The NPC and You
What is it that makes a character come alive and leap from the screen
in the hearts of millions? Just what is this intangible attraction that
draws us to seek out computerized beings and fall in love with them. I may
not be able to tell you all there is to know on the subject, in fact, I'm
sure I can't, but I'll tell you everything I know. Here's a list of things
that a sucessful author is aware of with his characters:
1.) Personality Quirks
3.) Physical Appearance
4.) Speech Characteristics
Of these, there are 3 that stand out as important to the character's
likability, and 2 that are essential to its usefulness in your game. Quirks,
speech, and motivation are the 3 most important things that I look at when
deciding if a character will be liked. Reactions and abilities are the 2
important things that contribute to your game as a whole. Appearance and
actions are almost secondary, aiding in the visualization of the NPC, but
not essential to it. It is possible to have NPCs that are not described and
take no original actions of their own, yet remain interesting and
entertaining. On the other hand, the NPC must react to the player's actions
or the player will quickly become bored with it. It is usually, but not
always, better to let the player have the initiative when dealing with NPCs.
This preserves the illusion of freedom better, by allowing a larger number
of options to the player.
1.) Personality Quirks
The details are what bring a character to life. Sam the grocer is
87 years old, constantly smokes cheap cigars, is Jewish, uses the word 'oi'
constantly, and has a wife that only a mother-in-law could love. These
little tidbits and others are a part of the heart and soul of your character.
Just what makes the NPC tick? Why is he wasting time chumming around
with the player when he so many other important things to do? Everyone has
an angle, what's the NPC's? Is he friend or foe, ally or judas, lover or
archenemy? An NPC should have SOME opinion of the player, rather than
ignoring him, this falls under reactions. You've got to know these things,
even if the player doesn't and never will.
3.) Physical Appearance
Now, while we've all heard "Don't judge a book by its cover." we all
know what a load of crap that is too. Maybe in your game setting there is no
racism, sexism, chauvenism, or judgemental folks, but in most worlds there
will be, unless everyone is identical. A man sees a pretty woman with nice
big...ahem, and his hormones kick in. He only sees her assets, and doesn't
care what she's really like. Or, you meet a guy with a really big nose,
later, one of your friends asks you about Joe, you look blank until he adds,
"The guy with the big nose." It is part of our make-up, as a very visually
oriented people. It shames us and we try to hide our ugly secrets from
everyone else, and never quite suceed. It's always there with us, a very
important part of how we were raised. The player should know what his
character is seeing (and thinking, if you use a pre-defined character).
Point out the obvious first, like a wart on the nose, huge pectoral muscles,
or nice round assets. Be sure not to stick thoughts in the player's mind
unless you are using a well-defined character though, many resent having
words put in their mouths.
4.) Speech Characteristics
Mark Twain is one of the most famous authors to use this technique.
He wrote down the southern accents just as he heard them. It's quite simple
to do the same for any other accent. Simply establish certain patterns of
speech and stick to them. The classic gangster, for example, has a thick
New York accent, so replace 'ir' with 'io' and make second person pronouns
plural, like 'yous'. There are other aspects to that accent, but I leave
them to you to play with. If you inventing an accent, so much the better.
Simply pick those parts of speech that come across as 'improper' and make
sure to stick to your changes, breaking that rule only on purpose. Otherwise
the NPC steps out of character, and that is 'not good'.
Amazing how little initiative NPCs in text adventures have, isn't it?
Well, it leaves the player room to maneuver. I am attempting other things in
Avalon, but for now, let's stick to the traditional stance. NPCs are there
to spur the player on, or to provide a solution to a puzzle, or present a
puzzle themselves. Any actions they take will neccessarily be related to
their primary purpose. A troll will attempt to kill the player with an axe,
for instance, or a grocer will tell the player about today's specials. For
the basic NPC, this is enough. For more complex ones, you must decide how
they can best serve their purpose. Just some advice though, keep the NPCs
simple to use, if possible. NPCs are one reason I favor a pre-defined
character for the player to control. It allows me more lassitude in defining
the player's reactions, and I feel more comfortable spending extra time to
expand the NPC into a fully rounded being, since the player can have advance
knowledge of it.
Reactions are perhaps the most important thing an NPC has going for
it. Begin by assuming that every NPC will be kissed, killed, taken, kicked,
made love to, eaten, and used as an ashtray. Players love to abuse the NPCs
in horrible little ways. Be prepared, betatesting is not for the weak of
stomach. The sad fact is that you will be expected to somehow magically
divine every single action that a player can inflict on an NPC. You won't be
able to of course, but try nonetheless. It saves time. NPCs must either
fulfill a goal, or provide atmosphere. No, I take that back, they must
always provide atmosphere, whatever their purpose. Most NPCs tend to
personify stereotypes of some sort. This is acceptable, if somewhat
predictable. In addition, NPCs nearly always have a straightforward motive
urging them along. This I tend to disagree with. People are complex, and
NPCs are people. In using a stereotype, I prefer to use it to mislead the
player. I don't do this a lot, but I do it in certain strategic places.
It's a good dramatic device, used sparingly.
Other good reactions to plan for include gift-giving and questioning.
Try to have the NPC maintain its illusion of sentience as much as possible by
letting it know about relevant topics, as well as personal ones. In my
games, I try to discourage wanton NPC murder. That's up to you, of course.
In any event, just try to have the NPC react believably as often as possible.
Finally, you need to carefully catalog what the NPC is going to do
for the player. You must be careful here, as a broad ability is subject to
abuse. If you have a blacksmith who fixes a sword, expect him to be
confronted with every metallic object in your game afterwards. If a wizard
casts a spell, he should answer questions on magic, and have a very limited
repertoire of spells. And if a beast eats a glove, expect the cruel players
to attempt to feed it that poisonous ginsu weed you mentioned 8 rooms back.
As long as an NPC is suitably tested and annoyed, you'll have no problems in
To end, here's a short example of how a player might treat Sam the grocer, if
he were to be so unfortunate as to meet the player. Watch for examples of
the techniques I've mentioned.
The Grocery Store
You are surrounded by food and drink of every description. Towards the
rear of the shop lies a deli, with a banner overhead proclaiming "For Kosher
Meat, we can't be beat!" Next to the stand is a barrel of pickles. A fat,
elderly woman works the register. The back room is to the east.
There is an old man wearing an apron here. Clutched in his mouth is the
nastiest cigar you've ever had the pleasure to be downwind of. Wiping his
hands on his apron, he extends his right hand to you to shake. He speaks
around the cigar, sounding quite a bit like Mel Brooks. "Hullo. I'm Sam.
Welcome to my humble store. You want meat? Oi! Have we got meat. You want
cheese? We've got so much cheese that our mice die of indecision. And
bread? Oi! Such a selection we have! The only thing we don't have is
bananas. Never could stand them, all long and yellow and firm, the smug
bastards. My first wife left me for a banana. Speaking of bananas, that's
my latest wife, Ethel, minding the register. Don't worry, she's been
>look at sam
Sam is old and fat. He wears a dirty apron and smokes a cheap cigar.
His hair is black, curly, and unkempt, matching his moustache in all but
curl. Still, Sam's hairline is receeding, as you can tell by the faint
scent of rogaine as he nears you.
"What are you, some sort of maladjusted pervert? In my day, men
didn't kiss men. At least I think they didn't. Who knows, stranger things
Your hands close around Sam's throat, and you squeeze your hardest.
Sam only smiles and nods approvingly. "My boy, you would make a fine
masseuse! Oi! What hands!"
>ask sam about pickles
"Pickles? So what's there to know? They're green, they float, you
eat them. You want them, I'll let them go for $1 apiece."
>ask sam about mice
"Don't you worry about the mice. Those mice eat better than I ever
did. Still, they ever get out of hand, I slip some of Ethel's fruitcake in
the back room and you can watch them stampede out the front door."
>ask sam about fruitcake
"Oi! You ARE crazy. Still, you take a piece of that fruitcake off
my hands, I'll give you $5!"
Sam quietly slips you $5, not wanting Ethel to notice.
Sam follows along behind as he sees you walk into the back room. "Hey, what
are you doing? You can't go back there! Don't make me call the police,
The Back Room
Filled with old, expired food, the back room is a haven for mice of all
kinds. Big ones, little ones, fat ones, skinny ones. There are even a few
that could probably take your arm in two bites.
Sal stands behind you, wringing his hands and asking you to leave.
Suddenly there is a mad scramble as the rodents head for the front
door, en masse. Soon the store room is cleared of mice. Sal hugs you.
"Oi! I never really thought that would work. Just a joke, don't you know?
Still, you've saved my store, so let me present you with a token of my
thanks. Taking you by the hand, Sam pulls you back out into the main store,
back to the deli, and makes you a six foot submarine sandwich, the way only
he can. Truly a handsome reward. With the $5, you buy lottery tickets, and
win 40 million the next week. You move to Rio and live your life in the lap
of luxury. Congratulations!
< R I A lonely shipwreck survivor is swallowed by a mysterious | ~~\ >
< E G fog bank in the Bermuda Triangle, and meets his destiny... | /~\ | >
Excellent topic. I was hoping this would create a bit more discussion,
but since nobody else has bitten yet, I guess I should jump in myself.
|> ...Here's a list of things
|> that a sucessful author is aware of with his characters:
|> 1.) Personality Quirks
Yes. Absolutely. A strong, individual personality is vital. This is
true is most art forms, so not suprising it's true in IF as well.
|> 2.) Motivation
|> 3.) Physical Appearance
|> 4.) Speech Characteristics
I consider this one outlet for demonstrating personality. Others might
include facial expressions and pecuiar habits and ways of doing things.
|> 5.) Actions
Giving NPCs more initiative and their own goals and desires will definitely
make them appear more alive and not merely objects for the player to
interact with. This also relates to motivation in that the actions of
the NPC should relflect on the deeper questions about the NPC's motivations.
|> 6.) Reactions
|> 7.) Abilities
Now here are two more to consider. Development and emotion.
By development I mean that NPCs should not be static -- particularly in
their relationship to the player. If a player's actions cause the NPC to change
how they behave towards the player, then the player may not be as willing to
insult and even kill NPCs. (Not that I'm suggesting to not prepare for such
cases...). Note that I have used the word "developoment" and not "learning".
"Learning" has too many conotations in AI circles for being related to learning
new concepts and problem solving search knowledge. I don't mean these things;
I mean the kind of characters that aren't as friendly after I insult them
instead of just making a clever comeback and then acting as if I never insulted
them. This also adds to the player's sense of freedom -- what the player
does really does seem to matter.
Emotion also seems to be an important element in good characters in other
kinds of art, so we might expect it the be important in IF. NPCs are able
to express their goals and personality by becoming happy, sad, angry, afraid,
etc. in response to particular situations.
I would personally like to see IF get away from object-and-puzzle based
stories where NPCs are really just objects to use. I want IF to be real
drama where NPCs are characters to interact with and develop relationships
with. Until NPCs are made to be more believable, I don't think that this
An excellent example of this occurs in the new Nick Cave novel; he tries to
give his characters a southern accent, but as he's Australian and clearly
doesn't know shit about the south, he just ends up sounding like an
incompetent imitator of Faulkner on heroin.
Which he is. But that's not the point. The point is, it's a lot better
(IMNSHO) to have:
Big Daddy Julepbreath waves you to a seat. "Well now, boy.
Explain to me just what the hell you was doing up in that barn loft
with my bluetick hound Mabel."
Big Daddy Julepbreath waves you to a seat. "Whale naow, boah.
'Splain to me just whut the hail you was doin' up in that barn loft
with mah bluetick hound Mabel."
You can still convey nuances of tone, inflection, and regional color--like
"was" with second person singular, without making your reader's life more
difficult. Whizzard, if you will notice, does this in his example: Sam's
Brooklyn vowels aren't spelled out as such, but I certainly have no trouble
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