Thursday, June 7, 2012

"It's the Little Things" - How NPCs Connect You to Their World

"You know how it is DarkCandle.  In this kind of life, sometimes it's nice just to find someone really good to talk to who isn't a half-alien mutant, or the son of a god, or who becomes a programmed killer whenever he hears a train whistle.  Just a nice guy."

Five years ago, when an NPC said these words to my character, I just stopped.  And laughed.  It was a great moment.  So much so that I saved that quote to my documents folder, and have held on to it all this time.  It was great, because it completely and totally humanized that NPC for me.  Because at that moment, Indigo - former Knives of Artemis member, intelligence agent, and general mission giver - went from being a generic NPC to a character.  A person that obviously deals with people just like you every day - day in and day out.  And as you can see - she's a bit weary of it.  She's seen your kind and dealt with your kind and it wouldn't kill her to able to just have one day - one conversation even - with someone that was normal.

In  that single sentence, the developers created a memorable character for me -- an NPC that I cared about, and in doing so, connected me to their world.  And that's what I want to discuss a bit - NPC's, and how they connect you to their world.

Over the years, I've played many MMO's.  But there are a few that I've returned to time after time, even after I've been away for long periods of time.  And I've noticed that one of the things those MMO's have in  common is that, by one device or another, they've convinced me to care.  Not necessarily about their world - that's the obvious thread: you the hero, saving the world - but about their people.

The best movies - the best stories - are those that contain a human element that allows you to relate to the story.  It doesn't matter if it's science fiction, or superheroes, or deep fantasy.  All of those fantastic settings, exotic machines, and incredible events provide for excitement and enjoyment - but it's those stories that create characters - human stories - that draw you in and have you wanting to stay.  I believe the same to be true for games, and even more so for MMO's.  The interesting thing I think though, is that, at least for me - it's not the big sweeping stories of the main characters and events that connect me to their world - it's the little stories.  The small, off to the side - but nevertheless very human stories - that make me feel like I'm in a place that I can relate to. Like Indigo's comment up above.

Gwen meets Captain Langmar & the Ebon Vanguard
for the first time. The world trembles.
The MMO's that do the best job of it, I think, are the ones that introduce characters at one point, but then allow you to re-visit those characters from time to time, and to see that events have transpired in their lives, just as they have in your character's life.  Of course, Gwen, from Guild Wars, is a classic example.  You first meet Gwen as a small child in preseared Ascalon.  In fact, at the time, you don't even know her name.  But she returns in force in Eye of the North, and you learn that there's an entire Hero's Journey tale being told there, that isn't even your tale!  The player touches Gwen's story time and time again as they journey throughout Guild Wars, and it's a great tale.  But one of the things that delights me more are the other stories you come across, that are told both directly - and indirectly - about Guild Wars' NPCs.

Young, beautiful, naive Princess Talkora. You will
grow much before your journey is done.
For instance, in the Nightfall campaign, your first companion is Koss - a stalwart and likeable warrior.  Soon however, you encounter Melonni, whom joins your party, and you learn quickly that Melonni and Koss have a past.  And it isn't too much later that young princess Tahlkora joins your group, and very quickly a love triangle develops between the three of them - with your character trying her best to offer advice to each of them at different times.  There are no quests related to this story.  It affects the world, and the game, and the main story line in absolutely no way.  But the fact that it's there, that you learn about these characters beyond your perils and your troubles - draws you into their lives, and thus the game.

Cynn is none too happy about the other girls vying for
Mhenlo's attention!
One other of my favorites in Guild Wars is the tumultuous relationship between fiery Cynn, from the Prophecies campaign, and charming Mhenlo, from Factions.  This relationship doesn't even get mentioned in cinematics or story at all!  The only way you learn about it is when you have them in your party, and you watch (and pay attention to) the random bits of dialog they speak as they travel with you.  But the relationship is hinted at again and again throughout Factions and Nightfall, and in Eye of the North, you see Cynn standing off by herself, clearly put out with Mhenlo, whom is oblivious as he regales Devonna and Eve.    When you are playing Eye of the North, and you see the characters arranged as such, you suspect something is going on there.  But if you'd played the previous campaigns, and you payed attention, you know exactly what's going on, and you can't help but smile and feel for Cynn's plight.  It's those little bits of familiarity, built over time, that make those NPC's feel like companions, and the world feel like home.

And of course Guild Wars is not by any means the only game that has small characters that the developers go out of their way to endear to you.  Who could forget Hemet Nesingway, and his kin, whom you encounter again and again through your travels in Azeroth?  And City of Heroes has some outstanding NPC's that have produced some of my most memorable MMO experiences.

A more unlikely group of heroes you'll never meet!
In fact it was CoH's most recent expansion that really got me to thinking about how much of a difference well written NPC's - even minor ones - make.  In a previous expansion, you work with a psychic named Katie Douglas.  Her and your hero become friends over the course of a few missions, and you rely on her to get you into and out of several tight spots.  But in the final mission, you are forced to leave her in a state of limbo - trapped within the Seer Network - robbed of both her identity and even of her sense of self.  It was the first time in CoH I wished for some sort of SWTOR style of morality choice, because I already cared enough about the NPC that I would have taken the hard line and fought tooth and nail to not leave her where she was.  But it's a choice you don't really get to make, and the story arc leaves you with not just a sense of accomplishment, but of loss as well.  It is to Paragon Studios' credit that in the very next expansion, they let you set things right with Katie Douglas, and furthermore, you are introduced to a cast of even more remarkable NPC's.

Everyone talks about how MMO stories are trite and contrived, where they exist at all.  And sure - many of them are.  Of course, Bioware set about making an entire MMO out of giving the player good stories.  And don't get me wrong - some of those stories are absolutely fantastic.  But you don't have to have top notch Hollywood voice-overs and million dollar cinematics to have a good story.   Entire teams of writers in probably every MMO you're playing right now are writing entire volumes of small stories - about unremarkable people - that ultimately - end up being pretty remarkable.  And for me - it's those small stories, those NPC's that you learn have relationships, and struggles, and troubles beyond dealing with you and your problems - that make their worlds so much more worthwhile.


  1. Excellent accounts!

    I'd guess that it's hard enough to create an engagement with an NPC that elevates them above a quest vending machine, but it's probably worse these days when people admit to not even bothering to read quest text anymore. I have some recollections of NPCs from my retail experience with SWTOR, but the ones I remember the most are the ones from the Imperial Agent during beta. Sadly, I don't remember their names, but I remember their stories, like the Hutt's head of security who you can convince to betray his boss, or the family who's split by their child's awakened Force powers.

    SWTOR's forced attention through VO's is one method to get people into the moment, but I appreciate the non-critical character interactions a lot more. From Baldur's Gate to Dragon Age to Guild Wars, having NPCs talk amongst themselves while you're traveling with nothing better to do is like listening to co-workers on the phone. You hear things that they wouldn't necessarily say to you, but you get a glimpse into the lives they lead when you're not around.

  2. Yes! And those are exactly the kinds of things that draw me deeper into the world in which I'm playing. And games in which I don't see any of that, seem to appeal less to me overall - or at least to keep me interested for less time.

    One of the (few) things I worry about with GW2 is if they will keep this charm. With no heroes or henchmen NPC's, there's less opportunity for interesting NPC interactions. And with no real quest givers, there is even less. The few people I helped out with hearts over their head were incredibly bland. I didn't really mind, because what I was doing was so gosh darn fun. But I hope they create opportunities for us to meet interesting NPC's outside of the main storyline.