When I’m working on a game project I try to be making something that can only exist as a game. I try to come up with ways to make something react better to the player’s choices or to make things more interactive. One thing I constantly wonder when going through this process is, “Where are all the interactive characters?”
The Ideal Character
When playing a tabletop Role-Playing Game, every character can be talked to. Maybe they don't have much to say, but if the player wanted they could learn everything about any one person that the Game Master (GM) is able to make up information for. It would be improvised and imperfect, but it would reveal things the GM knows about the area or the average citizen that you can’t get from anywhere else. When you’re working on a game there are people that know these mundane things, these small details of the world that build up over a project. It would be great to have some kind of outlet for this information.
I was running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign recently and a player was looking to find more info on a missing person. He had a lead to talk to the next day, but he wanted to make sure he was covering his bases today. He unexpectedly asked the local shopkeeper for some gossip on the missing person and on the spot I figured there's probably someone in this town that writes up public notices, essentially a medieval journalist, so I should probably point the player to them. That person would be able to confirm what the player thought were just rumors, and that character would even pay him for any additional information he found. Even though the player already knew they could find out more the next day, they wanted to engage more and see what else there was to learn.
There’s a good chance that even games with tons of characters wouldn’t handle that edge case. It’s hard to have a way to enforce a player’s curiosity like that, and it can be even harder to let the player know it exists even if it does. That said, I feel like it’s something we should strive for.
I really like Bethesda games. For many players and developers a “Bethesda Game” has become its own genre because they have done a lot that of things few others are even trying to do. They tempt you with simulation but they delivery a simplified version of the real thing. This makes it so nothing is too obtuse, but there is a feeling of a deep and grounded system. They have both the idea that every character lives their own lives and the reality that those lives are very, very simple. We like that we can believe they’re all living their lives, and we like that they only visit about 3 locations and spend 6 hours at each one.
This is a simplification of the truth, but my point is that this simple trick adds a great amount of engagement. Suddenly characters aren’t folders filled with information anymore, they’re people that the player needs to find and speak to. It turns players interesting in only one part of your game into players that are learning why they should care what happens in it.
The current reality is that someone in the Bethesda ecosystem okayed a multiplayer Fallout game with no characters. If you look at the setting of Fallout 76 it make sense there’s no one around they’re the first people to leave a vault afterall! But that was a choice made years and years ago, at the start of development. It’s not an accident; they had a choice when and where the game took place. If they wanted characters in Fallout 76 they would have had them. If you tried to name all the games that let you engage with people in the game world as much as the typical Bethesda game you’d only find a few that really stand you. You would maybe come up with Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, Dragon Age, and maybe even Fallout: New Vegas on a technicality.
Each of these series, including The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, have fan bases that love these character driven elements of the games. These fans are made even more loyal because very few companies are even trying to make games like that. There are plenty of people making polished and interesting multiplayer shooters. There are plenty of interesting multiplayer survival games. It seems like game development is moving away from populating games with characters that live in the setting and characters that aren’t just there to give information. Only games can have characters that truly live in your world and many players are interested in exploring that.
Bethesda was just one company trying to make characters that belong in a game. With Morrowind they let the player learn what each character knew, and factions control their disposition towards you. With Oblivion every single character in the game had a unique disposition towards you which limited what they would do for you and how they treated you. Skyrim kept what made the characters interact with the environment in a unique way but removed everything that made them react to the player. These missing systems are what made these games’ characters dynamic, interesting, and reflective of what the player did in the game.
Character attributes in TES
There are plenty of characters in the average game that are voice acted, reactive, interesting characters. But they’re heavily scripted, meticulously animated, and their voice actors are picked to directly match the character as closely as possible. They rarely come across as natural and if there’s a relationship between the player and a character it is often told to you. Rarely is a relationship cultivated and grown by the player.
I feel that the characters we are starting to get are the kind of characters you could find in any book, any movie, and any song. They want them to be larger than life, dramatic, and interesting which are all great goals and make for compelling stories, but in order to achieve that they often remove interactivity. The games industry has spend countless hours making combat AI that’s engaging and visuals that look real, but few companies, big or small, are working towards making characters that are reactive or realistic.
We have countless games where we can kill everyone, but not many where we can talk to everyone.
So what are some useful takeaways from this? Well here are a few things:
- We should treat characters in games as if they live there
- There should be a reason to interact with characters
- Information from characters should be gated based on player choice
- Characters should have lives of their own
- Characters should have ways to know how the player acts
- Characters should behave different from one another
- Players should be able to try and speak to anyone
What are the benefits of striving to achieve these goals?
- Players will believe in your world
- Players will treat your content the same way you do
- Players will want to learn more than just what to do next
- Players will get to experience a new form of engagement
- Players will get feedback on their choices based on character reactions
If any of these things are goals that you have for games as a developer or as a player then try to incorporate these ideas in your games. Lean towards the messy elements of interactively and avoid the clear path of linear characters.
I'd love to hear what you think about these ideas, comment below or message me on twitter @RTCinder
Thanks for reading!