The Private Lives of NPCs

At a conference I recently attended I was struck by a comment somebody in the crowd made after a particular paper. We were discussing the depictions of good and evil in games, the use of morality systems and the assigning of “good/evil” values to the player’s actions, and this person noted that this very often plays itself out in the form of sidequests instead of the main quest, which tends to be much more fixed. Whether you’re playing FalloutThe Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect or the new Deus Ex, you can go up to a range of strangers, ask them about their lives, and they’ll give you something to do on their behalf, which will often influence your karma. This person in the crowd (my apologies if you are reading this and I’ve forgotten who you were!) then made a comment which stuck with me, and from which this piece is generated: that NPCs “have no private lives”.

This, when one thinks about it, is strikingly true: we’ve all encountered the NPC who will readily tell you, a complete stranger, about their innermost concerns: they’re worried about their partner having been killed by goblins somewhere in the wilderness and want you to find them, or that they need an enforcer for a shady business deal (quite why the player might be less shady than any other enforcer remains to be seen), or they’ll pull you into a family drama, or have you arbitrate a feud over lost items and forgotten books, or strong-arm someone who needs strong-arming, and so forth. Similarly, and possibly even more strangely, in the Mass Effect games (for example) we wander around the Citadel and just overhear everyone talking about their private lives even if we don’t engage them in conversation! Is Shepard just a dreadful snoop whose Spectre training involves the ability to hear everyone talking about their multi-species child-custody legal cases? Does everyone on the Citadel simply assume that everyone already knows their secrets, or do they not care about sharing their secrets, or are they hoping that someone will hear them loudly and without subtlety saying “It would be really useful if someone could help us out…” and a paragon (or renegade) will come to their aid?

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NPCs, it seems, have no issue with airing their dirty laundry in public, and speaking whatever’s on their mind to the first person who comes along. However, they do seem to sometimes have some “privacy” when it comes to their homes – various games (Elder Scrolls is particularly indicative here) do allow the player to enter the homes of NPCs, who normally respond in a logical way. Which is to say: attacking the player! Or at least being disgusted, shocked, asking you to leave, and so forth. We also find that NPCs have a range of items in their homes, and in many games, one can encounter the various relations of an NPC; think back to all the promises that Skyrim made about quests being adapted if one killed particular NPCs and then other NPCs would take over their quests, or of unique dialogue when one half of a couple was killed and the other half would pass a comment on it. Although this didn’t always work out, it still highlighted that desire to give some private life, but it’s a very particular kind of private life. We can therefore perhaps distinguish between the idea of the physical private life – the homestead, the bed, possessions, house, family, relationships – and the psychological or inner private life – opinions, fears, concerns, questions, worries, agendas, objectives, wishes, desires.

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The latter is far, far rarer than the other, but has been gaining rapid prominence in recent years. Perhaps the most obvious example is Dwarf Fortress, where characters of all sorts have incredibly detailed sets of personality traits, which both serve to illustrate and flesh-out the passing interactions of the game, and to also directly affect how one NPC talks to another. In many cases players have identified sets of personality traits which are desirable and dangerous, and what kinds of personality traits are risky when present alongside others; and, equally, which personality traits are the most valuable. These characters do have internal private lives, which – much like the external private lives above – are reflected directly in the gameplay, and one can immediately observe the effects these have. The famous “tantrum spiral” – where one problem with one dwarf sets off another, and another, in large part due to both the external relationships and the internal personalities of the dwarves in question – is fundamentally based, in part, upon this system. This is a model we now see being used elsewhere, in games like RimWorld and all others which assign NPCs various “personalities”, “traits”, “skills” and the like. These are generally described in a flavour text sense as being to do with their internal private lives, but are designed to have particular effects on the practical mechanics of gameplay. These NPCs do have internal private lives, although they are on show whenever a particular constellation of gameplay elements comes together to make them matter. What, I wonder, what a truly private private life look like in a game? Something that only emerges if the player gets sufficiently close to an NPC? Or something that informs their actions, but the player is not explicitly told?

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This idea that NPCs might have private motivations which remain private and non-explicit is quite clearly shown in the Soulsborne games. In the original Dark Souls, for example, the player can encounter a number of NPCs who will move at various points in the game, including “Solaire”, the fan-favourite knight who seeks his own personal “sun” (father figure) and risks a descent into madness; “Siegmeyer”, a less-than-effective adventurer who seeks to explore as much of the world as he can; “Rhea”, a priestess on a pilgrimage into the same lands the player is busy exploring; and many others. These often follow a pattern: the player will talk to them, and from time to time engage with them, but then disappear from their first location, and reappear elsewhere on the map (if the player can find them). The triggers for encouraging these NPCs to move are often quite obscure, and are challenging for a new player to identify on a first playthrough (and it is equally challenging to guess, in most cases, where they might appear next). These NPCs possess their own storylines which play out alongside the player’s, but if the player doesn’t “find” the NPC each time they move, and get the next bit of the story, the player can easily complete the game and leave most of the NPC stories entirely unfinished (getting the “good” ending for Solaire’s story, and the “hollowed” ending for Rhea’s story, are particularly challenging and require significant long-term planning). This system gives Dark Souls an amazing feeling of being a world which isn’t simply built around the player, and doesn’t just place NPCs so that they might be encountered by the player who can solve their woes. The NPCs all have their own agendas, their own internal private lives, which sometimes intersect with the player’s path but sometimes don’t. Few have external relationships with others, and none of them have homes; but they all have their own (sometimes quite idiosyncratic) motivations that determine their actions. This feeling of simply being part of a world with other ongoing quests you might not be party to is very distinct to the game, and offers a feeling of worldbuilding and immersion orders of magnitude stronger than the alternative.

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As such, I don’t think the claim that NPCs have no private lives is entirely true. Many NPCs have external private lives of possessions and relationships with others (something of a contradiction in terms, but the mere existence of that is indicative, I think, of how games require clear mechanics, connections, systems, and so forth). Many other NPCs – almost entirely within very modern games, and other with procedurally-generated games – have internal private lives, their own sets of motivations that affect how they behave within the game world. These are most often visible in an emergent sense: they do not have a fixed relationship with NPC X, but if they encounter a particular kind of monster, for instance, they will fight all the more fiercely due to their hatred of that monster; or they will have a greater ability to gain knowledge from books than other NPCs due to their educational level, but only if books are encountered; and so on and so forth. The latter seems to offer a more compelling model for the private lives of NPCs, allowing NPCs to act how real humans act: somewhat unpredictability but somewhat predictability, acting in certain ways in certain situations, rather than only performing actions according to a set of relationships that do not shift, and representing their private lives through their relationships and their possessions rather than any deeper motivations. This is of course the model that Ultima Ratio Regum is taking, giving NPCs their own motivations but making those visible not through text and descriptions, but rather only through their behaviours, their actions, what they say, and so forth. Figuring out the motivations of important NPCs (including hidden motivations) will be one of the many essential purposes of the speech system. Such a technique allows for NPCs to have meaningful private lives, thoughts as well as deeds, but to make those thoughts visible and meaningful to the player. As ever, what the player sees and experiences is what truly matters; an NPC with a private motivation the player can never see, or even get a sense of, is effectively the same as an NPC with no such inner thoughts.

Entirely unrelated to the rest of this post, I’m sure lots of you are aware that Jupiter Hell, the long-awaited sequel to the superlative D**mRL, is currently on Kickstarter. Now, I’m not associated with the project, I have no financial incentives to promote it, blah blah – but DRL remains a tremendously distinctive roguelike, Kornel and Darren and the others on that team all working together on a project is a very exciting prospect, and my general interests in the promotion of the roguelike genre mean that I’d really like this to succeed, and produce another excellent SF RL on the heels of Cogmind. So, if you enjoyed DRL or like the sound of a fancy-graphics classic-FPS-inspired roguelike made by someone who has (to put it mildly) demonstrated his ability to build a great roguelike or two, I would encourage you to have a look.

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5 thoughts on “The Private Lives of NPCs

  1. The world of Gothic 2 is the video game world that felt most alive to me, and perhaps it is the chapter system they employ. By showing the changes of the world in discrete segments, but for all NPCs at one time, you can get a sense of how they feel based on how the world changes. Their responses to dialog and their change status in the recently ‘updated’ world gives a feeling of depth of the character without resorting to exposition. You can compare and contrast the reactions between characters & factions and a great deal can be extrapolated naturally as one might in real life.

    The Dark Souls games NPCs feel alive as they progress and their lot changes as you go through the game. Their story is not told overly, and so, unlike the NPC that tells you all their darkest secrets, by having to puzzle it out, one feels it to be more authentic.

    • Gothic 2, eh? I have not played it, but I’ll investigate. Mmmm, a chapter system actually feels like a cool little conceit, and in a way, the Souls games do the same; you talk to a character in Place X, and then they effectively vanish until you then find them in Place Y, and they have been doing stuff in the background and you have to figure out what that was/might have been. It sounds like Gothic has something similar, so I’ll have to check it out…

  2. Aside from the difficult of simulating NPCs with full schedules, it can sometimes be annoying from a player perspective. It’s no fun to wait around for Important NPC Questgiver to wake up from his regularly-scheduled sleeping hours, simply so you can continue the story. I remember this happening several times playing Ultima VI back in the day. Half the time when I had to speak with someone, it would be in the middle of the night, and they were understandably upset if I smashed down the door of their house and roused them. Similarly, it’s no fun to have full NPC schedules only to realize that you’ve missed some important scheduled NPC event at a specific time, and now it’s too late…better reload, or restart.

    The best example of NPC schedules done right that I can think of is Majora’s Mask. There was a special item (The Bomber’s Notebook) that let you keep track of NPC schedules, and you were able to reset and speed up time when needed. The NPC schedules were an important part of the game, instead of a “realistic” backdrop to the player character.

    • Oh, that’s definitely true – I think if that’s an actual mechanic (e.g. you have limited time, you have to decide whether to use your time to get a quest or not, that type of thing) it’s ok, but just “waiting” for people to come up s pretty annoying. NPC schedules should basically work with the player to both create a living world and enable them to make interesting decisions. Majora’s Mask: bizarrely, I’ve never played, but that sounds really interesting!

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