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  • Writer's pictureNathan Savant

Elements Of A Hero

In past blog posts I have analyzed the game mechanics of Magic the Gathering to better understand how that game tells us about its characters through the mechanics it offers.

Today I want to continue along that same line of thinking, but to bring us into the world of video games. I’m going to look at Roguelikes and Team Hero games to see how they accomplish this same goal of conveying character and story beats through expressive gameplay unique to a particular person. In other words: Who is Isaac of Binding of Isaac and how does his gameplay tell us about his character? Who is Reinhardt of Overwatch and how does he express himself through gameplay mechanics that also still manage to fit into a team sport?

First off, please remember this graphic:

If you haven’t read my blog before, this represents card actions in MTG. Cards act outwardly, and then that outward action (represented by the arrow above) is altered by the defending card. The arrow represents the action being redirected or changed in an abstract way. And I do mean abstract, but today we’re going to bring that much more into a concrete state in our minds.

Let’s start simple and look at Overwatch. Overwatch heroes have 6 different abilities per hero. They have a Primary Fire, Secondary Fire, Ability 1, Ability 2, Ultimate, and a passive. Some heroes will come with additional abilities, some of which might be alterations to their jump or backup melee attack or etc. but all heroes weigh in at roughly 6 abilities, 5 of which are guaranteed as buttons bound as keyboard inputs. So let’s look at Reinhardt, one ability at a time, and try to understand what each ability does both in the game and where it fits on the above card graphic.

Rein’s primary fire is a hammer swing. It’s an outward action, attacking anyone within reach and dealing damage. It’s about as straight-forward as it comes. In the game this attack serves as a short-range-high-damage swing with a wide, sweeping arc great for clearing out the space around him. If you are within melee range of Reinhardt, you won’t be for long.

Rein’s secondary fire is a shield. This shield prevents incoming projectiles from passing through, allowing him to block attacks for as long as the shield still has hit points to spare. This is a blocking action, represented in the chart above by a horizontal line cutting off an outgoing action. This ability allows Rein to control a space, protecting his team from enemy assault as long as he stands in between them.

Rein’s Ability 1 is Charge, which means that he presses himself into the ground and fires rocket jets that send him sliding towards his enemies, knocking them away and pinning one of them until he slams into a wall or runs out of jet. This is a sort of outward action that prevents the pinned enemy from acting for a short time. In the chart, it would be a straight outward action, but with an optional ability to prevent an enemy action, which is represented by a blank space between two cards. This attack cancels enemy action from one person and deals damage to everyone else. It helps Reinhardt relocate himself at speed, and combined with his shield and hammer, sets him up as a character who cares about positioning.

Rein’s Ability 2 is Fire Strike, which sends a huge projectile flying towards the enemy lines. This projectile cuts through enemies as it deals high damage to them. This is a straight outward action much like his basic attack, it just has a longer range and is useful for disrupting enemy positions. As much as Reinhardt is about his own positioning, this ability helps him to control the positioning of others.

Reinhardt’s ultimate ability is Earthshatter, which sends a shockwave forward and pins enemies to the ground for several seconds. Much like his Charge attack, this ability prevents enemy actions, but does so to multiple targets at once. The role of this attack is to punish enemy positioning and allow Reinhardt to completely dominate a small area with his hammer while the enemy cannot respond.

Reinhardt’s overall kit is about controlling small spaces. He doesn’t have much range to harass enemies from afar, he doesn’t have much speed to maneuver, but he has the ability to quickly punish enemies within a small radius around him. His lack of precision and range means he needs to be protected from more nimble opponents, but in return he can protect against those more nimble heroes as well. With a strong kit focused on controlling a small space around himself, you might think he would make a mighty warrior, and that’s exactly the personality the designers have given him. He is presented as the sort of iconic warrior of legend, written into a modern war.

On the chart above, Reinhardt’s abilities all fall within these three areas:

Rein doesn’t bother altering enemy attacks, either by empowering or weakening them, not by redirecting or manipulating them. He prefers simple, direct solutions. He attacks outwardly, and he blocks and prevents damage. Simple. Effective.

Let’s contrast Reinhardt with a completely different character just for comparison (but let’s do it briefly). Let’s look at Zenyatta.

Zenyatta is a support character, a healer. Zenyatta has a high damage output at long range, and cannot stand up to attacks with his extremely low hit points. His primary attack is a long range bullet that deals high damage, and his secondary will charge multiple bullets to send off in rapid succession. His ability 1 and 2 are orbs which bolster allies and weaken opponents. His ultimate is an invulnerability field that stops his teammates from taking damage while also healing them. Zenyatta’s basic attacks are standard outward actions. His two main abilities are actions which strengthen or weaken other actions/actors, and his transcendence is an even larger bolster of other characters’ actions.

If Reinhardt is about controlling space, Zenyatta is about controlling actors. Zenyatta’s focus is not on himself or anything at all related to where he stands or even what he can do, his focus is on enabling and disrupting the actions of others. He wants YOU to be stronger, and your enemy to be weaker so that YOU can do the fighting for him. He wants to control the battlefield by targeting an opponent from a distance, thus controlling who you are more likely to aim your attacks towards. His personality is about manipulation of others through understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and an effective Zenyatta player must have knowledge of who to target and when. The fact that he is presented as a monk fits this sort of “I exist outside of myself” mindset that is represented by Zenyatta’s play style.

His chart would look something like this. His own attacks are simple, and he uses his abilities to alter the actions of others.

One thing of note for the above chart is that it lacks dimension. Reinhardt and Zenyatta’s basic attacks are outward actions, but while Rein’s hammer is short range, Zen’s are long range sniper bolts, and yet they’re represented here simply as one thing acting on another. This is not an oversight, but rather me trying to emphasize that attacks are just one type of action. We often only concern ourselves with making sure that games have lots of ways to attack. Where we find the real meat, however, is when we add mechanics beyond just attacking.

Rein and Zenyatta both interact with their team in ways outside of the standard shooter formula. They aren’t just a guy with a knife and a guy with a sniper, they ALSO have these other abilities which help to differentiate them on their team. These non-combat abilities are where their personalities really shine through. A guy with a knife in Call of Duty does not have any particular ability to control space around him, and yet Reinhardt’s entire kit is about controlling melee range. Why? Because he can prevent incoming damage and relocate himself quickly. His shield, not his hammer, is what defines Reinhardt’s ability to control space. All the outward action in the world doesn’t make a personality on its own. Similarly, Zenyatta is just a sniper in Call of Duty. He’s just some guy who deals damage at long range, and yet Zenyatta is about manipulating enemies and allies and the flow of who is being targeted on both sides. This happens not because of his sniper shots but his strengthening and weakening abilities. By controlling the power levels of the people on the field, he manipulates the flow of combat, and he does so from afar because his own body is weak. We can see interesting comparisons to these characters in Moira and Brigitte, as Moira reflects a more personally-powerful (and shorter range) Zenyatta and Brigitte reflects a melee brawler like Reinhardt, but one who is focused on controlling space through manipulating allies, instead of raw defense.

And with that, let’s move on from Overwatch for a bit (and hero multiplayer titles by extension since heroes are all formatted the same way). Let’s now look at roguelikes for a slightly different spin on the idea of character expression.

A roguelike is defined most prominently by its runs. Each time you die, you begin again as a baseline version of your character, and then you build up new abilities over time. These games give you abilities to choose either in the form of treasure that comes in boxes, or cards you add to a deck, but the idea is the same; You modify a base character with exciting upgrades over time. You build yourself up into something more powerful. Some of these titles also have a sort of meta-progression where you gain a currency that you keep upon death and use to buy upgrades in town. Meta systems like this serve the same role as the other abilities and growth, except these are more permanent, passive effects which increase your overall power level over time. As far as characterization goes, however, these two types of growth are the same.

So before we get into the expansions, let’s start with the base character. In hero shooters we express a distinct personality through our base abilities. Are we seeing the same from our roguelike base character?

In Binding of Isaac our hero’s baseline abilities are very simple: Move and cry. Crying in this game is sort of metaphorical, since tears are your bullets which destroy enemies and obstacles. Mechanically, you are an incredibly generic “Move and Shoot” protagonist like you might find in a particularly bland FPS game. Of course, over the course of the game you begin to get powerups which transform you into a crazy tear wizard, spraying laser tear streams, or spiraling fractal tear patterns of death, but the baseline here is boring. However, that makes sense for the character, since Isaac is a child of no particular merit or skill. He’s not anyone special, and indeed he himself is a blank slate, being so young. A bland character here makes perfect sense.

As a contrasting mechanical example, we could look at Zagreus of Hades. Zagreus has a few basic abilities on his own such as Move and Dash, but the game starts you off by picking one of a handful of weapons. Each run you may choose a new weapon, and that weapon serves as an analog for the types of hero abilities we see in games like Overwatch. To phrase that another way, the Shield in Hades might make you feel more like Reinhardt where the Spear might make you feel more like Zenyatta, but the character Zagreus doesn’t change. Instead of being a blank slate character, Zagreus is presented to us as a character with many aspects. Spear Zagreus and Shield Zagreus are the same person, and so we understand that each weapon is simply emphasizing some part of him, rather than presenting a single vision of self.

In other versions of the roguelike formula, we see deck building games like Slay The Spire where you begin a run by choosing a character class that comes with certain types of cards. In these games you are choosing a character and each card represents something that character can do. In this version of the formula, characters are explored by the type of cards in their deck.

There are other versions of deck building roguelikes as well. In games like Monster Train, you choose a faction and while that faction might have a leader, the cards are not necessarily representing a character personality like we’ve been discussing. That said, there is a reason I’m mentioning these games here, and it’s that it ties the loop back to where we started.

From deck builders we get the most 1:1 comparison to my earlier Magic The Gathering example and the chart I was discussing with it. Cards in Slay the Spire work much the same as those in Magic, though with tweaks for the particular mechanics of each game. If you want to convey a character or build a uniquely-expressive gameplay moment, you could do so the same way that Magic has been doing for years. Characters can gain or lose abilities just as new cards are added and removed from Magic, and the thematic function of those cards and abilities will read much the same regardless of the rest of the game’s rules.

Roguelikes might start with more basic character designs than hero games like Overwatch or League of Legends, but the concepts are shared across all of the above. Even in a roguelike we don't always start with a blank slate like Isaac, we get fleshed-out heroes like Zagreus. Even heroes who start with more abilities can still grow and develop over the course of a run in their game. Beyond just that, knowing that Isaac is so simple and so blank tells us the minimum requirements for our character. Isaac and Zagreus do little more than walk around before they pick up their first weapons, no matter if Zagreus gets to choose his weapon and Isaac has to find his.

Understanding how and why our characters are constructed allows us to understand how to convey new character types in a way that’s still engaging to play. Instead of having to blue sky your game mechanics, you can look at novels, films, tv shows, etc. as all sources of useful inspiration, because we now have these shared elements of character expression. We understand the baseline that any character must have to function in a game, because we see these base mechanics in Isaac and Zagreus. Once we know that, we can then move between game genres, carrying these elemental components of character with us to help translate.

For instance:

Here are four cards from Magic The Gathering. Each of them is based on a single character’s abilities and express that character using game mechanics. Using these cards you could reasonably make some assumptions about the type of personality this character has, and could begin to draw connections to other types of story. In Magic this character seems to have the ability to tap and untap things, which is Magic’s way of expressing that a character is free to take another action. In other words, this character gives others more ability to act. Narratively, we see this character given names related to time and so we understand that his tap ability is a metaphor for controlling time. While other characters might tap someone by locking them in a cage, Teferi taps them by slowing them down so they cannot act. If you’re designing this hero into a game like Overwatch, you could give him the ability to increase others’ speed or fire rate. You could give him the ability to slow down opponents as well. We also see the Flash ability in Magic, which means that this hero appears at unexpected times. Perhaps we give this hero the ability to teleport as a way of representing that. Then we also see the ability to remove other characters from play for a time. Maybe in Overwatch this character can also render other fighters without the ability to participate in combat, maybe he teleports them to their base or phases them out of time for a few seconds or turns off their guns.

By looking at the theming given to game mechanics, we can abstract ourselves away from our assumptions about how games are supposed to work, or how a character should be designed. By understanding how a single character’s powers can be represented in one game, we begin to understand how to choose new powers for similar characters in different genres.

So let’s actually build this character. Let’s write up his actual abilities as if he were an Overwatch hero, using what we’ve discussed so far.

To start with, let’s put him on the chart from earlier. Teferi would clearly be similar to Zenyatta in that he would thrive based on manipulating others, rather than being a source of damage directly himself. He would, most likely, use the same chart as Zenyatta used:

So let’s go through each ability one at a time and I’ll walk you through my thinking as we go. To reiterate, Overwatch heroes have 5 main abilities. Primary Attack, Secondary Attack, Ability One, Ability Two, and Ultimate.

Let’s start with Teferi’s Abilities One and Two since that’s what’s most prominent in his cards. Ability One should be some kind of an analog to Tapping and Untapping, since that’s his most frequent, basic ability. That could very easily just be represented by something which slows/speeds up others. So let’s make it a projectile that increases the speed of allies and slows enemies. You get to use it on one person and then it has a bit of a cooldown before you can use it again, and the speed/slow effect will last for a few seconds.

Teferi’s second ability should be something with either card draw or flash, which are his other iconic powers in Magic. Card draw speeds up the player, giving them additional options, and would most closely be represented by something like ammo or mana. Unfortunately, Overwatch doesn’t have mana, and not all characters use ammo in this way, so that’s not universally useful. Flash, however, easily becomes teleportation, so maybe his second ability is to teleport. Since he’s all about assisting others, rather than being a weapon himself, maybe his teleport should be represented by a portal. Something which can move both himself AND allies.

His ultimate should probably represent his most powerful ability in Magic: Take An Additional Turn. Overwatch isn’t turn-based, but we could reduce cooldowns instead. Maybe we get some kind of a temporary powerup that halves a target character’s cooldowns. Choose one character, make their abilities go off more often, wreak havoc by proxy. The other option would be to remove enemies from the battle for a time, phasing them out, but removing the ability for opponents to play the game isn’t fun, so let’s not.

So if we’re looking at a character who is mostly about manipulating others, we want his primary and secondary attacks to be somewhat weak. When I say “Weak” I don’t necessarily mean they do little damage as much as they aren’t going to sway a team very much. Zenyatta is already a sniper, so I feel like we should differentiate Teferi here and let him do burst damage. In fact, burst damage also makes thematic sense with someone who is all about quickly moving around a battlefield. Maybe we give Teferi some kind of a shotgun, which will benefit from his mobility powers. By extension we should let him use his Ability One speed increase on himself, so maybe that ability could be a grenade with a small area effect.

Attack Two then needs to be something which makes sense with burst damage. I’m thinking it could be a knockback, since he’s about disrupting enemies and quick attacks. A simple knockback could give him the utility to control enemies when they get too close in a way he doesn’t like, but without adding too much power to his kit. Another option here would be to make Attack Two a reference to his phasing mechanic in Magic, removing someone from play for a second or two. This could be brief, and would work better than the ultimate version I shied away from, but I suspect this kind of total removal CC would still get some resistance from the team. Especially since they’ve recently been reducing CC all across the game, leaving heroes like Mei to dangle in the wind. Let’s just go with the knockback for now.

But that one’s easy. Magic is already catered to this. Let’s use this knowledge we’ve discussed here and break into something entirely left field!! How could we use the knowledge we’ve discussed here to bring something else entirely into a game? Let’s do a muppet, because I’m feeling chaotic today!

So Gonzo is a chaotic character. He’s a lone wolf type, always working on his own on some crazy thing. Usually that crazy thing explodes in his face, possibly at the detriment of the people around him, but usually his insane plan does end up somehow saving the day. So that’s what we’re trying to replicate. I think Gonzo is definitely a damage hero in Overwatch, and I think he would use the sort of manipulation and misdirection parts of my little mechanics chart.

Let’s start with Gonzo’s abilities like we did Teferi, since those are the most iconic. Ability One should reference Gonzo always riding absurd devices of some kind or other, so I’m thinking a pair of hastily-constructed rocket skates that get him into or out of strange locations. Preferably this should be a wildly uncontrollable charge that ends after a hasty rush that lasts a bit too long to get you anywhere practical, and instead ends up putting you somewhere dangerous.

Ability Two could create an inflatable rubber balloon that redirects bullets and bounces away any players who touch it. This rubber balloon would last for a few seconds or until destroyed, and either way when it pops it could do a big knockback force to anyone near.

His basic attacks should be musical since he has such a theme of playing music in odd locations, so I’m thinking he could have some sort of futuristic trumpet cannon. His primary attack could be a cannonball shot that knocks himself a bit (something which could be used to help him rocket jump), and plows through multiple enemies. His secondary attack could fire sparklers out of his trumpet cannon, spraying fireworks over a broad area, damaging anyone inside.

His Ult could bring in his chicken friends. They could swarm in to distract and damage enemies, filling an area with a horde of invulnerable chickens that randomly get in the way of damage, knock enemies around, etc. Maybe we put the chickens in rubber balloon suits so players will bounce off of them, just for an added layer of chaos.

By starting with a knowledge that his character is all about manipulation, misdirection, and chaos, we set ourselves up to make narratively-rich choices about his gameplay mechanics. Gonzo will of course make some kind of a chicken reference, but we can decide that his chickens are in bouncy rubber suits because that’s a way to sell them redirecting damage. We can come up with a mechanically interesting way to bring his trumpet into the world without needing to change it from being the trumpet in the show.

I also want to follow that up by saying that balance or quality is not necessarily the goal here. I’m not expecting to get a job on Overwatch tomorrow. I don’t really think Gonzo here is particularly suited to being an Overwatch hero, and Teferi is probably too thematically similar to Tracer from the jump, but those things aren’t the point here. The point of all this is more about understanding how to express a character through gameplay action. What are the elements of that expression which can be understood regardless of genre of game or character? My goal here is to try to understand mechanical character development such that it can be used to express ANY character development. If a romantic comedy star needs to overcome their perfectionism to be able to accept the messiness of love, what is the game mechanic of that change? How can I represent that story beyond an interactive fiction game that is the traditional genre used? How can I break the assumptions that gameplay genre and narrative genre must be tied to one another and that certain combinations are more correct than others? This is my goal here.

To that end, I’m going to end this blog post here. We have identified the basic elements of a character for our game design. Next time I’ll be continuing this research into how that character develops over the course of a game by looking at roguelike progression. What does a roguelike’s abilities say about the character who picks them up? How do we develop a blank slate character vs how do we develop a character who already starts off powerful? How do we show that narrative without disrupting the players’ ability to build a winning combination of powers?

Tune in for that post later, and that’s it for me today! Thanks for reading!

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