My first gig as a writer on a game was Carmen Sandiego for Facebook.
You probably remember how the series works: You, the heroic investigator, have to jet around the world chasing Carmen's henchmen, using clues that you pick up along the way to find your next stop and to identify who you're looking for.
I wrote the bulk of the location clues, which meant that for each of the 66 cities in the game, I had to think of at least 50 things that would lead you straight to that spot. It was a pretty grueling job. I still can't look at a Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide book without thinking to myself, "I should look up the sports stadiums. Every city has one of those."
As I was writing the clues, I often had a chance to write about those henchmen that you were chasing: The minions who weren't as colorful as Carmen Sandiego, or as dangerous, but who were somehow still worth chasing around the world at great expense. The henchmen were barely characters. Their names were procedurally generated and the things they were stealing came off of a list.
So I found myself giving them really basic traits: They were dumb, and mean. A lot of my clues are some variation on a henchman being really stupid or really venal. After I got in that groove, I stuck with it till the end. I created a lot of really mediocre people on that game, and now I don't even remember any of their names.
Real people doing real things for real reasons
I'm not saying that a better writer couldn't have breathed more life into these people. It's tempting to imagine, what if every henchman had a backstory? What if the one who ran to Quebec City had family there, or an orphaned cousin? Did this one watch their sister drown in a river? Is that one secretly in love with Carmen, and what does it drive them to do?
In a perfect world, they would all become real people, even if we just get a glimpse of it – even if there's just a little, tantalizing clue on the corner of their driver's license, like a sticker that reads, "ORGAN DONOR — EXCEPT THE EYES."
But that's not what the game needed. The henchmen came off of lists and were assigned to other lists. These little backstories would have been hard to stitch together, and anyway, I had 3,300 of these things to write, and after the first 500, I was getting tired. As in so many games, the henchmen didn't come to life: They were generic, almost faceless figures that only lived to do wrong and to pay for it.
On Twitter a while back, I was talking with Katelyn Gadd, who proposed, "Honestly a lot of games would be vastly improved by removing all non-boss combat." Why do games rely so much on cannon fodder? What if all games were like Shadow of the Colossus, or Journey — just the player and the bosses, and nothing in between?
There are many gameplay reasons to give the player low-level enemies to practice against, and there are practical reasons, too. The scraps in Tearaway were just a mindless enemy — stupid and venal, just like we were talking about — but I didn't mind: There's so much wonderful stuff going on in that game that I don't care if I can't stop and talk to the bad guys.
But even if henchmen are cannon fodder, there are still ways to give them a little heft. Dark Souls and Demon's Souls are terrific examples. In an interview in the gorgeous Dark Souls Design Works, one of Hidetaka Miyazaki's artists described what happened when he turned in a sketch for an undead dragon, covered in maggots.
What if all games were like Shadow of the Colossus, or Journey — just the player and the bosses, and nothing in between?
"This isn't dignified," the artist quoted Miyazaki as saying. "Don't rely on the gross factor to portray an undead dragon. Can't you instead try to convey the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin?"
That just sums up the characters for me, and it applies to the smallest enemy. I still remember "the first guy on the left" in 1-1 in Demon's Souls. I'm still scared of the skeleton that's sitting on that roof in Undead Parish, pitching firebombs at me when I'm crossing that catwalk, and I also remember his buddy who's just inside the door, waiting to pounce on me. There are many brilliant aesthetic decisions that went into those enemies, but the reason I remember them is their placement: They are always there, and they're always a challenge. The game is so hard that I had to repeat those sections many times, and the enemies became old friends.
I didn't have to imagine a backstory or a name for them in order to take them seriously. Their role in the game is clear and impossible to ignore.
(And by the way, as the hype keeps building for Dark Souls 2, remember that these games aren't difficult to be difficult — they're difficult because the pillars of the game, such as dignity and faith, require it. The game's not trying to impress you; it's demanding your respect.)
Spelunky takes the opposite tack, and it works just as well: The enemies are in different spots every time, and you only run into a fraction of them every game. That forces you to stay alert, and so every enemy demands at least a little of your attention, and at least some regard for how you're going to deal with it. I don't "know" them, but I respect them. They almost seem to have agency — why is this one here this time? — and that's even better than a personality.
What both of these approaches have in common isn't that they plot a story for their henchmen, but that they give those henchmen a purpose. It's a lot like walking down the street. I pass people who have rich inner lives, attics full of junk and instant recall of old tasteless jokes, and like we all do, I ignore them. It's not hard to make me believe that anyone in a crowd has a story to tell, but I never think about it until they're standing right in front of me, blocking my way.
Chris Dahlen has a lousy memory for names. He is formerly of Edge, The Onion AV Club, Paste and Kill Screen Magazine, where he was co-founder and editor. He was also the writer on Klei's Mark of the Ninja. Look for him on Twitter @savetherobot.