Monday, July 11, 2011

Party NPCs: Interaction Mechanics (Part 1)

In my past two posts, I've been discussing the value of NPCs and their interactions with the player. So having addressed the value of such interaction, it's important to look at the means by which the personality of an NPC is conveyed to the player. Here I'm referring to the specific mechanics of conversation and how they are used to have the NPC interact with the player and other NPCs within the game world.

As such, I'm going to try and present a number of different categories of conversation or dialogue style that are used to facilitate this interaction, analysing the benefits and drawbacks of each.


At the simplest level, NPCs should provide their own opinions on situations that they might feel strongly about. This need not actually be an interaction with the player, but merely the NPC making a comment to give an insight into their personality. This is a straightforward means to educate the player about the NPC's character by showing their reaction to specific circumstances. If the player has brought the character along, then they make a comment befitting their personality.

Not only can the NPC's knowledge or opinions can be used to develop the depth of their character, but it can also be used to enhance the player's understanding of the scenario, or to increase the emotional stakes of the scene. For prime examples of this, see any of the loyalty missions within Mass Effect 2. These missions involve a deeply personal aspect of the party member's life, which is used to push the plot events forward, give great insight into the history and behaviour of the character, and subsequently raise the tension of the scene through their reactions.

The consoling paragon Tali hug - your option during one of her scenes

One key shortcoming of this type of interaction is that the player has no "agency" in starting the interaction. That is, it is always up to the NPC in question to initiate the conversation, regardless of whether the player wants their input or not. If the player disagrees with the character, this can lead to them becoming annoyed with the NPC in question and potentially wanting to leave them behind. Obviously this is exactly the opposite of what you want as a writer, and can end up weakening the game and reducing the player's enjoyment instead of adding to it.

The other issue is that the player must bring a character along in order to get to know them. Arguably, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it provides a degree of realism. If the player never travels with an NPC and shares the adventure with them first-hand, then they are unlikely to become as close to that person as opposed to someone with whom they are entrusting their life. Going in a party with someone means that you get to gain that first-hand insight into their personality and behaviour, just as you would in real life. However, if this is represents a significant portion of the dialogue used to show the depth of a character, then any NPC that the player does not travel with will likely feel stale and shallow.

Timed interactions

This type of interaction was best show-cased in the romance dialogues of Baldur's Gate 2. In essence, the game required a set amount of "real-time" to pass before an interaction with the player's love interest would occur. Approximately every 30 minutes or so, the timer would reach its "end", and at the next "available" time, a romance dialogue would trigger. These would never occur in dungeons, in combat, and occasionally certain other conditions would have to be met (e.g. the party was about to make camp), but this was a means to keep a somewhat regular series of interactions occurring between the player and their love interest.

Jaheira's romance line was huge

The fantastic thing about this mechanism is that it allows for a "real relationship" to be built up with the character and the player because there's a sense of repeat and on-going interaction. The conversations occur frequently enough that the player can begin to feel a connection with character and personality of the love interest, which makes for a more believable relationship to be formed. This involved a lot of dialogue in which the player became exposed to the many intricacies of the NPC's personality: their struggles, their fears, hopes, history, past romances... in short, they were presented as a complete and complex character with whom the player could empathise, understand, and care for. When dealing with characterisation, the amount of content can directly correlate to the depth of the character presented, and the volume of content for the romantic interests in BG2 meant that these well-crafted characters were presented to the player with all their strengths and flaws.

However, one issue with this is the sheer amount of work required. The amount of dialogue required for the numerous romance conversations was massive, and in a modern game with full voice acting, would be prohibitive both in time, money, and storage space when it comes to console games. In games where the player must read all the text (or only has the opening line voiced, as was common in BG2), this option is more viable, though it still has the cost of writing all that dialogue.

Anders and company were never going to be given as much dialogue as text-only characters

This approach also bears two of the same problems as interjections in that it gives the player no agency in initiating conversation - they are always forced to wait for the timer to count down before the next one will trigger. It also forces the player to travel with the party member in question again, which may cause gameplay balance issues in games with smaller party sizes. If the player's desired love interest fulfills a similar combat role to the player themselves, they may struggle to prevail in combat if they wish to pursue a romance. While it could be argued that this is a good thing in terms of forcing roleplaying and giving the player a choice between combat prowess and having a romance with a party NPC, this is likely to be unpopular with many gamers. This kind of potential exclusivity or gameplay versus roleplay choice is one that must be considered carefully by the designers and writers involved as it potentially represents a triumph of "hard-choices" and "realism" over player enjoyment.

So there are two options for exploring party NPC character development. In my next post, I'll look at two more interaction mechanics, discussing their advantages and disadvantages.

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