a love for a character and cheer them on for the rest of their journey. Characters can be funny, dark, mysterious… characters can be anything. In games this is no exception. A good game can tell a story that’s enjoyable and intriguing and often it is easier to develop an affection for a character, especially if it’s the character they’ve been with for the whole game, than in a book or on TV.

For example, in my favourite game, ‘The Last Of Us’, I grew to love the main protagonist Ellie so much that when she was captured by cannibals, I couldn’t put down the controller until I had ensured her safety. However, one of the only things that can make these good characters even better are the relationships between them. Whether the characters can’t stand each other, are in love or have an unbreakable friendship that might even come under strain as the story progresses.

Ellie is captured by a group of cannibals led by David, who she later kills.
Ellie is captured by a group of cannibals led by David, who she later kills.

Throughout the game, the player controls two different main characters, Joel and Ellie. While Joel is more serious and short tempered after the death of his daughter Sarah, 14-year-old Ellie provides the comic relief, making jokes and sarcastic comments. While the two are very unlikely companions and untrusting of each other at first, the bond that grows between them as the story continues eventually drives Joel to sacrifice the future of humanity to save his new adopted daughter.

Joel and Ellie from The Last Of Us.
Joel and Ellie from The Last Of Us.

Rockstar’s Wild West sandbox game, Red Dead Redemption represents another unique relationship, which takes place between the main protagonist John Marston and his friend-turned-enemy Dutch van der Linde. Throughout Red Dead, John is tasked with taking out three of his old friends and fellow gang members. After he has killed two of the three, Javier Escuella and Bill Williamson, he goes after Dutch, the former leader of the group. After chasing each other over New Austin and West Elizabeth, the pair ends up on the edge of a cliff, Dutch having given up and John pointing a gun at him. Dutch gives up and tells him that they are “a dying breed” and that when he’s gone, “they’ll just find another monster.”

Red Dead Redemption; Rockstar's wild west sandbox game.
Red Dead Redemption; Rockstar’s wild west sandbox game.

What makes this relationship especially interesting is that John can’t find the strength to shoot his old friend, even after the times that Dutch left him for dead and tried to kill him. Rather than being shot, he jumps off the cliff and kills himself after saying the words, “Our time is passed John.”

 

"Our time is passed John."
“Our time is passed John.”

The hugely successful indie game Gone Home tells a story through the eyes of Katie, who has just returned home to find her family’s house empty. After looking around, she finds a note under Sam (her sister)’s door telling Katie not to try looking for answers as to where she is. Since there’s nobody else there, Katie looks around to find where everyone else is. As the player explores, they pick up audio tapes left by Sam. The tapes begin with her talking about her school life, how she’s referred to as the ‘Psycho House Girl’ after the previous owner of the house and her passion for writing. They also talk about a girl she sees in the senior year, wearing army uniform, called Lonnie DeSoto. What starts as a friendship between Sam and Lonnie who simply just “wanted to see the Psycho House” gradually changes into something more.

Lonnie DeSoto from Gone Home.
Lonnie DeSoto from Gone Home.

Through exploring, the player finds letters and notes passed between them, talking about the both of them sneaking off to gigs together, ghost hunting and playing video games. Then the player picks up audio tapes where Sam talks about Lonnie telling her how beautiful she is, how much she likes her, and finally, kissing her. From that point in the story, notes talk about meeting up with each other or sneaking up to Sam’s darkroom when her parents aren’t around.

The game ends with two audio tapes. In the first, Lonnie leaves to join the army and Sam doesn’t know what to do with her life. But in the final tape, Sam apologizes to Katie and tells her why she’s missing. Lonnie has decided that she doesn’t want to go through with the army and asks Sam to run away with her and she says yes. The final line in the game is: “I love you so much, Katie. I’ll see you again. Someday. Love, Sam”. This is a much more different relationship to those in other games because it not only tells an amazing story, but it’s also about a homosexual relationship of which there are few in gaming.

Fullbright's Gone Home received extremely high praise from critics.
Fullbright’s Gone Home received extremely high praise from critics.

In order to engage its audience, a game needs good relationships between characters. Relationships are often the deepest and most interesting part of a character and when they are convincing, the story, and the game come to life.

Open Badges for Training and Development

Chromatrope have undertaken a large scale piece of innovation strategy work for the BBC Academy. The Academy is the department within the BBC responsible for creating staff learning and development training across the organisation, and includes everything from mandatory training for all staff, journalism, creativity, TV and radio craft skills as well as administering the BBC’s trainee and apprenticeship schemes. We wrote a blog post some time back about our interim work, but now have more to share on the project.

1: Open badge displays in Mozilla Backpack
1: Open badge displays in Mozilla Backpack

Our brief has been to create and apply an innovation strategy, to investigate how online training and development could be realised in new and different ways. Our strategic consultation has covered a pretty wide range, and where we can, we’re documenting here some of the more tactical development projects that have resulted from the work.

Open badges for learning and development was one such pilot. The initial proposal grew out of an understanding that there was a requirement for a mechanism that could help BBC staff and freelancers to record and maintain a record of their formal training within the organisation. In addition we felt it was important that the mechanism allowed users to capture their ‘informal’ and skills based learning.

Mozilla’s Open Badges project appeared to be one way for us to offer a means for the BBC to issue badges that could then be used by BBC staff as well as potentially the BBC’s audiences to record and share their skills, training and development achievements and work related learning.

2: Production case study badge shows issuer and criteria for earning badge
2: Production case study badge shows issuer and criteria for earning badge

Chromatrope worked with Mozilla and with stakeholders within the BBC to design and implement a series of pilot open badges from the BBC as issuer. These badges would initially recognise a user’s engagement with the ’TV Production Case Study’. To earn this badge users needed to watch and engage with a series of BBC curated films that outlined key roles in a specialist factual TV series including series producer and production manager. By doing this they could earn and display a badge which explicitly recognised their ‘understanding the essential roles in a series such as Crimewatch’.

3: Badges formed into collections for sharing via social media
3: Badges formed into collections for sharing via social media

During the discovery phase of the project we worked with a number of stakeholders to understand the editorial and technical requirements and constraints of the project. We attended Mozfest, the international gathering of Mozilla supporters and activists, where we ran a ‘Beta Badging the BBC’ workshop. Mozfest was a fantastic way for us to have face to face conversations with the creators and remixers of the technology that the BBC’s badge pilots would be using. The badge design and build itself was a straightforward process, made even simpler now that Mozilla has made it’s BadgeKit available.

4: User can supplement the badge with their own comments and share
4: User can supplement the badge with their own comments and share

The project has been evaluated and we’re hoping to see more badges from the BBC in the future. The Open University have recently announced that they are implementing open badges across some of their Open Learn content. It feels that issuing open badges should be natural progression for an organisation which is setting itself the challenge of becoming more open, with a more fluid workforce, and a requirement to where possible use existing, proven technologies and approaches. There is an interesting tension between the superficial informality of the learning captured by open badges, and the needs of an organisation to protect its reputation, and to manage risk by being obliged to provide a more formal and ‘accredited’ record of training and development. We believe that there is a place for open badges to be used more widely across organisations including the BBC, to capture and display informal learning and more formal training and development.

Design in a Nutshell

Design in a Nutshell Commission

As part of a series of ongoing commissioning innovation work for the Open University, Chromatrope were briefed to help commission a series of short films to act as a ‘design in a nutshell’ guide to key design movements. We wanted these films to be educational (of course) but also playful, distributable and with an appealing design aesthetic.

Discover Your Design Alter-Ego
Discover Your Design Alter-Ego

As well as the films we outlined a brief for a fun interactive experience which would help users to discover their design alter ego. Bristol based Thought Den won the commission and did a brilliant job in turning the ideas into a reality.

Innovation in News – BBC News Labs Radar

Chromatrope are really delighted to be working with the terrific BBC News Labs on the development of Radar, a new ‘innovation in online news’ blog. The site is initially being used as an internal tool by the BBC’s journalists, technologists and R&D specialists, but we’re working towards opening the site up publicly in the next few months.

Radar supports the work of BBC News Labs, by identifying and tracking online and mobile news trends and technologies that might have a place within the BBC’s news canon.

BBC News Labs itself is an incubator powered by BBC Connected Studio, and is charged with driving innovation for BBC News.

Playing Soldiers

Games fan Tom Richards looks at games based around war, and explores the many perspectives of conflict.

The portrayal of war in games is constantly evolving. Franchises like Call of Duty are just a small percentage of the many games offering different viewpoints to war. Conflict in the real world is ongoing, so how is conflict in the world of games changing?

One of the most well known war games is Call of Duty. From the franchise’s start in 2003, CoD puts players in wars and conflicts ranging from World War Two to more modern conflicts such as the Middle East, Russia or Ukraine or to the future where soldiers wear ‘Exo-Skeletons’ and have laser guns. Call of Duty focuses less on characters and story, and more on the gun-play. For this reason, it can be hard to form any emotional bonds with any of the characters, meaning that there doesn’t seem to be much point in all the killing and violence displayed on-screen.

Call of Duty
The newest addition to the popular franchise, Call of Duty

I don’t have a problem with violence in games and I strongly disagree with claims that real life shootings are inspired by digital ones. However, one mission in Modern Warfare 2, named “No Russian”, is undeniably one of the most controversial moments in gaming. This scene features CIA agent Joseph Allen in deep cover, joining a group of Russian ultra-nationalist terrorists in massacring innocent civilians in an airport. This disturbing scene, although possible to skip at the beginning of the game, still shocked a great deal of people around the world.

No Russian
The hugely controversial ‘No Russian’ mission featured in Modern Warfare 2

Another game based around war is the popular sci-fi role-playing game Fallout 3. This game is different to the likes of Call of Duty because instead of the character taking part in a war, it’s already happened. Fallout is set in post apocalyptic America in the year 2277, 200 years after nuclear bombs set off in the war between America and China devastated the world. Fallout gives the player a look at what can happen as a result of war. There aren’t really any winners. Each side suffers total losses, mutually assured destruction.

Fallout 3
The post-apocalyptic American wastelands featured in Fallout 3

This War of Mine gives a completely different perspective to Call of Duty and other games where you play as the soldier. Set in the besieged fictional city of Pogoren, rather than play as a gun-wielding super-soldier, the aim of the game is to survive as a small group of civilians. This War of Mine swaps explosions and adrenaline for a bleak, somber game that really tries to make players experience an unfamiliar situation.

This War of Mine
This War of Mine shows war from the perspective of civilians trying to survive in a war-zone

All three of these games are related to war, yet they all show war in a different light. There aren’t really any clear specifications for a war game because war affects so many different people from hardened super-soldiers to innocent bystanders. There are so many different viewpoints and stories that it can be difficult to fit into one game.

For great storytelling, games need good guys and bad guys. In the real world, the lines are much more blurred. Both sides commit atrocities and there are always casualties. Games can put players into a number of different roles; soldiers, refugees, terrorists, freedom fighters – It will be fascinating to see where games as a creative medium take our understanding of war and conflict in the future.

Tom Richards is a 14 year old gamer who loves the art, craft and science of games in all their various forms (except for fighting games). He believes a great game should include a good story, characters and zombies. As well as games he loves playing his bass and sax and tweets at @berkokid36