Creating real characters in games

Yesterday’s article about NPCs by Austin Walker definitely struck a chord with me, and got me wanting to write on the subject of characters and personality in games again. One of the big differences between Pirates and Traders 2 and its predecessor will be its addition of persistent characters – and with it – persistent personalities. I haven’t invented a snazzy name for it like “The Nemesis System”, but what I’m planning to do is not far removed from it.

The idea is not inherited from Shadows of Mordor, though; these are game design ideas that I’ve played around with for many years. In fact, in the first ever interview I did as an “indie developer” back in 2005, I wax lyrical about using personality models to drive narrative. I love character-driven games, and have literally tons of scribbled design notes and research papers on the subject. Which makes it all the more ironic that when I finally published a game, I ended up building a game engine that made adding persistent characters in the game almost impossible. It’s not that I didn’t try but – but as I’ve mentioned a couple of times on Facebook – the code in Pirates and Traders has some nasty peculiarities, caused by the way the game got developed. At some point, I simply had to decide whether to implement persistent characters properly, and risk breaking the savegames of thousands of players, or leave well enough alone. I chose the latter. To this day, there is at least one annoying bug in the game that I believe was caused by my (half-finished) attempt to improve the character model. If you’ve ever encountered a character #MissingVariable, then you know what I’m talking about.

The engine which will power Pirates and Traders 2 and my collaborative project with Ashton Saylor – Dwarf Kingdom – basically rebuilds this aspect of the game from scratch. As I described last year, there will be a lot more persistent characters. And as can be seen in this early screenshot of Dwarf Kingdom, characters will be generated with personality traits.

I’ve commented a bit on the consequences of the Facebook pages, but probably not all in one place. What does it mean? First and foremost it means that you will have repeat encounters with characters, in different times and places. And your interactions with them earlier will inform their opinions of you later, and shape their future (i.e., pretty similar to the Nemesis System in SoM). So – for example; you might do a few good turns for the governor of Eleuthera, and become good friends with him. Which is nice, but not really all that useful, seeing as how that settlement is little more than a few huts on an island. But then he gets promoted to Governor of Port Royal, and suddenly you have a friend in control of the central British port of the Caribbean.  Or lets assume that you started a rivalry with another pirate captain. You exchange some words with him in random tavern encounters. Perhaps you grabbed a prize that he intended to take. Bad blood. As the heat grows on all pirates, perhaps he secures a pardon and is given a powerful ship and license to hunt down pirates. Guess who he will be looking to hunt down? The idea of the game mechanics is to have the potential to generate lots of these kind of small stories.

It’s difficult to go into details on exactly how all this will work, because … it’s complicated. I’m not even sure it will all work the way I want it to. Although, there are games that have experimented with these elements in recent years (one being the fascinating Redshirt by Tiniest Shark), there are not many of them. The trick is to find the right balance of psychological simulation and pragmatic game mechanics that still results in a fun game. But the four key ideas that I believe that I can build an interesting system around are:

  1. Personality traits. Most importantly, characters will not be just stats. They have traits, backgrounds, and motivation which (at least partially) guide their actions and their reactions to what you do. These will (mostly) be procedurally generated, so that the same base story may well play out differently from game to game.
  2. Character agency. A pet peeve of mine in RPGs. If character’s have their own motivations, they must also show agency – otherwise it’s just text. NPCs won’t just wait around for you; they’ll act and interact – with you and others – in order to further their own agendas.
  3. Relations as a journey, not a goal. Another pet peeve of mine. Why is it that most games have you becoming BFFs forever as the goal of relationships? Doesn’t reflect real life as I know it; I’m friends with people because I like them – not because I hope to gain some great bonus artifact when I score +100 relationship points. I want to try and play with the incentives a bit here; perhaps remove explicit incentives altogether. Because gameplay were you do something because you feel for it, rather than just because you gain a +4 cutlass is the kind of stuff that – IMO – makes for awesome stories that stay with you.
  4. Conflict is not just about villains or violence. I particularly want to experiment with the former. Relationships between characters should not depend on agreeing with another character as strongly as possible; in real life, it is possible to be friends and still have differing opinions. This goes hand in hand with character agency; sometimes the antagonist in the story isn’t necessarily a moustache-twirling Captain Hook, but the conflicting priorities of your boatswain. And the conflict cannot simply be solved by murdering everyone who opposes you.

If I can implement those four elements, I think NPCs in the game will have gone a fair distance toward my goal of making the characters feel more alive.