Monday, July 4, 2011

Party NPCs: Development

In my last post, I discussed the importance and value of party NPCs. However, in order for benefit to be gained from these characters, they need to be well developed characters. As with many elements of writing for video games, basic tenets of writing should be observed. There are some specific areas that should be addressed, because there are concerns that are unique to video games.

While complexity is important for many characters, it is almost essential for party NPCs. These characters will frequently fill the role of player character's friends within the adventure, and thus it's useful if the player is able to develop some sort of connection with the NPCs.  A shallow character with lacking depth or real motivations will usually feel like a hollow shell or cardboard cutout very quickly. It is good for characters to have some defining characteristic that makes them immediately interesting to the player, as this makes the player want to find out more about them. Keep in mind that if the character is one-dimensional and relies solely on that attribute, they will often be discarded because they are dull or uninteresting.

It is important to note that sometimes there are extreme exceptions to the rule - in this case one of the most memorable party NPCs of all time was amazingly one-note: in the form of the overwhelmingly single-minded violence loving character of HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic. His character revolved around the desire to kill and/or assassinate, but the eccentricity of the character, not to mention the hilarity that ensued from the majority of his conversation, meant that he was a hit with players.

HK-47: One of the best robots of all time

NPCs should grow
Characters generally should not be static during a piece of writing, and games are no different. Characters should be affected by the situations they are placed in: they should react, learn and grow based on what happens to them in an adventure. This may result in slowly exposing more of the NPC's personality to player, but it also can modify the personality traits that they have already seen.

More importantly, in a video game the player has the opportunity to make decisions, and those decisions could potentially affect a character's outlook on certain subjects. This is where character growth differs from other mediums, as the player can potentially be given the chance to direct an NPC's development. When used correctly, this is a powerful tool to truly empower the player and make them feel like they have a meaningful relationship with the character. When a player's relationship with an NPC could actually result in different events occurring in the main story, the player gains a real sense "changing the landscape of the game world".

A "hardened" Leliana or Alistair can behave very differently

Forming an emotional connection
Players should be given a reason to care about a party NPC. Whether they save their life, have some personal investment in their safety, or perhaps they are essential for the plot, the player should be given some rationale behind wanting or needing an NPC around. Ideally this should ultimately come about because the player finds the character interesting rather than having some forced justification for their presence.

Strangely enough, it should also be considered that the player need not actually care about a character in order to like them. It is always important to note that a character that inspires any sort of strong emotional reaction from the player, provided it is to the personality of the character itself (rather than poor writing or the like) can be considered a good thing. In my first playthrough of Dragon Age 2, I found myself detesting the character of Fenris, yet at the same time forced to acknowledge it was the character's personality that I hated - which indicated good writing, not bad writing.

I couldn't wait to kill Fenris

HK-47 also forms a great example for me in this case as well. In my first playthrough I never liked taking him along with me because he would inevitably cause havoc and death that my peaceful Jedi protagonist didn't want. However, I would talk to him whenever I had the opportunity, simply because he was so hilarious. My character could not have disagreed with him more if he'd deliberately tried to be antagonistic, but the unique nature of HK-47 meant that I as a player had to talk to him.

For many gamers, BioWare started this trend back in the days of Baldur's Gate 2. It has only become increasingly popular as games develop a more cinematic approach with increasingly complex and visually appealing (both aesthetically and graphically) characters. Some players may have struggled to care about a character that was little more than a small portrait comprised of a few hundred pixels, but a voiced acted NPC with a full range of emotions and a wide gamut of non-verbal expression through their face and gestures can provide a powerful entity for developing an emotional connection.

People formed emotional connections with these

This is in some ways the logical extension of the above two points, as a romance not only allows the player to exert a force on the NPC, but it also enables the formation of an emotional connection with the character. Going back to Baldur's Gate 2, many players were outraged when their love interest was forcibly taken from them and their life was in serious danger. This provided a powerful incentive to push forward and rescue their "virtual loved-one", and made the victory in battle over their captor significantly more rewarding.

The fervent adoration for characters, not to mention the keen interest in announcements of love interests within RPGs only goes to demonstrate the popularity of type of character development. It is unlikely to disappear any time soon, but provided it is done well, it adds a great deal of depth to a character, not to mention provides the player with a potent reason to be engaged with their gaming experience.

Having defined the importance of well written party NPCs, and the means by which meaningful characters can be written, the last key issue to address is to define how the mechanics of the interaction between the NPC and the player will work. But I'll leave that discussion for my next post.

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