Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Character arcs and The Shattered War

One of the things I wanted to do in The Shattered War was to give both the player and NPCs character arcs. The player must experience a story that goes through several twists and turns, but a good story should result in people being changed by that experience. Today I'm going to discuss techniques that I've employed to give players an experience that will help provide an impetus for change in both NPCs and potentially the player themselves. They're common techniques, but I think it's important to analyse them and how they benefit a game.

Allow the player to change others
This is a concept that has been around for a while, so it's an obvious one to include. The first time I remember it was in Knights of the Old Republic. Where your influence could change the way your party members reacted to the world at large by changing their opinion. This is a valuable technique because it really makes the player feel like a powerful influence and leader within the game.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've decided not to include companion specific abilities. This is a gameplay affecting/extending consequence of allowing the player to change companions, but in The Shattered War the required amount of work means that I won't be implementing it. However, there are simpler methods to allowing the player to affect an NPC. By having an NPC deal with a difficult issue or choice, the player can push their thinking in one direction or another, causing them to change their viewpoint on a moral "grey area", or even push them over the edge should they be close to breaking point. I've provided the ability for the player to cause NPCs to pursue their cause with deadly intent should the player push them in that direction.

 Do you forgive Bastila, or does she deserve retribution for her crimes?

Allow the story to change others
The events of a story should cause characters to change. Whether they lose their humanity, or perhaps find it, without character change, a story can feel stagnant and stale. Events have an impact on people, and if that doesn't occur, then are those events really having much of an emotional or physical impact on its participants? NPCs are easy to to change throughout a story, as they are under the writer's control. They can react to events that must happen as part of the game, which can cause them to undergo minor or major change. This could even form a significant part of the story.

It is important here to make sure that NPC change does not overshadow the player.  No one wants a repeat of Neverwinter Nights, where the story was more about Aribeth than it was the player. The player is the most important person in the story, and if they're not, then they can (somewhat rightfully) feel a little annoyed. If they can't prevent the obvious "bad thing" from happening no matter what they do, then it can be a source of frustration and annoyance.

Remember: the player is always more important than the writer's favourite NPC

Allow the player to change themselves
Essentially, this concept is allowing the player to "grow" during the telling of the adventure. Many players come in with a set personality, or the idea of a personality, but a good adventure will either force them to test that personality or cause them to define areas that they had not considered before. The simplest tool here is moral dilemma and "grey" decisions. Does the player save one "good" person or save five "evil" people? Do they side with an ineffectual but personable leader, or join forces with the merciless brute who could save others?

This is often one of the most difficult things to do, largely because of the tendency of many games to offer "the happy ending" scenario where everyone wins. The true test of character is when the player is forced to decide between the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods. Testing the player with decisions like this is one of the best ways to make them decide whether their character is the person they thought, or whether sometimes they're forced to make hard decisions.

 The best debate from DA2 - who is more evil: mages or templars?

Allowing character arcs is a valuable means to deepen the gaming experience for a player, as it adds a personal depth to the story in addition to simply the events that occur. I believe that I've created a nice balance of these aspects in The Shattered War, allowing the player to not only affect the story, but the reactions and development of characters within that story.


  1. I dont think the player has to be the most important. You can write a tale where the player is second fiddle to some great hero or a king, and it's fine. Aribeth was just annoying because you couldn't stop her obvious path. But thats not why nwn1 sucked, it just sucked because it was an awful game I hardly cared about the story being so wrappred up in lego block graphics and hordes of enemies 10 levels below me.

  2. The player has to be the most important person, aka the protagonist, in a game where the player takes the role of a single person. If they're not, then you end up with games like NWN1 and DA2, where the player doesn't have the power to affect the outcome. The player has to have agency to make things happen in the game, which will ultimately make them the most important person.