Characterization & Character Creation, WH40k Darktide

This is not a full-on review of the game. If you like the developer FatShark’s previous title Vermintide 2 (Vt2) or other games in the Left 4 Dead co-op genre, and you’re willing to experience the teething problems of a game that needs a few more updates for performance and stability, then you might enjoy this. It’s certainly the best L4D genre game I’ve played despite still feeling rough at times. I’m having fun playing it with friends. 

Also, the setting is Warhammer 40K, which is such a powerfully cynical and dystopian flavor as to be nearly intolerable (it’s certainly intolerant). If you know you hate the fiction of 40K, you probably don’t want to engage with this either. I waffle on the topic of 40K: my enjoyment of it relies on knowing my fellow players aren’t actually unironic fash-enthusiasts.

But this post isn’t about all that. It’s about how Darktide’s character customization systems work, what they imply to me, and how they affect the game. 

Darktide’s character creation is fascinating to me. But it’s especially fascinating because of how it differs from Vermintide 2, and from other games available right now.

Vt2 has five different basic characters to choose from. They’re distinguished from each other in many ways (gender, voice, appearance, play style), and each has a large number of voice lines—some one-liners, and some conversations which emerge when different characters are present in a given mission. All those things, and especially the voices, have a big impact on how the character is portrayed in my mind. I’ve played enough of the game, and heard enough of their conversations repeated across the missions, that I can talk along with them at times.

Honestly, that reminds me a little of how much I played the original GTA 3. I listened to GTA3’s radio for so long that I could sing along or talk along with all the different stations.

But like those radio stations, Vt2’s characters and their voice lines are static. They eventually repeat. Each mission, you pick from the several different character options, each one with a distinct voice. I’ve played enough—and their voices are distinct enough—that I can tell who’s talking whenever someone speaks. Sometimes the characters are amusing, sometimes they are awful, sometimes they tease each other in a ridiculous fashion. Anyone who’s played the game for a while knows who I am if I call someone else “lumberfeet.”

Other multiplayer FPS games have done similar things to Vt2 with their characters’ voice lines. Apex Legends has a host of different characters, each with a distinct personality and voice. They don’t have mid-game conversations per se, but they do have intro and outro lines and do automatically vocalize things that you’re doing (there are barks for your reloads, for you pointing out a location, for changes in the game state as the arena shrinks, etc.). Apex Legends’ in-game characterization is evocative and gradual, slowly revealing more details about them and their view of life as you play them longer and experience more of their barks. They also have tie-in comics sometimes, and little movies for each update. But the characters aren’t really conversing with each other much in-game, or building up the setting’s fiction mid-match.

And, as with Vt2, characters in Apex come pre-made. You choose the flavor you want, you don’t make your own.

Contrast that all with Deep Rock Galactic. DRG makes frequent use of voice lines, with different voices for each of the four classes in game. But while you can customize your dwarf’s appearance in far more detail than is possible in Apex Legends (DRG pays a lot of attention to hair, facial and otherwise), your dwarf remains something of a cipher. You’re just another dwarf mining in space for the Company.

Darktide has taken a different approach here.

There are character classes, archetypal options a little like those that were baked into the characters of Vermintide 2. But there are so many more options to choose from during character creation. Choosing an archetype is just the first step, followed by choosing a childhood, a profession, a defining moment… you’re making a backstory for your RPG character.

And it’s not yet evident to me how they affect the final game.

Some of them, I think, play into what voice lines your character uses. Certainly your choice of voice is restricted by what planet your character comes from. But I can’t tell whether my choices have much impact in the game beyond that. Maybe in the future FatShark will introduce elements of the game that are dependent on characters’ backgrounds (presumably cosmetic, so that you needn’t pick a given background for mechanical reasons). I’d happily give my Ogryn a floppy hat specific to his youth on an agricultural world, where he spent all his time herding great big beasts. Or maybe FatShark will record more voice lines that have to do with those backgrounds, and my friendly Ogryn will opine on farming.

But while I’m fascinated by how customizable character creation is right now, it doesn’t yet feel like it’s living up to its full potential. The plethora of options available, and the considerable difference they imply, feel like they should have more impact in-game than I’ve found so far. And I suspect that developing that further is on FatShark’s todo list—somewhere behind all the technical fixes they’ve already pushed out, and whatever other fixes they’re still planning to implement.

A funny side-note: I almost do a double take whenever I hear the voice actors from Vt2 voicing new characters in Darktide. Vt2’s writers and voice actors did an excellent job of tying together voice and character, and I’m really glad the voice actors got more work in Darktide—it’s a little like hearing old friends. But it’ll take me a while to get used to hearing them without them being one of the Übersreik Five.

I also don’t want to downplay the value of Darktide’s character creation as it currently exists. I’ve made up little backstories for my two characters so far, and had great fun with that. Part of that is because of who I am, and my predilection for story-making. But it’s more possible because of the smart move on FatShark’s part of making that bit of background more accessible to players. I certainly feel like my Darktide characters are more “mine” than any character I played in Vt2 ever was.

This means that even if FatShark never does anything more with the character backgrounds, even if they leave them as-is, they’ll still have done more to make character creation feel personal than any other FPS I currently play. No, it’s not up to my expectations as storyteller. And yes, I see more they could do with it. But I like it, and we shouldn’t underestimate readers’ creative role and the value of head cannon.

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Reader’s experience & author’s influence

Sometimes, you start a chapter and just know that this is the creepy one. You know it as you skim that first page. And when that happens to me while I’m lying in bed in the dim light and drifting towards sleep, my self-preservation kicks in.

I don’t always manage to do this, but the most recent time it happened, I stopped myself. I set the book aside and reminded myself of which world I existed in, and resolutely tried to go to sleep without the drowsy conjured nightmares of this fictional world. That mostly worked.

The problem was, once I’d done that I struggled to pick up the book again. I knew that I was going to return to the story at a spooky moment, and I still had that lingering sense of dread that had warned me away from reading more just before sleeping. Having put the book down that way, it took extra work to pick it back up again.

I haven’t finished that book yet.

I was right about that chapter though. It was spooky. I read the rest of it, after psyching myself up to do so, and I’ve read some more after that chapter since.

But the material since hasn’t been as spooky as I’d expected. It was a very sharp peak of spookiness. As I’ve kept reading, I’ve struggled to tell how much of that diminishment of spookiness is in the story, and how much of it was inside my own head. Did the story actually reach such a heightened peak, or did I create more of a peak through some combination of reading late at night and apprehensively avoiding the book for a few days?

And, critical for me as a writer, how much of that experience was desired or intended by the author? How was that experience created?

People have funky and idiosyncratic responses to stimuli. Sure, there’s some general consistency, but when you’re trying to produce specific emotional responses in your audience via art you’re going to run into some odd responses. People will experience things that you didn’t anticipate, or that you thought weren’t there. It’s even worse when you have little control over how the art will be consumed. Once you’ve released art into the world, you give up any semblance of control over how it’s interpreted and just have to hope for the best.

Back to the spooky piece at hand…

The question that nags at me here is: how much of that experience came from the author’s decisions, and what can I learn from that? How much of that can I use in my own work? And how much of it was inside my own head, and won’t be shared by anyone else reading the book?

I’m lucky. I know that some of my friends are reading this book right now, and I’ll have a chance to talk with them about it soon. I already have a few questions lined up. But until then, I’ll keep reading and stewing, wondering what precisely is going on underneath the surface.

Milestones, XP Rewards, & Training Your Players, Longer Thoughts

MurderHoboRPG_flowchart

The flowchart of the “murder hobo.”

Game systems, role-playing game systems, are a set of constraints on cooperative imaginative play that are designed to facilitate making up stories together. The constraints they impose create boundaries around the kinds of stories that you can tell within those game systems. This doesn’t make “resistant play” impossible (using resistant play as one might use the term resistant reading), but any system will tend to make a particular kind of play or story experience easier to support than others.

I’ve discussed related thoughts previously, in the context of “flavor.”

But what about experience points, or character advancement?

What about the game’s systems for rewarding players?

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