Game NPC Design - Why We Relate to A Pile of Code and Pixels

By Published March 15, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Designing a relatable non-player character for games isn't easy: As proposed in our "save your own damn world" post, NPCs and game stories in general can take a back seat to the mechanics-focused button-fest of modern design, sacrificing the emotive connection that is required to delve into a story.


How, then, does a designer encourage an emotional connection that helps players relate to NPCs? Why should the player care about these NPCs? What makes them memorable? Well, the plain truth is that it all comes down to what writers put into them. If the world is filled with bland, lifeless, purposeless NPCs, the players WILL notice and they WILL secretly hate it, no matter how deep under the pile of strategy and mechanics they've buried emotion. Nobody likes talking to nameless blacksmith who is in his or her stall at all times, looks like a stereotypical blacksmith (you know the one: Male, beard, big belly), and only says "What say you, adventurer?" or "Care to browse my wares?" As gamers, we absolutely enjoy an interaction with Jordan the blacksmith, who possesses a thick, booming, powerful voice and has a penchant for forgetting where he placed his hammer. Games with an expansive scope can't realistically design each NPC's life story -- but that's not necessary, either; a few quirks (whether they're built into the shop, the dialogue, or the items sold) can go a long way toward memorability.

morrigan-npcDragon Age: Origins' Morrigan has a dark past, but she hides behind cynisism.

For those that have tried to explain where something is located in a game -- especially when the name escapes them -- this is particularly familiar: "Where did you get that armor?" one player might ask, "That blacksmith that always forgets his hammer," the other could answer.

Do you see the difference? The above is an unexceptional example, but shows that with a little bit more time comes great potential for player interaction. Detailing a character's personality, physical appearance, place of residence, or general quirkiness (we call this "fleshing out," in the tabletop RPG world) can yield a highly-memorable, hallmark person - not just a script-controlled robot. Our overview game character template helps provide some basic differentiations for those looking for a bit of guidance.

NPCs must be treated -- yes, even those who lack definitive purpose in the game other than as a backdrop -- with some degree of care. Those NPCs in their world have lives they are living and should make some effort to show that. Bethesda and other games have done a great job with pathing and daily habits: NPCs wandering the streets might go home for the night or might be in conversation with others, they might move about the space to make it feel more real, or even remain forever entombed by their own introversion, preferring back alleys over main streets. The level of immersion and realism emitted by a locale populated with NPCs who at least seem to have lives, even if - mechanically speaking - they don’t, can turn a 'computer player' into an individual. One common approach to this is to separate dialects, colors, tonalities, and mood from town-to-town. A city's dwellers might feel vibrant, hopeful, and bombastic while its neglected and frequently-raided township could be dark, morbid, and submissive.

Now, what about those dastardly NPCs that must be fleshed out? You know - the ones that the player interacts with for quests or story? Here's where things start to get interesting: Each of those characters needs extra layers to prevent holes in intricately-woven stories and to add the proper mood of specific interactions (Does the NPC evoke a feeling of urgency or dormancy?). If the player tends to favor a particular shopkeeper -- whether monetarily, atmospherically, or personally -- they'll be that much more attached when the shopkeeper has a tiny underlying story. A confession stowed away under the floorboard, a playful idiocy, or a coin-pinching, "money, money, money" feel will go miles to make players actually care when that shopkeeper “disappears” and we're given a quest to go find them: "Why should I care? He was great for business, but there are other shopkeepers. Besides, I have to finish this other quest first." No sense of urgency, whether the game mechanically punishes a player or not, is indicative of lackluster or non-existent story. Without a story, without some reason for existing, it becomes just another “well, I saved him because the game told me to,” scenario. Queue game burnout and laziness, the root-cause of video game abandonment.

In many cases, providing just a little bit of extra information is the sure ticket to making a character believable. They don't need to have pages-upon-pages of family history (though it is so cool in Dwarf Fortress), but just a small push. Give the NPC a quirk -- crazy hair, a crooked nose, or near-deafness that prompts a constant "WHAT DID YOU SAY?" -- or just flesh out their lives a little bit. Maybe our aforementioned blacksmith misplaces his hammer because he grew up sheltered (not needing any protection), and has secretly never slain all those dragons, goblins, and giants that he brags about. Maybe, after all, he spent all his time in the smithy and has never, ever drawn blood from an enemy.

Physical or mental quirks work especially well for characters that the players interact with but have no reason to feel emotionally connected. It is merely to make the character more relatable to their place in the game's culture and societal hierarchy.

jenson-lighting-coolDoes this lighting make me look cool? No? How 'bout over here?
PC's backgrounds are just as important as NPCs.

Let's try another example, but this time with a female mercenary instead of the blacksmith: Why did the merc choose that profession? What about her personality tells you she would be good at it? Does she even have a family? If they're alive, how often does she get to see them? Does she have any quirks/mental ticks/habits that the players will notice? Or, simply enough, tell me her damn name. By answering questions like this, designers can create a unique individual, not a vanilla, backdrop, "I'm here to not make this place look deserted" that players will readily ignore. NPCs for the sake of having NPCs could damage the atmosphere more than it helps it if they aren't imbued with life. We've covered topics like this previously from a world design perspective, and despite mechanical differences, world/level design and character design share disciplines. Our "imbue your dungeon with mythology" article gives some further philosophy behind all of this.

But, after all of this, what about those really important NPCs? What should we expect with the big bad evil guy (BBEG) or the player character’s closest allies -- what do we do with them? My advice in the above paragraph just isn’t going to cut it here; these characters should receive almost as much attention as the main character (and in some rare, game-specific cases, more). The level of excitement from player-character creation to, perhaps, ten hours of gameplay later is horrifyingly different. We might initially create "Rafael the trickster," hoping to stick to a thief-like playstyle, but inevitably cave to a "charge in and get it over with" approach. A lot of this degradation of design investment stems from a sensory-neutral environment; as in the real world, we need to have our senses and emotions stimulated with input to be more than an "ugly bag of mostly water." Give the player someone to interact with on a regular basis and focus attention heavily on those core companions. That said, the frequent interaction needn't be of the same alignment -- having a recurring and innovative enemy can go miles toward provoking some new ideas from the player (similar to our "handholding: let me have the idea" design rant).

Now, I’m not saying ignore the main character and work only on NPCs - not in the least. The main character needs to be fully-fleshed out or the plot will collapse upon itself – even in Skyrim, where the ability to act freely can divert attention from any story whatsoever. The player must be given the tools to flesh out their character, though; these don't have to be programmed sliders and fancy dialogue hierarchies, but a solid backdrop and dedicated "where do you stand?" reminder will encourage player-investment without going over budget. Let the player make their own fun, if necessary.

To fully realize an NPC the player will relate to, designers must first give them a purpose. Dom from Gears of War 3 is a perfect, semi-templated example of this: He is looking for his wife who the locusts have taken, and after finding her, goes on a path of vengeance against them. How many people would have given a second thought to Dom -- beyond his guns -- if this back-story hadn’t existed? Not a one. No one would have cared in the least about him, but because the designers took the time to explore his personality, they were able to pull together a cohesive NPC that players ended up feeling a real connection to. His strengths, his weaknesses, his reason for fighting the locusts, his moral standards - they all make sense.

Why do the characters act the way they do? What are their overall goals, to what lengths will they go to achieve those goals, and what will they accept in the mean time? What angers them, what makes them happy? Speaking directly to designers, for a moment, I'd advise that you treat this character as if you are meeting a person in real life. Have an “interview” with the character where you flesh-out all the meaty details hidden in your own mind as you pursue this character and take the time to get to know them. By doing so, you will be giving the character a life of their own in your game, and creating a character that people will love, hate, find intriguing, and most of all be able to relate to and understand.

mordin-mass-effect2Mordin was a seemingly comical character, but when pressed he shared his internal conflict with Shepard, allowing people to see his moral afflictions.

Even bad guys have reasons for what they do, and many feel justified in their path or that their choices are somehow morally acceptable. Some may be evil for the sake of evilness, but were a Bond-like villain to exist in the real-world, they'd most likely feel appropriate in their actions. Something triggered that socially-perceived 'evilness.' Remember, perception is key: Orcs might think we're just as evil as "we" think they are. A fantastic resource I have come to use when creating characters that I want an extremely high amount of detail from is this website, which has a list of 100 questions to ask any character, and while it was made for tabletop RPG’s, I’ve found it works for any character creation.

In truth, there is no set formula to make a good character; it all comes down to what time and effort you take to get to know who they are and what they do. If you just make characters without a background, without a purpose, and without desires, they will be bland, lifeless constructs merely there to move the “storyline.” Players will not respond to it and, no matter how good the mechanics are, most will probably walk away feeling like something was definitely missing from the game that so many hours went into making. Emptiness. "Well, that was a waste of time" is just about the most offensive a game can be.

Designers, take the time to get to know your creations and they will reward you with a new, exciting, and relatable NPC whom players will remember.

-Adam "Epsilon12" Davis.

Last modified on March 15, 2012 at 1:46 pm

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