Tuesday 30 April 2013

"I'm disappointed in you": Creating memorable experiences through NPC reactions

Imagine: I walk into your house, take all your money, break a few pots and pans, and leave without saying a word. How would you respond the next time I see you?

Final Fantasy 7 - Going into somebody's house and stealing underwear... Why not?

Whatever your response may be, it's probably very different from what a vast majority of the non-player characters (NPCs) in typical video games would do. For those of us who have played old role-playing games, the above actions would be a part of our normal routine when entering a new house. To make it even worse, we would usually turn the house upside down right in front of the people who live there. They're probably used to it though, every time a hero comes to town, as they never seem to get mad or upset.

This lack of an emotional response gives players a sense of grandeur; they can do whatever they want, whenever they want it. They focus on their own goals, their own ambitions, and don't worry about the effects of their actions on others. The characters become little more than a wide assortment of pixels, the world becomes placid, uninteresting and dull, and the game itself will be considered 'just a game'. 

That is, until actions start having consequences. Why should each character have to put up with everything the player does? Players need to start second guessing themselves: "Did I do the right thing?" "Should I have done something else?". This will cause the, formerly emotionally flat, world, to feel more alive to them. It is no longer just about their own dreams and ambitions, but also about those of the other characters.

In the coming paragraphs I will discuss some examples of video games that have tried to incorporate angry or disappointed NPC reactions. Do note, these examples do contain spoilers, so if you don't want to know anything more about one of these games, please do not read the corresponding paragraph.

Breaking the norm
One of the first experiences I've had with 'realistic' NPC reactions was in The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. In the main town of the game, there is a small shop, and, if done right, it’s possible to steal an item from the shopkeeper. When you come back to buy some more bombs, he kills you on the spot, claiming that you need to pay the ultimate price for your misbehaviour. Theoretically, after getting the most expensive item from the shop, there is little reason to come back there. For some reason though, in all my playthroughs, I never once stole again from the store. I was, apparently, hard-wired for appropriate behaviour (or afraid of the consequences).

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - One strike, and you're out!

Sometimes it's so easy to forget...
Different genres lead to different expectations; in a first-person shooter you usually don't think twice about shooting one of the bad guys. Sometimes games play with these expectations to create memorable events. There's a moment in Bioshock Infinite when you feel you're being ambushed, and have the chance to take control (and shoot the person behind a desk), or wait. If you choose to take control, you brutally murder the NPC behind the desk, and your companion, naive Elizabeth, will be shocked by your actions, and runs away from you. These moments help you think about the consequences of your actions; after all, you just brutally murdered somebody. Maybe next time you shouldn't act so rash.

Bioshock Infinite - Unclear situations, time limits... what to do, what to do?

What is right, and what is wrong...
In contrast to typical role-playing games, Tales of Vesperia has a very pragmatic main character: he is willing to kill a defenceless villain in cold blood. Such an act is usually not considered morally appropriate, and leads to many discussions with between the main character and their fellow NPCs on the nature of 'good' and 'bad'. These discussions make you think about the consequences of your own actions; there are a lot of actions that fall in a moral grey area. In turn they make the characters feel more alive, like they aren't pre-programmed, but slowly trying to find their own way in life.

Tales of Vesperia - Killing a defenceless villain in cold blood doesn't sound like a noble thing to do...

Communication is key
After spending the majority of the game making new friends and forging alliances to depose your 'evil' brother the King, you discover near the end that he wasn't so evil after all. Fable 3 then forces you take his position, and gives you a choice: either make people happy now, and have them die later, or make them unhappy now, and have them live later. You end up disappointing your friends, and later on your, not so loyal anymore, subjects for the greater good. As a player this can make you really frustrated: "But I'm only doing this because you'll die otherwise!" Communication is an important part of mediating disappointment or anger, and without it, players may feel hopeless and give up. 

Fable 3 - While not perfectly executed, Fable 3's concept of good versus bad was very confrontational 

As social creatures, we are hard-wired to think about how we treat our friends and our family. If we do something bad to them, even if it was unintentional, we usually feel a little bit guilty. This allows us to learn, and sometimes even create a stronger bond with that person. If we want video games to have a stronger emotional impact on the player, we should remember that life is about trying and failing: NPCs should not be our slaves, obeying our every whim, but our friends, who should not always agree with us.

Do you have any memorable experiences dealing with disappointed or angry feelings of NPCs in video games, please let us know below! 

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