Parting Ways With Our NPCs

I miss Rodan Lewarx and Drazic.

I abandoned them in Wizardry 8, and it’s probably safe to say they’re never coming back. At the end of the game, I blew up the universe, and before I could put a new one together, the series itself and the company that created it blew up, too. The Wizardry games, a magnificent series that defined and shaped my youth, and Sir-Tech Software, the company that published it, were no more. No matter which ending you take, in the game or in the real world, neither Rodan nor Drazic survived.

I miss them.

Though I’ve created hundreds of NPCs, these two were special to me. Rodan was an Umpani and Drazic a T’Rang. The Umpani and T’Rang were sworn enemies dating back a full decade in the Wizardry series and their rivalry, expressed in part through their distinct strategies and personalities, led to seemingly endless ideas for sabotage, aggression and alliance. Players weaved between the two, deciding whom to work for based on their own tendencies. The Umpani were militaristic but fun-loving. The T’Rang were more domineering and dangerous and took orders from Z’Ant. I recall how much I enjoyed seeing a player as he reacted to Z’Ant’s genuine (A.I.) hurt when the player was busted working for both sides.

At some point unknown to the player, Rodan and Drazic were captured by a roving group of Rapax, and as they whittled away their days in captivity, they came to realize that the greater danger was not in each other, but in the Dark Savant; so long as their races continued to fight one another, the Savant would continue to destroy both. The player didn’t need to accept their assigned mission in order to win the game, nor did she need to fight an exceptionally uphill battle to get the sworn enemies to agree to a truce, but the rewards were worth it if she did.

And after all of that, after all the player and NPCs’ effort, I rewarded them with … silence. There could have been more, but we’ll never know now. So, I miss them.

For Tom Hall, Creative Director at KingsIsle Entertainment, the attachment is much more personal. “I deeply miss Commander Keen,” he laments. “He was based on me at 8 years old. Plus, I’d love to complete that original story.”

Whether the NPC is a mirror of the designer or merely a construction of his or her imagination, the longer we stay with an NPC, the more he or she seems to grow on us. We deeply internalize them so that, as their puppet masters, we can craft the perfect response to any given game situation. And when the game goes away, sometimes the puppet does not. Designers feel a need to complete their stories, a need that has no outlet when the series stalls.

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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.”

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.

Andrew Krausnick, a game designer at TimeGate Studios, has similar feelings toward Torkald, an NPC he created for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Torkald was the leader of the giants, a race of creatures far from home and decreasing in number. “He was the only giant that wouldn’t attack player characters on sight,” Krausnick says. “His aims and goals were never fully revealed during my tenure on the project, and as far as I know, they still remain a mystery. It’s a story that I regret was never told.”

So he tells me.

“The last time I worked on his story, he was attempting to open a portal back to the homeland of the giants. Maybe he simply wished to return home, or maybe he was simply looking for reinforcements. Here’s a monstrous creature that the player would expect to be at odds with, but he was instead asking for help.”

Diary of an NPC Vampire

When I asked my friend and fellow designer Sheri Graner Ray if there was anyone she missed, she drew a blank at first. Most of her characters were licensed and predefined, she says. Then, she remembered Damon from their toothy fling nearly 13 years ago.

Damon appeared in The Vampire Diaries, an FMV game based on the book series of the same name written by L. J. Smith. It follows the adventures of two vampire brothers, Damon, the “bad vampire,” and Stefan Salvatore, “the good vampire.” Damon wasn’t evil, though, just constantly tempted by the proverbial power of the dark side of his vampirism. “When I set out to write his part in the game, ” Ray tells me, “I wanted to play this up, make him a bad boy, scary, dangerous and, most of all, sexy.”

As Ray worked to get just the right look for the character, she and her co-workers most looked forward to the day they shot the “bite” scene. “As we prepared to shoot it, all the women on the set gathered around the monitor by my chair. Damon’s lines were perfect; his menace was scary and seductive at the same time. All the women watching the scene held their breath. As he dipped the actress, bared his fangs and bent over her neck, they all sighed. When the scene ended, applause broke out.”

It worked for the designers, and according to Ray, it worked for the fans, too. “They all told us they would purposefully choose the ‘fail’ ending just so they could get bitten by Damon!”

Return to Morrowind

The last designer I talked to is an old friend of mine. I first met Ted Peterson when he was working for Bethesda on the Elder Scrolls games in the 1990s. His worlds, like my worlds, were filled with NPCs, and I wondered if any had struck a memorable chord with him. Speaking of the first game in the series, Arena, Peterson notes that the characters weren’t particularly memorable. “Fairly generic sword-and-sorcery universe called Tamriel with a Big Bad Wizard as the villain,” he says. But all that changed with the second installment in the series, Daggerfall. “Suddenly, I was given license to come up with a real history to the world.”

“The main quest forced you to visit a number of royal courts, and having read I, Claudius just before, they were all vicious, conniving, back-stabbing folk. Among the worst of them were the Dark Elf woman who had married King Eadwyre of Wayrest, Barenziah, and her son, Helseth. They were refugees from Morrowind, their homeland to the east, and people didn’t trust them, largely for good reasons. As the game ended, Helseth was involved in a power struggle with his stepsister over who would be the heir to the throne. You could keep playing the game after completing the main storyline quest, but Helseth’s ambitions remained unresolved.”

Peterson later left Bethesda, and the series continued without him. He found himself at the same crossroads many of us do, one that seems to create the most designer attachment: a long-term commitment to a character and its storyline combined with an awareness of an unresolved thread of potential. It would be eight years before Morrowind was published, but thanks to Peterson’s persistence, Helseth finally got a second chance at the crown.

Peterson was contracted by his former employer to write stories for Morrowind that would appear in the game as books. After learning what the developers planned for the main storyline, Peterson talked them into slipping in some backstory about his characters Barenziah and Helseth. From there, his own story becomes nearly magical.

“The story was that on the King of Wayrest’s death, Helseth had lost the power struggle with his stepsister, and he and his mother Barenziah fled the west. Barenziah’s uncle Llethan Athyn was the King of Morrowind, a figurehead for the Empire, and they went to him for support. It isn’t exactly stated that Helseth murdered his great uncle, but it’s definitely suggested, and Helseth takes the throne. Because that’s gratitude for you.”

The story all happens in the background of Morrowind, in the literature you read and the rumors you hear on the street. It is an epic ninjaing of sorely missed NPCs, but it doesn’t end there. Bethesda made an add-on pack called Tribunal where Barenziah and Helseth were front and center, the major players in the world, and Peterson was also invited to write the Pocket Guide to the Empire, a 112-page book which accompanied the collector’s edition of Oblivion.

“In order to write it,” Peterson says, “I asked my old co-workers what was going on in Morrowind after the events of the game, and they described to me how King Helseth was uniting the confederacy of the old land and assuming some real power in the land, abolishing slavery and standing against the old theocracy. It sounded good to me, so that’s what I wrote in the book. I’ve since been told by fans that they don’t believe I didn’t come up with that as a triumph for my old favorite rascal, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t trust me on it either.”

Brenda Brathwaite is a game designer and Chair of the Interactive Design and Game Development department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has worked with NPCs in a variety of ways since 1981, and she misses many of them.

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