Characterisation of NPCs
One aim of any great story is to make the audience feel as if they are part of it’s world. This is no different in games. Memorable experiences are created through interaction and impact on the game world, and through a world which feels as if it is ‘living’ – with or without the audience. Believability of the other characters or creatures in the world is necessary to maintain this impression of a living world. Just as a policeman in the real world might like competitive roller skating at the weekends, a blacksmith in a fantasy RPG is more believable if he has other interests, motivations and actions than to just serve the player.
In the world of Skyrim – an open, free roaming expansive environment – the towns and cities are populated with men and women with occupations, allegiances, enemies and friendships. The city guards will react to the player in hundreds of different ways on the basis of many different variables. The game has a full day and night cycle, which influences the behaviour of the NPCs. Characters in the world of Skyrim have homes, eat meals with their families, go to work, and come home to sleep at night. Their behaviour in turn influences gameplay, for example allowing players to visit their homes while they are awake, and locking their doors when they don’t want visitors, requiring the player to use lock-picking mechanics to gain entry. The system is not perfect however, and has drawn criticism for the fact that the illusion only stands up from a distance. Mods have been created by the community to improve this, including roaming patrols whilst out questing or exploring to extend this level of immersion outside of Skyrim’s towns and cities.
High graphical fidelity is not required to achieve this level of immersion – in the world of Starbound exploration and discovery is actively encouraged, mainly by the fact that improvements to your character are made by randomly finding items and equipment throughout the world. After landing on a planet the player might stumble upon an encampment, a temple or a laboratory, all of which are inhabited by different races who will react differently towards you depending on choice of race made during character creation. The lore of Starbound provides context to their actions – whether they choose to attack you, open up their shops to you, or hold conversations with you.
Providing context in NPC design will help to add depth to the game world and it’s lore as well as provide interesting gameplay. Daniel Benmergui touches on this in his GDC talk “Using Plot Devices to Create Gameplay in Storyteller” in which he discusses his app Storyteller. Storyteller has an interesting puzzle mechanic to make us think about plot mechanics and how they can be manipulated to create different scenarios. This shows us how very simple changes in context can wildly change how we perceive the narrative.
This theory can also be applied to games with very little narrative at all. As an example, the racing genre usually features NPCs (AI drivers) for the player to race against as an alternative to multiplayer. Colin McRae DiRT 2 features more than 50 drivers for the player to race against, with a combination of virtual versions of real-world drivers and fictional ones created for the series. They have full names, voice acting and preferences in vehicles. This helps to build the impression of friendships and rivalries throughout the single player campaign. Rivalries give the player a deeper level of motivation, and provide objectives other than to just come in first place. In this case the player is given the impression of greater level of competition (similar to that in a multiplayer race), making the experience more immersive, and creating the notion of a lasting impact on the game world.