Sworn To Carry Our Burdens: Avoiding Terrible NPCs

I gave this talk at Videobrains in March 2015.

So, this talk is probably not going to be very long. It’s fairly simple to avoid some of the major pitfalls when it comes to NPCs, but a lot of game makers seem to happily jump in them, so I thought it’d be good to talk about what works and what doesn’t.

I just want to put a disclaimer on this though – unlike many of the speakers here, I don’t have an incredibly broad, in-depth knowledge of what seems like hundreds of games. I have a very deep knowledge of a few games, and then a medium depth knowledge of several more – so if I’m missing out some incredible friends and foes here, do feel free to add your own.

I also want to say that to some extent, I sort of think that terrible, predictable NPCs have their place for us as gamers because it’s always fun to complain about a common grievance – we could probably all chorus together certain lines from Skyrim. Terrible NPCs generate memes that cover the internet. But it’s like any bad experience: while it’s happening to you, you fucking hate it, and you can only bond over it later.

First, things to hate about NPCs.

Bad voice acting: we’ll start with something simple and self-explanatory. There is nothing like a bit of completely wooden voice acting to get my hackles up. This is especially true if the NPC is a villain.

Getting in the way: again, fairly self-explanatory. It was this phenomenon that basically made me think of this entire talk – the number of times Lydia has stood in a doorway and just stared at me while I repeatedly try to squeeze past her is probably in the hundreds. The only way to get her out of the way is to attack her, which apparently she doesn’t mind but it makes me feel mean.

Escort missions: I can go along with it for a while if it’s just a plot device to get you from A to B, which it often is, but there comes a point where the defenseless child or untrained scientist really should be able to, say, make it from barrel to barrel without suddenly changing direction for no reason and getting shot. Or getting interminably stuck in traps. Or randomly stopping short right when you need to be running. Basically, it becomes a hassle, and you end up hating the poor NPC for something that’s not their fault.

Helplessness/useless AI: this is connected to the escort mission, because the AI HAS to be fairly useless in order to require you to babysit them. But it’s so DAMN frustrating! ESPECIALLY when they are incapable of extremely simple tasks, like opening doors.
One of my favourite things about NPCs are when they’re able to do things you can’t, so you need them in order to progress. But if they can’t help you out and they’re not actually interesting to interact with, they become a burden. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: for me, characterisation is THE most important thing in a game. It could be the most barebones setting and plot, but if I’m interested in the people in the game then you’ve got me.

For me, one of the worst NPCs I’ve come across is Ashley from Resident Evil 4. She didn’t exactly suffer from bad voice acting – I’m sure the voice actor worked really hard on that – but the way she said “Leon!” just made me grit my teeth. And she was just constantly getting into trouble! She was like Carl on the Walking Dead. I’ve also never played GTA 4 because I cannot drive in any video game ever, but I was introduced to cousin Roman and his endless bowling requests this weekend so I thought I’d give him an honourable mention.

Now onto things to love about NPCs.

Character development: if we’re talking about the kind of NPC who is your friend and companion throughout the game, then it is extremely boring when they offer no sort of response to whatever both of you are going through and just carry on regardless. If they are exactly the same at the end as when you first met them, I feel like it’s a wasted opportunity.

Luckily, there are lots of examples of good character development in video games – such as basically everyone in Mass Effect. I have an entire talk online about that so I won’t linger on it now.

One of the best kinds of NPC development for me is when there is, in TV Tropes language, a heel-face turn – a bad guy turning good – or a face-heel turn – a good guy turning bad. Portal 2 somehow manages to have both of these, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Adding to plot: this is usually connected with the character development – having an NPC that actually affects the plot of the game is extremely satisfying, especially if it’s in an unpredictable way. We can’t tell what our friends are going to do or say next in real life either, so it’s super cool when a video game does that too. Coming up with a completely original character arc is of course famously hard, but a bit of creative thinking can go a long way.

Individuality: this is probably the most important, and essentially the basis of the whole talk. Carbon copies of generic action archetypes – or any other kind of archetypes – are boring. I can understand it for NPCs who are there to deliver a message or something, but someone who’s going to be with you for the whole game should have more of a personality than that.

Interaction: this was touched on in a talk about Oculus Rift games a few months ago – I can’t remember who gave it, but he spoke about how the first thing you do in a VR headset is run up to whoever is in front of you and just run around them, get in their face, and so on.

I think the gist of the talk was that you need to give players boundaries about what is and is not acceptable in the game – so in the VR game, the other person would say “Hey!” or “Stop that” when you got all up in their face. And I think, while it can be super fun to just put buckets on people’s heads and run amok, it’s good to have your actions affect theirs – because they become less like statues and more like people then.

I wanted to give an example of doing an NPC very, very right, and that is Wheatley, a fantastic individual who also happens to be a computer voiced by Stephen Merchant.

Wheatley is your guide throughout Portal 2, and an incredibly funny, sympathetic character at that. Until suddenly he turns out to be the villain (a face-heel turn). The best bit is that it’s completely understandable, and right at the end he realises what he’s done and he’s very sad about it. And that’s completely charming!

Also, remember what I said about voice acting? Stephen Merchant is fucking brilliant as Wheatley. I’m not a huge fan of his work with Ricky Gervais and such, but I can overlook that in favour of him being a slightly awkward but quite enthusiastic computer who, for the most part, just wants you to succeed. It’s just fantastic.

Having said all that, I also want to mention Minecraft, which I think does a very interesting thing by giving you the ability to create your own NPCs. I think it’s really cool that they give you the choice as to whether you want to have companions or not in whatever your quest is; I have a farm and a pack of dogs, but I can leave them behind if I want. You have villagers/testificates as well, but you can decide to ignore those too and turn off village spawning. Or you can be me and never have come across a villager in all your hundreds of hours playing Minecraft, despite looking all over the place.

It’s interesting that you can create your own NPCs to do whatever you like with; the story is your own. There’s no need for anyone to point you in a certain direction or to get themselves kidnapped or to tearfully confess their love for you before dying. You call the shots. And I like that.

A word on stereotypes: don’t.

I know that most people don’t intend to make a ludicrously racist stereotype for their player’s best friend, that it’s likely that no one in this room would even dream of such a thing, that people here are better than that. I’ve been incredibly pleasantly surprised by that, because until last summer most of my exposure to the gaming community was online and it was terrible. But it’s always worth saying.

The thing about stereotypes is it’s more than just literally making all the Africans primitive tribespeople, which I’m sure none of you would do – though apparently no one at Resident Evil thought it might come across as a little bit shit.

So I’ve made a very brief list of some of the things that might get past even those who are sure they could never do something bigoted.

1. Magical negro/Wise Asian syndrome

The epitome of this is John Coffee from the Green Mile. The Magical Negro is always mild-mannered, speaks softly and sometimes in riddles, tells you secrets or wise proverbs to teach you something about life, and often dies at the end, usually saving the protagonist. It’s fucking annoying, because the character never seems to have any needs or wants for themselves: they’re just completely dedicated to you instead, like a servant. I don’t like it.

2. Strong independent woman (who don’t need no man. Except you.)

This a billion times over if your strong woman is also black. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not asking for everyone to be princesses. But when it comes to black women, it is incredibly rare for us to be seen as anything OTHER than strong and independent. We are barely ever in a position to be saved, and I feel like it’s because we’re not seen as worthy of being saved; we’re almost always saving other people instead, and it’s just seen as their due.

3. The topsy-turvy racist

The main problem with this is that it can be done very, very badly. I’m thinking Bioshock Infinite levels of badly.

On a side note, if you do have racism in your game, in my opinion it needs to be obvious that it’s a bad thing. I hate any bullshit “make your own mind up” stuff when it comes to racism, because as far as I’m concerned racism is wrong in all contexts, and I’ve had enough excuses as to why maybe in this parallel universe treating someone as a lesser being because of how they look could be acceptable. It’s not acceptable.

There are quite a few more of these, but I don’t have enough time.

Having said all of this…it’s your game, and they’re your characters. But, if you’re one of the many, many people I’ve met who want to make sure their game is enjoyable for as many people as possible, this is a place to start.


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