I suppose I should learn that, even if I have another article idea in my head, it’s not actually likely that I’ll write the next thing that I predicted I would write. But I do want to talk a little about NPC design today, as an aspect of narrative, and how providing context is the key to impact.
My personal belief is that a strong narrative, in a game, RPG, or other situation, will overcome many other shortcomings. At the MIND Lab we are currently doing a small experiment to see if people have different emotional resonance with characters who appear different visually. I believe there is some effect (and my talk about characters and appearances will probably be some future entry), but I believe the effect of narrative is much stronger.
In order to do this experiment I have become familiar with a program called Garry’s Mod. Through Garry’s Mod I also became aware of the webcomic done with the program, Concerned, which has just completed its long story arc and ended its run. I read the entire comic over the course of a few days and I must say it’s a rather good one. I can’t say if it would be as much fun for someone who never played Half Life 2 or not, though I think there’s certainly some meat there even for people who aren’t familiar with the game.
In order to read the “Author’s Notes” about a comic, one has to click on the “Hide/Show Notes” button beneath it. Even if you have no idea what’s going on, the context for what I’m about to discuss occurs in the following comics – One, Two, Three, Four. Slight violence warning on the first comic in that list. If you read the comics, go ahead and read the author’s notes, particularly for the last of the series.
What the author’s done with this small series of comics is make a “life story” up for an incredibly generic throwaway Combine minion, one minion in a series of long minions that you kill during the course of the game. The game itself does its best to dehumanize even these “human” opponents as much as possible, by providing them with a strange look and a very robotic voice. It also dehumanizes them in the narrative. Concerned acknowledges this the majority of the time, but during this small tangent the comic takes a different turn, providing some meaningful context for the death of one of these random NPCs. The author did it as a joke… and was kind of surprised when it wasn’t taken as one. He points out that it’s kind of weird that somehow, while just kidding around, he made some people care about a Combine solider, when he’d killed dozens of other characters off already, “and nary an eyelash was batted.”
It didn’t make it in to my thesis paper, but I’ve seen this principle at work. My thesis involved watching Gamemasters run live roleplaying games – for the uninitiated. If you don’t know much about Gamemasters, you’ll have to read the paper; I hope to have a PDF of the full document soon. During one of the sessions, I distinctly recall the death of a guard named Bob. “A guard is with you; his name is Bob…” says the GM, and everyone had a good laugh because he was an obvious redshirt, a throwaway, a boring Bob in a sea of Bobs, and destined to die.
When Bob did die, however, the GM said something to the effect of, “Well, someone will have to tell his two sons. And his pregnant wife.” And everyone around the table gasped and seemed disappointed. This was an easy enough, throwaway detail to add to Dead Guard Bob, but somehow even giving him that much context in the world around him made him a sympathetic character.
So why do people care about Generic Minion Frank, but nobody cares about Sandy? Why care about Bob the Guard?
It’s not just the addition of a wife and kids that make the difference here. It could just as easily be a mother or sister, or a group of best friends, or a lonely apartment full of books. Put more simply: Combine Frank’s long tangent gave the character context. Narratively, the author developed a series of people who were around Frank, the friends and life he left behind, a series of hopes and dreams to associate with Frank. In contrast… nobody cares about Sandy. Sandy had no real background. She had PERSONALITY – in so far as she existed to provide a foil for the protagonist of the strip, Frohman, but she had no real backstory. No fears, no hopes and dreams… other than the temporary dream of ditching Frohman. I doubt it was terribly difficult to come up with a backstory for Frank; he had a small family and he apparently loved the ocean. That’s good enough to make him, somehow, more sympathetic than Sandy.
It’s funny how the devil is in the details, and how specificity – even simple specificity – can make Generic Guard #3 suddenly come alive. It’s not always easy to come up with this sort of thing on the fly, if you’re developing an interactive story in particular, but when it comes to creating impact, narrative context makes a huge difference.