Gratitude and Characterization



In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time. 

Games discussed: Animal Crossing: New Horizon (Nintendo, 2020), Resident Evil 2 (Capcom, 1999), Final Fantasy X (Square-Enix, 2001), Final Fantasy X-2 (Square-Enix, 2003), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017), Deltarune Chapter 2 (Toby Fox, 2021)

Some of us are better at showing gratitude than others. (Seen above: the notoriously ungrateful Princess Ruto in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

American Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and with it comes thoughts of roasted turkey, can-shaped cranberry sauce, and gratitude. While Thanksgiving may be a holiday with a fraught history, the idea of feeling and showing appreciation for the things that matter to you is generally considered to be a good one. As it turns out, it’s also a great way to develop your characters. 

From an early age, most of us are taught the value of a good ‘thank you,’ but not everybody internalizes these lessons the same way. Some people will trip over themselves to thank others for the slightest thing; others will go their whole lives without expressing a single iota of gratitude. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in the middle, and where we fall can influence how we view the people on the extremes. Someone who’s always thankful could be seen as childish or naive, while someone who’s never thankful might be looked down on as miserly or inconsiderate. While that may be bad news if you see yourself on the extremes, it’s good news if you’re trying to write a character with these traits. Want to emphasize a character’s innocent spirit? Give them ample opportunities to say ‘thank you,’ even when another one of your characters might stay silent. Want to mark someone as a miserable curmudgeon? Have them greet acts of kindness with indifference or hostility. These little tricks can go a long way towards establishing your characters’ personalities in the audience’s mind, which is why you’ll find writers using them often once you start looking for them. If you keep an eye out, you might even start noticing them in video games!

The villagers in Animal Crossing know how to be thankful for the small things, even if it’s just a cup of coffee.

One of the best approaches I’ve seen to using gratitude to develop characters is in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series. In the Animal Crossing games, you play as a human villager in a town full of anthropomorphized animals with various personality types. Some personality types, like the Peppies or the Jocks, will be extraordinarily outgoing and friendly. Other types, most notably the Crankies, will be far less interested in socializing with you—and that’s the bulk of the game. Unlike most games, Animal Crossing eschews the traditional narrative in favor of an emergent narrative: a unique story that comes to life in the players’ minds based on world-building details and character interactions. One of the easiest ways to interact with characters is through the art of gift-giving, and the way villagers react to different gifts plays a big role in establishing their personalities. Give a Jock a jacket, and he’ll be excited to see how it highlights his delts; give a Smug some squid-ink spaghetti, and he’ll be ecstatic that his personal brand is resonating with you. Peppies will sing and Snooties will preen, and even Crankies will appreciate the new-fangled doodads. The common factor is that they all make a point of expressing their gratitude, which makes them easy to love. Worth noting is that this level of politeness wasn’t always a series staple, as the earliest games had a slightly sharper edge. It’s only in the last couple of games, Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, that the villagers have taken to treating the player with kindness and grace. Is it any wonder those are the two best-selling games in the franchise? 

Displays of gratitude may be a staple of Animal Crossing’s emergent narrative, but they also play essential roles in more traditional video game narratives. For example, gratitude can motivate characters who feel indebted to others, potentially driving them to act against their own interests. The Resident Evil franchise’s Ada Wong is supposed to be an experienced spy with a devil-may-care attitude, but she’s put numerous missions at risk to protect Leon Kennedy because he helped her in Resident Evil 2. Deltarune’s resident bully Suzie follows a similar pattern in being nice to her classmate Noelle, as Noelle was kind to her on the first day of school. FromSoftware’s brooding adventure games are filled with downtrodden souls willing to devote themselves to masters who showed them the tiniest fractions of mercy, even if that mercy has long since disappeared. In all of these cases, a little bit of kindness at the right time can inspire a lot of gratitude, and that gratitude can change the course of a character arc or an entire story. 

Some characters will literally die before thanking someone.

Characters who show appreciation for others are all over video games, but so are their natural counterparts: the indifferent and the ungrateful. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Revali and Starfox’s Falco Lombardi are two well-known birds of a feather in their unwillingness to rely on others for help, and their dismissive attitudes go a long way towards securing their anti-hero status in the minds of players. These two birds aren’t just rude; they’re rude to people who try to help them, which is about as unheroic as it gets. Worse yet is when entire groups are ungrateful towards the heroic player character, no matter how hard the character (and the player) worked to solve their problems. In Final Fantasy X, Yuna must watch her friends and loved ones die on her quest to save Spira from Sin, but by the time Final Fantasy X-2 rolls around, the citizens who don’t treat her like an untouchable idol see her as a figurehead to be used. Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher of The Witcher series, faces even worse scrutiny from the people who see him as a monster in human skin. No matter how much Geralt tries to help, some people will always be suspicious of him, and that colors how he perceives the world. He’s learned not to expect gratitude, so it’s no longer something that motivates him. That may not make him a hero, but it certainly makes him a realist. 

Ungrateful characters may seem like miserable people, but they do have a positive quality: the potential to grow. The arrogant Revali eventually changes his tune and starts supporting Link (though it is over his dead body), and his willingness to accept help from someone else shows real growth in his character. For a more involved arc, Final Fantasy VIII shows protagonist Squall Leonhart learning to appreciate others. At the beginning of the game, Squall is a loner and a master of the sarcastic ‘thank you,’ going so far as to thank rival Seifer for slashing a permanent scar in his face (a gift Squall returned in kind.) By the time the credits roll, Squall has not only learned to show his gratitude properly, he’s also learned that he can call out to his friends when he really needs them. He’s been through a lot, and his experiences have taught him that you should never be too proud to ask for help—and you should always show your appreciation. 

Cutscene University will be off next week for the Thanksgiving holiday. When we return in December, we’ll have more storytelling tips, game studies, and editorials for your reading pleasure. Until then, we’re grateful for your continued readership, and we wish you a wonderful break with your loved ones. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief

Further Reading

Game Study: Breath of the Wild

An in-depth analysis of the plot, characters, and themes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. 

Squall Meets Edea in the Past

StoryScan: Final Fantasy VIII and Setup and Payoff

Final Fantasy VIII’s most infamous plot twist is a failure of both setup and payoff.

Narrative Analysis: The Story Circle

A condensed version of the Hero’s Journey, emphasizing the growth of the protagonist.