Melodrama is simple. It’s overblown characters in improbable actions. It’s an appeal to emotion, the life of every 1930’s pulp novel. The Handsome Hero in his White Stetson and Pearl Handled Revolver rescuing the Damsel in Distress from the Dastardly Villain.
Melodrama is horrible in stories. It’s flat, overblown, overused and often based on idiot plots.
It’s perfect for games.
Melodrama relies on emotions, and on taking shortcuts to those emotions. It throws cliche characters and situations at us while backhanding us with a hammer of fear, anger, hate and desire. The characters aren’t subtle, they wouldn’t know a spinach fork from a pro-wrestling champion. They’re there to get their jaws punched, eyes crossed, guns fired and horses galloped. They’re there to give the reader the shortest possible route to the pay-off. Which is terrible in a 10+ reading hour novel but perfect in a 90 minute game.
See, the game can’t spend the time on building characters into avatars. The game needs to start with the character being an avatar, and the only way to do this is to make the avatar a shell, something for the player to fill.
It’s like the game character is a skin, or a paint, which is a plied to the player. If the player is given a too complex character she will be unable to get below the character’s skin in the short amount of time available during game setup. Yes, I do mean setup. Once the game is rolling, once the player is acting, the game character already needs to feel as part of the player or the player will reject it.
This means that you, as a designer, have, at best, 5-10 minutes worth of cut scenes and character creation to make the avatar stick.
But don’t worry. Your players will want to help.
See, the player doesn’t come unprepared to the game. She has some assumptions about it based on the genre, her previous gaming experience and the cultural baggage she’s inherited from her society and class. And she has something else, an invaluable thing without which it would be impossible to make a thematic game: uncritical thinking.
Read that again.
What I’m saying is that the player coming to the game wants to get fooled. She wants to get sucked in, to get absorbed in the game. That’s why she bought the game in the first place.
We can use that.
All we need to do is give the player a few melodramatic hooks that allows her to fill her character with emotion and live vicariously through them. Take a look at the Fallout series. It’s a series of (mostly) Role Playing Games set in a post apocalyptic world. It’s got great theme. It’s got to have a great character, right? Very memorable, right?
The character in Fallout is entirely faceless. He’s an avatar for the player and everything surrounding the character is melodrama: he’s a lone survivor from a damaged, hidden, underground base. He’s on a quest to save the world. He even gets a dog. All of these elements are melodrama.
But lets look at a different genre. Lets take 3D shooters. Not much character in a 3D shooter, right? Right. Not much character. Plenty of melodrama. Even going back as far as the original Wolfenstein 3D there was the character growling in pain, drops of blood splattering the screen. Same is still true in everything from Halo to Dying Light (check out the trailer). There’s the grizzled hero, the blood and dirt, the wincing and squinty eyes (or dark face plates).
On the Real Life(TM) side of things board and tabletop games are full of melodrama. The whole Warhammer universe is based on melodrama (don’t believe me? Try: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” Now that’s refined, 200% proof melodrama). And pretty much every image in board games is melodramatic in some way. Because melodrama is overblown. And it hammers home a lot of emotion, conflict and information in a very short amount of time. So if you’ve only got a few images or snippets of text to work with, melodrama is often the go-to tool to use.
So how do we make it work?
Easy. Find the one or two key elements of your character and world. Enlarge them. Instant melodrama.
Ok, it’s a bit more complex than that, especially if you want to avoid clichés and stereotypes in your characters (you may not want to, but that’s a whole different can of worms). But let’s try an example.
We’ve got a character, Joe Blow. Joe’s a trucker. He’s laconic, doesn’t talk much. That’s what we have the space to show. How do we increase it’s impact? First off, let’s compact Joe a bit. We’ll make him more of a trucker. He’s now got a baseball cap and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. No, let’s make that a badly chewed cigar, we’re twisting Joe towards “boss” rather than “henchman” (if we’d wanted to show Joe as a friendly type we’d exchange the cigarette for a grass straw – instant friendly hillbilly). So far only minor changes, exaggerating the cliche trucker attributes. Now we’ll work on his speech.
Joe is laconic, meaning that he’s rather quiet most of the time. We can let this go in one of two ways: either we exaggerate and focus on his quiet by showing how he grunts as he speaks. This paints Joe as big and dumb. If we want him small and weaselly the grunting is going to clash with the stereotype (it could work, by expanding the cliché, but that makes the player think and if Joe’s a minor character we don’t want thinking, we want recognition). Or we can go the other way: Joe doesn’t talk much but when he does say something it’s either a stone cold cliché (“Got a herd of cattle waiting in Tuscon.”) or it cuts like an acetylene torch through vanilla ice cream (“Cute.”). The key here is to give Joe the best/toughest/harshest lines, and only those lines. Cut out everything else. Now we’ve got laconic in the original meaning of the term (“Come and get them” anyone?).
And, viola, we’ve added melodrama to our game.