Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Parting Ways With Our NPCs

Brenda Brathwaite | 29 Sep 2009 12:26
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The Year of Living Vicariously

For game designers, the design of the game itself is often the highest form of play. Allen Varney, a veteran paper and digital game designer, feels our attachment to NPCs is due, in part, to our enjoyment of this play. "Roleplaying a player character lets us briefly take another identity; designing good NPCs is the same pleasure, faster. It is game design's quick-change skill." He compares his favorite NPCs to his favorite friends. "I recall with fondness an NPC info-source I created for a Hero System tabletop RPG campaign of supernatural investigation: Simon Stradella, a world-renowned concert violinist who obsessively studied occultism. The character write-up concluded with his discography and a bibliography of his pseudonymous, weird writings. Writing those, I felt I was capturing two entire careers, a double life - a vicarious excellence."

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In the history of storytelling, people have become attached to far less. I have deep fondness for Gus McCall in Lonesome Dove, though I only spent a couple weeks with him. Pennywise from Stephen King's It screwed up my sleep for weeks, and I still miss Tony Soprano and his steadily dwindling crew. NPCs, unlike television and book characters, however, exist in a unique space unlike any other medium where they have direct interaction with the player and have the potential to actually affect his or her actions in the world. That direct interaction extends to the designer, but I believe it goes much deeper. When creating an NPC, I tend to go over the edge, writing lengthy biographies for all my main characters, developing accents, creating volumes of information that no one in their right mind would need to know unless they had to take over for me. Then, there comes the polish - the writing and re-writing to get it just right.

"After spending so much time crafting the game world and building its inhabitants, experiencing the world from a player's perspective gives the creator a comprehensive understanding of the world and characters they've created; like an auto buff who appreciates the quality of their ride because they know the intricacies of how the car was constructed," says Alex Kain, a game designer at Venan Entertainment. "It's this more comprehensive view of the game world that I believe can lead to a developer becoming attached not only to their NPCs, but the world in which they live and the rules that govern it."

Sometimes we attach because of regret, though - usually regret for things left undone or unsaid. This is clearly part of my issue with Rodan and Drazic. I wish I'd given more game time to them. I still think about the possibility of them finding a way around the cataclysmic endgame to do something more.

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