What kind of NPCs do you want?

You turn the corner, rifle at the ready, and sneak down the hall.  Just as you’re about to shoot, an NPC comes out with his hands up.  What do you want him to say?  When it comes to game writers, arguably we influence the game the most with how we write NPC dialog.  And yet, when we attended a meeting at a major game publisher, we had one executive lamenting the state of games: “There’s no excuse for NPCs with no character.”

I happen to agree.  All characters should have a character arc and as much personality as possible.  Great examples might be from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  Anyone played GTA IV yet?  However, some people hold that sometimes a guard is just a guard.  NPCs with personality or arc could be distracting or just unrealistic.  If you’re not around an NPC long enough, how could he or she go through a full character arc? 

The obvious answer involves reaching some kind of balance, but I’m still of the mindset that everyone should have an arc, unless they literally have one line.  Where do you stand?  What kind of NPCs do you want?  The quirky kind who learn to love again, or the earnest sort who just gets the job done?

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Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 5:12 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. I firmly believe every character should have a character arc, whether they have one line or a thousand. If TV and film can do it, why not games? In AMC’ Mad Men, even the smallest characters are given brief arcs and conflicts that make the show feel rich and its universe, believable.

    Here are a few methods I use, though I think there are plenty ways to make great NPCs:

    – Avoid the plain, heavy-set white dude. For better or worse, audience members tend to remember small characters if they’re from a different culture, race, or even gender that contrast with their expectations. Since the white male dominates both film and game characters, it’s not hard to contrast. Take that hard-hitting cop and make her a petite, French woman. Just don’t make them stereotypes.

    – Give the character a tick or a habit. Say MAN steps out from a wall, hands-up, but he’s so nervous, so afraid, he has to have a cigarette. He can’t take it. Is this a trick? Does the player the NPC as he reaches for his pocket? It’s a small, simple arc, but it’s more memorable than: “Mister, don’t shoot.” MAN runs.

    – Let the NPC explain brief conflict via back story: MAN steps from wall, guts in hand. “My daughter’s soccer game–I, I promised I’d make it.” Man weeps, cripples over.

    I can’t imagine rich characters distracting from a story. That’s like saying you should cut Sam from Casablanca because he’s too interesting.

  2. Thanks for the comments. These suggestions are pretty standard for any medium, but I have to disagree with the NPC explaining anything. No one wants to hang around and listen to an NPC deliver personaly backstory when you could be off shooting something. Action is always better than dialog! 🙂


  3. I totally agree action’s better than dialogue, but like the citizens in GTA IV, you can always just run past the talky NPCs or ignore them.

    I think NPCS can act as a more realistic mouth piece for the universe’s back story than say the tape recorders in BioShock.

  4. Well, the tape recorders in BioShock really are NPCs, are they not? And disregarding semantics and technicalities, they are recordings made by very distinct NPCs. To me, Tenenbaum’s audio recordings were far more interesting and revealed much more of her personality than the actual NPC representation of her ever did.

    I’m not sure I can agree that in a game with hundreds of bit players, every one of them should have an arc. (And really, like developers are ever going to give us enough time or staffing to do that. ;)) But I think all minor and major characters should, and the ‘barkers’ – typically NPCs who walk around and bark from a database of various lines – should be infused with enough personality to not be static. In Purgatorio we’re making the barkers reactive – when the player does something significant, the barkers’ dialogue changes in response to it. Kind of like Assassin’s Creed.

    In terms of your standard RPG, here’s who I consider major and minor NPCs:

    Major – companions/henchmen/party members, antagonists, main plot point characters, backstory characters

    Minor – quest-givers, minor plot point characters, characters linked to or involved with major characters

    I’m sure I’m missing a few, but that’s my general observation.

    Bit players really are just barkers. They may have just one line, but ideally they’ve got a few lines they cycle between or say depending on certain conditions being met.

  5. There is a way of looking at NPC’s as feedback mechanisms AND giving them personality. For example – If the Man in Corridor was to look at the player and exclaim ‘Ach! I HATE messy intrusions! Where is the guard?’ that tells the player that this guy is about to sound the alarm and that he is more obsessed about being a control freak than personal danger. As its simply a bark, you could write hundreds of these to give all kinds of different personalities to the game world denizens.

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