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What makes NPCs and party members "human"?

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu, Mar 14, 2015.

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  1. Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

    Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

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    One of the things about Mass Effect that stood out the most to me was its Band of Brothers approach to party building: the fate of the galaxy took a backseat to Shepard finding exceptional, often haunted people and building them into a team that followed her for her entire adventure. Like most Bioware games I think a large part of their character came from the high quality of the writing, and from the fact that practically everything Shepard did was as a team. It's one of the few games where I made party composition decisions based on who I wanted to see more of instead of pure numerical optimality, and I happily played through the game multiple times in large part just to see how everybody's stories changed with your decisions.

    Writing alone, however, is insufficient: Skyrim lavished incredible amounts of attention into giving some of their NPCs large amounts of dialog and backstory (while leaving a lot of them tragically shallow), but I found that I didn't care- I've played Skyrim numerous times on different characters, and the only characters I can consistently remember are the jester from the Dark Brotherhood, because he was incredibly irritating, and the guys in funny robes who scream at you, because of how long the unskippable cutscenes with them were.

    My game procedurally generates a completely new cast of NPCs every time you start a new game, so I can't rely on writing alone. In its place, I think that giving the player as many opportunities as possible to map narrative into their party: build at least a rudimentary social AI that allows them to watch their party interact with others as they travel, and find distinctive but non-annoying ways for party members to assert their personality as the game progresses. This can be pretty richly done with some very rudimentary things: developing small variations on common animation libraries (movement/idle/combat/response) that conveys personality through body language, just generally give the party chances to do barely enough for the player to write their own story with what they see.

    What other big blocks am I missing? Writing alone can't possibly bring a fully-fleshed character into the world, but Skyrim seems like a case study in how lavish production budget and in some cases extremely complicated technology isn't sufficient to make a character memorable, let alone human.
     
  2. khanstruct

    khanstruct

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    Well, I'm an author, so, while writing my books, I obviously have nothing but writing to rely on. I think your experience with Skyrim simply illustrates that a deep backstory and a pile of dialogue isn't enough. Sure, animation and side interaction can help, but I think it's more about making the character seem more real.

    I can give someone a great backstory, but if it's irrelevant or they don't seem affected by their own history, it can come off as quite flat.

    Make the characters driven by something (typically something from their backstory). Be sure to have this play out in all of their actions, even if it's unrelated. If a character's child was murdered, how does that make them feel day to day? How does that make them react to strangers? Are they hesitant to open up to people? Do they use this past to gain sympathy? To justify horrible actions?

    You can tack on any motivation you'd like: He grew up poor. She's fascinated by magic/technology. He's an introvert and is uncomfortable away from home. etc, etc, etc.

    That's where backstory really becomes important. If every character's backstory is connected directly to the plot, it can feel pretty contrived. Their history is meant to flesh them out as a person, not push them forward along the rails of the story.
     
  3. JoeStrout

    JoeStrout

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    This is a really interesting topic!

    I think a big part of what makes computer game NPCs seems shallow is when they're just plain stupid. When it's clear they're reading lines from a script, oblivious to what's happening around them or what has happened to them in the past. Conversely, the more an NPC seems aware of its surroundings and past events, the more human it will appear, and the more likely players will get attached to them.

    Are you using voice actors for your NPCs? Since they're procedurally generated, I'm guessing not — and I say good for you, because voice acting is extremely limiting. It basically prevents you from generating dialog on the fly, which seems like a basic requirement for believable NPCs.

    For example, after a battle, NPCs should comment on it, based on how difficult it was, how it relates to their past, and so on. Basic comments like "Well that was easy" or "I just about wet myself there" are easy enough, but then later, you should get things like "Whew! That reminds me of the time we were attacked by a troll outside of Crabgate" (perhaps with another character saying, "As I recall, you nearly wet yourself!" and a third character adding, "But you held up nicely this time, didn't you?").

    Note that this pretty much requires a dialog system that allows for background chatter. Dialog shouldn't be restricted to the whole we're-going-to-stop-the-game-and-go-into-dialog-mode thing, or most players will get annoyed and just click through it. But if dialog can scroll by at the bottom of the screen, or appear in speech bubbles over the character's heads, or something like that, then NPCs can comment on what's going on while it happens, without interrupting the flow of the game.

    (Incidentally, I recommend this interesting essay about one player's attachment to the Lydia character in Oblivion.)
     
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  4. Tomnnn

    Tomnnn

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    I think I've consumed enough anime in my life to have some contribution to this topic. Fear / tragedy is a great way to make NPCs and such feel more human. It's something that just about every species with brain function can express. This is used not only writer to audience, but also character to character. Tokyo Ghoul is probably the most recent example I saw.

    Despite humans and ghouls viewing each other as monsters, the fighting usually comes to a full stop when certain things happen. The humans fight with weapons made from ghouls. Ghouls can still sense and identify who the weapons were made from, and to some extent the weapons still hold an amount of consciousness. During a fight between two of them, a ghouls fights a human who is wearing armor made from the ghoul's father. The ghoul is unwilling to go full out and as a result is taken down, but not completely because the human notices that the armor is unusually sluggish in this fight. The fight ends with a sad stare from the ghoul to the armor & then to the human. A full understanding isn't reached, but they do stop fighting.

    Fears, tragedies and weakness seem to be a common theme in so many stories, it must be what we identify with either the strongest or most easily. Or maybe writers just like to screw with people, because the epitome of messed up in that show is where 1 very young female ghoul is hunted by a human using weapons made from her parents xP
     
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  5. Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

    Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

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    That's a really great idea, and something I hadn't considered... I've had a lot of back-back-forth with myself over the dialogue issue- as you guessed I'm not using voice acting, both because of the limitations you discussed and for believeability's sake. Thinking of Skyrim again they had 70+ voice actors, and it was still incredibly obvious that multiple people had the same voice, to the point of outright distraction.

    I've gone back and forth with myself several times over the issue of dialogue: my initial hope was to find a way to avoid having dialog entirely, as it's very challenging to make a procedural dialog system that doesn't sound like a procedural dialog system. I considered a lot of approaches, but at the end of the day concluded that I do need at least a minimal amount of dialog.

    I suspect the best thing anyone can do for their NPCs is to integrate them thoroughly into player agency- interacting with them, and getting a better sense of their character, shouldn't require mashing through text walls- every single thing you do in gameplay terms should produce at least small bits of character feedback. Both Mass Effect and Saint's Row do this very well- your party members offhandedly comment about actions or story developments while running through the mission, which serves to both add flavor and build their character.
     
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  6. hopeful

    hopeful

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    I think it is easy for players to overlook story that is basically superfluous. If a supporting character has some element in their story that is playable in some way - something that affects player tactics - I think that helps.
     
  7. Tomnnn

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    Any thoughts on mechanics like Darkest Dungeon's negative personality traits? They make exploring the dungeon fun / annoying and gives the characters more dimension haha. Maybe some people freak out in the dark and stab themselves, maybe some people can't help themselves and go after some obviously trapped items in the environment. I think there's also one where people tell really bad jokes and it can make your group's stress level go up lol.


    Unfortunately the only solution to this is to actually take the time to give each person in your world a backstory, personality and purpose. They can still have procedural needs to be met in the form of quests for the player, but they'll feel more real and alive if they're personalized per NPC.

    Another thing that makes procedural quests so noticeable? The same pattern or even same quest is possible to happen from multiple characters! Skyrim screwed that up big time with the quests where you have to hunt monsters inside someone's house. I'd have to clear wolves out of peoples houses sometimes 3 times in a row lol. That really made it stick out that some very lazy quest system was in place. If you lower the number of characters offering procedural quests, you can put more into their backstory and establish a more reasonable need for repeatable / procedural quests.

    The character Mia from .hack// is a good example. She needs aromatic grass for reasons that are huge spoilers so I won't say, but it's not really a repeatable quest it's more like an ongoing task. Any amount you come across, you know she will be interested in it for a very sad reason. Building certain needs into a character could be a good way to get around players feeling like quests are a grind instead of a favor to a friend.
     
  8. hopeful

    hopeful

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    I'm not familiar with that game, but it helps if your NPCs are given quotable one-liners or some semi-annoying feature that makes them memorable.

    ("Go for the eyes, Boo!")
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2015
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  9. khanstruct

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    I once had a crazy idea (compounded by the crazy idea of making an MMO). My idea was to have the players actually type what they wanted to say (rather than select from a list of responses). The NPCs would then be designed with some basic sentence recognition, and be programmed to respond to key words. (A shop owner would pick up on things like "buy", "sell", "purchase", as well as the names of all items in their shop).

    The basic functionality of this actually already exists in online bots, so I know it's possible. Although, probably outside the scope of an indie team.

    And, of course, there are all the other issues that come along with this. For instance, some people suck at spelling, and many people will just hate having to type... cuz we're lazy like that.
     
  10. CDMcGwire

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    I believe Ultima implements this system. At least in later titles.

    As for the discussion at large: Use the most recent X-Com as an example of unscripted characterization. Every soldier in your squad is given a custom visual appearance, but the same background. He/She is an elite soldier. That's it. And yet, I've cared more about those soldiers than I have for any MMO character. This is largely because character development. They start as a blank slate, but with every mission, wound, customization, and rank up, the soldier develops a history, weaknesses, strengths, and perceived personality. If they die, that history ends with them and you lose both an asset to the team and a familiar face/name.

    What more, is that character development can go hand in hand with gameplay. You don't need the most realistic reactions to an event, the characters just need to reflect the actions made by the player.

    Did the player fire a gun in the middle of the street? The NPCs run and scream.
    Did you give the NPC food? It likes you more.
    Are you running around in your skivvies? Some NPCs laugh, some are disgusted, and some... Watch intently.

    I think, when designing characters in games, the keys to focus on are making the character active and reactive and having a sense of permanence.
     
  11. Schneider21

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    @CDMcGwire's reference to X-Com reminds me of one of my old favorites: Cannon Fodder.



    Similar to X-Com, there was no back story for any of your soldiers. But with each mission, your soldiers would rank up. I don't know that they had any stat improvements or anything... just an indication of their rank next to their name. Worse, when one of your men died, you'd see their tombstones on a hill in between missions.



    I cared so much about these guys, that I'd often restart a mission if I lost one of them. Which meant I never finished the game because I couldn't get past even the medium difficulty missions without losing somebody.

    GTA IV's The Lost and the Damned expansion did something similar. When one of your gang was killed, their picture would appear with a plaque on a memorial wall in your club house. If nothing else, it made me feel guilty enough for allowing those people to die that I did what I could to keep my current support team alive, even if I didn't know their name.



    I think it can be as simple as this. Obviously there are other motivators than guilt, and the reverse should work as well. If you rescue people as an optional mission objective, seeing them later in the game would give you a sense that they survived because of you, but also that they're actual creatures that may not have existed anymore had you not intervened.
     
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  12. JoeStrout

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    Yoots these days. ;) Back in my day, MMOs were called MUDs, and this sort of interaction was common (on the good ones, anyway). Many NPCs could not only respond to keywords, but to more complex patterns. In other words, they could not only fake a good conversation, but they could actually carry on useful conversation, giving directions or dispensing heals or items when asked nicely for example. Similar things were seen in good single-player text adventures too.

    But yeah, that was back when people were willing to type to play a game. I think a renaissance of this approach nowadays is going to have to wait for reliable speech recognition (which isn't that far off, anyway).
     
  13. Tomnnn

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    I make text based games from time to time to try out new languages. I've been wanting to make one in unity just because of how unnecessary it would be to use a 3D game engine to power a text based adventure instead of making one in javascript / c#.

    Speech recognition could be funny if nearby npcs could overhear you and interrupt the conversation with something unrelated.
     
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  14. Ryiah

    Ryiah

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    Some form of the interactive fiction community still lingers. A quality game may actually sell to some degree.

    What we need is acceptable speech synthesis as well. That way they could talk with each other after they interrupt you.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2015
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  15. AndrewGrayGames

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    Why not make a text-based game, with a full-3D background that's pretty much just there for eye-candy?
     
  16. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    (Jump to 01:04)

    Or, if not text, what about symbol bubbles like The Sims?
     
  17. Tomnnn

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    I think telltale games already patented that gimmick. Burn.
     
  18. AndrewGrayGames

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    No offense, but what do you think you're making? (And, yes, I'm aware you mostly spoke in jest. Mostly.)

    A text game in and of itself requires - at the very least - a console app. In fact, the first ones ran on mainframes, and took a whopping hundreds of kilobytes. In C# you could probably get a text game engine thrown together, with passing feature tests, in the space of a week. Maybe two if you're really OCD about it.

    You know, we really should start recommending the newcomers to do that...
     
  19. CDMcGwire

    CDMcGwire

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    That was pretty much my first reaction when I started using Unity.
    "A fully featured 3D game engine! Wow!... I'LL MAKE A TEXT BASED GAME!!! :D"
     
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  20. Tomnnn

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    It's a great way to learn. Great way to see what unity objects get represented as with toString(). Could be the deciding factor in a networked game if you serialize objects with your own method or with a tostring method.

    Make newcomers create a text based adventure in C# to learn the language? I recommend that for every language. Or least text based tic-tac-toe. I somehow made a memory leak in C when I used it to write tic-tac-toe :D

    Even in a serious response, there would be 96% jest, it's just how I manage to put sentences and thoughts together. I don't think I'd have to make much to compete mechanically with telltale. If you translated every keystroke in this topic into interactivity, you'd have several telltale titles worth of gameplay. That might have been a little meaner than intended :p

    I dunno why I dislike them for what they do, but I do lol. It's like a watered down text based adventure, because you have preset options, some of which have no impact on progression. In their defense I will say they're probably 1 of the few companies who could understandably not allow players do stream / upload footage of their game.

    What am I making... hmm... as far as text based things go, not much. My last text based adventure was written in Java 3 years ago in the summer. In Unity in general? Small parts that look good on a resume. I've got very few complete games, and I probably wouldn't sell any of them.

    Text game engine? that sounds a little overkill for what they are haha. Make a few structs / classes, define some interactions, have a main while loop, done.
     
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  21. Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

    Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

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    That's actually what I did as well... mainly because I knew my very first practice game would be terrible no matter how simple I made it, and the idea of using Unity to make a text game hurt my friends' heads. :)
     
  22. Tomnnn

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    I'm sure it turned out better than the slaughtering grounds.

    Maybe someone should host a competition for text based games in unity. Seems to be a thing most of us are capable of and will do at some point anyway.
     
  23. TonyLi

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    The developers hid a text game in Terra Monsters 2 as an easter egg. They were using the Dialogue System anyway, so I guess it was easy to write a little extra and throw it in as a fun bonus. If you want to talk overkill, you could look at Terra Monsters 2 as a text game -- with a complete JRPG wrapped around it. :)


    Getting back to the original topic:
    I agree with @khanstruct - perhaps the key is quality of writing, not quantity. And writing interactive fiction, where the player has agency within the story, is very different from traditional fiction. I think the same driving principle applies equally to hard-coded interactive fiction (like Mass Effect) and procedurally-generated interactive fiction: players have to care about how their actions affect the NPCs around them. If you can nail that, you're done.
     
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  24. Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

    Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

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    I think this is a really excellent point. I think two of the qualities that a large number of games with memorable cast share are consequences and results: everything you do reflects into the gameworld (and thus, them), and every choice needs to feel like it has weight behind it.

    I'm finding that the hardest part isn't making your NPCs part of the story, but showing it. In my case, my simulation is detailed enough that I can make even tiny player actions have a big effect on their party (your lab tech is tired because you set up a roadblock last night that was on his commute home, or your partner is angry because your actions toward a recent suspect touched on personal backstory/sensitivities), the problem is finding a way to make that effect visible.

    I'm confident in my own writing skills, but I'm not confident in the player's interest in reading it. Mashing through text walls is super-passive, and since I'm already bothering to simulate a pretty large number of NPCs, I'd like to come up with a system that can be applied to non-party members as well, so you can basically use NPCs to "read" the state of the world.

    I think one of the big things that makes me avoid text is that time management is a core gameplay mechanic: the clock runs 24/7, and currently the only thing in the world that can stop it is opening the main menu. I don't want you frantically speedreading conversations, which means major dialog sections would need to pause the clock, and I don't like the idea of having that many starts and stops- if you're doing time management as a central mechanic, every single action and sub-mechanic needs to feed toward maintaining a pleasing, consistent pace of play.
     
  25. Atmey

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    I really like how the Tales series (JRPG) done it, alongside with the general interactions and cutscenes, they added a skit scene, after attaining a certain condition you are prompted to click select to initiate a small conversation between the party members that is completely optional, usually include the party's opinion about a certain particle of clothing or a city and other small talk.
    The fact you have to initiate it felt much less intrusive than a mandatory cutscene as the content is less than canon, these types of smaller details give much of a personality to the characters.

    In blazblue many lines of the usual moveset line differ when fighting a certain opponent or reach a certain part of the story, I thought it was pretty cool and divulged more of the character.

    I am not saying the Mass Effect approach was bad, but sometimes I find these character kinda boring, I thought Mordin was meh until I heared him sing.

    Having a huge city with everyone has a different fact to say to you is unrealistic and boring, usually about something you don't care about. Talking to everyone feels like a chore rather adding a sense of exploration.
     
  26. TonyLi

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    Maybe that's part of the writing challenge -- taking risks on character quirks that you hope will snag the player emotionally.

    I agree! But if one of the NPCs is quirky in a way that you care about and you feel like you can affect in a way that the NPC cares about, it transforms him from an information kiosk into a real character.

    So perhaps good writing alone can bring a fully-fleshed character into the world? Are there pieces that you can assemble procedurally in a way that will still make the player care?
     
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2015
  27. Kemonono

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    I'm just going to ask a question here..

    but how much does it matter that the NPC's take actions i relation to the players agenda?

    There is a lot of npc's that have their cropfield infested by wild boars, or cellar overflown by rats,
    but I'm pretty sure they don't give two S***s about what my wishes are.
    And in contrast, I found the npc's of Dragon Age: Origins very interesting, not only because they had their own agenda,
    but also because they had very strong opinions on your own agenda.
     
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  28. Tomnnn

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    @Kemonono It is indeed more believable when npcs care about their own lives more than yours, unless something happens in the story that makes everyone believe that you're about to stop the world from ending haha.

    Also love that "wild boars in the cropfield" cliche haha. What's with farmers and being attacked all the time? Can't writers imagine some other reasonably helpless target? It's old and overdone, but given that so many stories have medieval or fantasy theme, the technology is bad so farms are really the best targets for monsters because that's where the food is xD

    Poor farmers. They are victims of their environment.
     
  29. Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

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    I can, and I suspect this might be a case of story outweighing presentation: with the procedural dialog system I'm building, the major challenge isn't the technical aspect, but the need to keep everybody from sounding the same. I've considered a lot of ways to handle this, but I think the best option might be tentatively leaving everyone with the same dialog parameters and seeing if individual stories are enough to differentiate people. My thinking is that if the dialog generator can make sufficiently dissimilar utterances the similarity in delivery might not be noticeable, but if I try to give different characters linguistic quirks/personality, it might break immersion more than identical speech patterns, as you would come to easily recognize each "personality", which I suspect would be disruptive in the same way recognizing the same actor voicing different characters is.
     
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  30. AndrewGrayGames

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    Not if they're victimizing it first. Maybe we wouldn't need to kill 387,821 Lv.6 Boars in Elwynn Forest if them there farmers hadn't decided "poppin' a cap in Bambi's Momma" was a good thing, would we?
     
  31. Tomnnn

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    I see what you're going for. I think deforestation and invading the wild lands is a better way to describe the farmers as being evil :p

    But from a human perspective, all other life is worthless until we deem otherwise. And once we have deemed something useful, we breed the crap out of that life in captivity and inject them with all kinds of drugs so they grow 3 times bigger in 1/3 the time.
     
  32. TonyLi

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    I wonder if you can focus your procedural generation more on action than dialogue. Dario D'Ambra recently posted some articles: "Gameplay as a language" and "Performative storytelling." Look past the non-native English writing to some really good ideas. He draws this distinction between traditional and interactive storytelling:
    What if your procedural generation focuses less on generating causes, effects, and motivations; and instead focuses on designing actions that the player can take (even one-off dialogue actions) and let the player fill in the motivation.
     
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  33. Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

    Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

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    I think that's a very excellent idea- I've been hesitant to include dialog from the beginning, because the core game loop is time-bounded and intended to be exceedingly smooth, and every time you stop and start talking to someone, you're getting out of the entire game economy in a way that feels disruptive and doesn't add much.

    I've toyed with the idea of "drive-by" conversation, where based on relationships + plot + whatever certain players get prompts as you walk by, as in "X to high-five," or "Y to commiserate in passing about how tough last week's case was". I don't really like pop-up command prompts, as they feel very intrusive to the world, but I think that may be a far better option.

    (One of my early prototypes didn't have any talking at all, in its place you had two single-target "spells" that respectively said nice and nasty things to whoever you aimed at. I ended up not using it because it was easy to abuse and felt kind of silly, but it preserved your notion of making conversation/character building action-oriented.)
     
  34. AcidArrow

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    No it didn't. Mass Effect has much more lines of dialogue dedicated to your companions than Skyrim did. Actually I don't think they even tried much on that aspect of the game.
     
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  35. RockoDyne

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    There are plenty of characters in Skyrim that aren't badly molded (the female blacksmith in Whiterun is a decent example), but once you finish the one or two quests involved with them, they effectively become walking street signs and vending machines. Characters essentially stop being a part of the world, as ironic and backwards as that seems when compared to how much work goes in to articulating them in. Everything in Skyrim is breadth without much depth, characters included.
     
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  36. AcidArrow

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    I agree and that's why they aren't "human". They have to have interesting stuff to say at all times. Your companions in mass effect have new things to say all the time and interact with the conversations you have with other people. They always have new things to say.

    It's... the curse of all open world games. Not only character wise. I like messing around in open world games (GTA, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim), but if I don't force myself to follow the main story (so that things happen and there's some sort of plot), I quickly lose interest. And that's why, suddenly the world feels empty and dead, because, nothing of interest happens. There are a variety of systems in place and they are fun the first time you encounter them, but after a while everything sort of feels the same.

    I believe Skyrim did it a tiny bit better, because even though it was shallow, it had a ton of mini-events and quests you could stumble upon (like, I was really excited with how the dark brotherhood questline started, I didn't expect it, or that quest that a random npc comes at you and gives you an item and then runs, with guards asking if you saw anyone afterwards). It made the world feel alive again for a bit and it kept me going. Until I felt nothing I did mattered again, so I stopped playing again.

    Mass Effect has a much more controlled environment. At the expense of open-worldness it is able to have more depth and keeps things moving at a certain pace. Hence the world feels somewhat more alive.
     
  37. Tomnnn

    Tomnnn

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    When ever I get that feeling, I install the warzones mod. If the game can't push a good story / dialogue, at least it can handle an army of draugrs fighting an army of humans while 3-5 dragons and several giants attack all sides.
     
  38. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    I think that's what's interesting about @Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu 's project. Most open world games have procedural systems for things like spawning monsters, managing city traffic, spawning random combat encounters, etc. But the stories are always hand-written. If the stories -- that is, the character-driven motivations for the player to interact with those systems -- were procedural, it would give players reason to keep playing.
     
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  39. Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

    Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

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    That's the crux of what I'm trying to nail here, and it's why I keep coming up with these small roadblocks that I need to think through very carefully. In my mind, the very best thing about Dwarf Fortress is the stories. I've played it, and I've had some fun adventures building massive engineering projects, but the most memorable experiences were always the ones where small futz-ups led to large failure chains: a dwarf goes nuts and destroys a masterwork item, the creator of that item goes into a berserk rage upon seeing his best work destroyed and ends up ripping someone's arm off with his teeth, never letting go of it, and spending years walking around with an arm in his mouth before the smell attracts a herd of elephants which tramples him, and proceed to stampede into the fortress and murder everybody.

    In my mind, the two most important things that enable this sort of incident to occur are:

    a) a deep but simple framework which allows the player to instantly understand the chain of cause and effect. Complicated simulations are worthless in a game if the player can't appreciate or comprehend them.

    b) empathy for at least a couple of dwarves. You remember that awesome sculptor from last generation and feel bad when his son gets eaten by a carp, or accidentally end up breeding an entire dynasty of awesome dwarf wrestlers. The more invested you are in the characters, the more meaningful the cause and effect chains become.

    I actually have almost all of my game ecology finished, and NPCs will interact with each other convincingly and retain a memory of prior incidents good and bad, but the big challenge is that the player doesn't need to care. Right now every single NPC is effectively an empty shell that clues and resources come out of when you poke them. The ecology is nuanced enough to make manipulating it sort of fun, but you can get away with treating people like treat dispensers in a way that cheapens the entire experience. To remedy that, I'm thinking about stuff like this thread as a way of trying to make every act of game economy involving the NPCs help the player to map narrative into those same characters, so that when you start noticing the ways your actions ripple through the community it brings a real sense of narrative weight.

    I think I'll know I have a pretty good balance when I can tempt the player to do things that aren't in their best interest- find another way to get the information even though you have a lead, because the eyewitness is the son of a family who helped you out in past investigations, and you know that if you get him involved the chances of the family not accidentally getting shot in the head by local criminals will decline sharply.
     
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  40. Kemonono

    Kemonono

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    @Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu you start to sound an awful lot like everquest next when they still wanted to use storybricks ( http://www.storybricks.com/tech.html ). At any rate, I think I'm a big fan of building up a world outside of prescripted trigger actions, so it would be interesting to see where thats headed.

    I went back and forth yesterday and weighted Skyrims npc against Mass Effect.
    And still came to the conclusion that it is not the quality of the writing, the amounts of dialogue or the background story that makes the npc's in Mass Effect come alive whilst in Skyrim they appear as decorative set pieces.
    But it is the fact that they have an opinion about you, and what you are doing, and takes choices based on your actions.
     
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  41. AcidArrow

    AcidArrow

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    I think Ken Lavine is experimenting with something similar. I like the idea, but can you have a "proper" plot with story bricks? (like a character arc, build up, payoff?)
     
  42. Tomnnn

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    I would probably base a payoff / twist on the initial story brick.

    Initial quest info - retrieve a peanut for the character
    Plot twist - npc is allergic to peanuts
     
  43. Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

    Sendatsu_Yoshimitsu

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    I'm basing the main story beats on what the player pursues. There are a couple of very broad frameworks which you'll definitely come to recognize with multiple playthroughs: corrupt cop ruining the department, serial criminal on the loose, race to find a kidnapped guy, or whatever. Each of these has some pretty predictable inputs, which can be determined by who the player spends time with (e.g. ensure that the main story touches on the people you spend the most time with), and the outputs can be tied in to randomly assembled cases further down the line. The real trick is making each brick's framework extremely broad, and putting enough variety in it that even when you recognize the plot, you can't predict it.

    This is one reason I chose a police game as my narrative framework: police work is very procedural by definition, and by giving the core story a "day in the life" feeling I'm afforded the freedom to include a lot more predictable elements than, say, if I was writing an epic story about a band of rakish do-gooders saving the galaxy.
     
  44. ImAldu

    ImAldu

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    Personally, and I have some experience writing but nothing commercial so take what I say with a grain of salt, I feel writing realistic characters is more than just what they do in the game that affects the protagonist, but what they do in the game that does not directly affect the protagonist. What they do that only affects them personally and nothing else. Something that happens to them throughout the game that you have the option to find out more about.

    I know, bandwagonner here, but The Last of Us is an excellent example of this. All of the little optional dialogue that happens only if you press triangle in certain moments gives insight as to how the characters are feeling right now. What is bothering them, what they are thinking to themselves, how the previous act impacted them emotionally, etc. This has no bearing on how the game is played, affects the story in littlest possible way, but offers the player a deep connection to these characters without being told how to feel. You could totally disagree with the way Ellie feels about killing these people, but it adds this deep personality to her that you often times don't see in games. It's a treat every time you hear her say something about what just happened because you know you don't have to but instead want to.

    Just the feeling that important things happen in the game other than the big plot and big point being made is a great thing for me. It makes everything feel more realistic and makes me feel for the characters.
     
  45. ostrich160

    ostrich160

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    In my opinion, the best and deepest characters are the bad guys who you can genuinely side with. In the real world, people side very much so with the likes of Stalin and Hitler, yet very few people side with say, Carver from the Walking dead game (I mention him because most of the characters in that game are pretty good). And bringing him up is a great example of what he could have been. Is he really that bad, the other characters simply walk from A to B to C, waiting till they die off. Carver wants to build a new civilisation, he wants humans to survive. And yet, despite that, his character handles awful in how they execute it, he's angry (not a bad thing, by the way) and uninspired, and just goes OTT.
     
  46. Tomnnn

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    @ostrich160 that's also a concept explored in Tokyo Ghoul, but also showing both sides to try to make you question which side, if any, is the bad one. There's even 1 scene where it's jumping back and forth between a ghoul lecturing a human and a human lecturing a ghoul about why they deserve to exist and the other doesn't, which is amazing because they give such similar reasons.

    Unfortunately, it fell back onto the typical "my parents were killed by your kind!" think that's been overdone. But it was interesting to see both of them say it.
     
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  47. ostrich160

    ostrich160

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    A generally easy way to do this (Obviously the easy way, not the best way), is logic vs emotion. So for example Survival vs Happiness. So lets say the human race are about to engage in nuclear war. One side wants to stuff people down in dark holes underground, to carry on the human race in misery, the other wants us to spend our last days with our family and then get wiped out. Its not the best system, but its an easy way to start a bit of a debate.
     
  48. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    I don't know what it is this week (maybe just fallout from GDC), but Gamasutra has had more "social NPC" related articles in the past few days than in the preceding year. Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris posted his talk notes, "Thinking About People: Designing Games for Social Simulation", which I wanted to share here since it's very relevant to the design question "what makes NPCs human?" (I also posted this link and another one on NPC romance to the Love/Hate thread.)

    I especially like the section 1/3 down, "6 important considerations for designing social simulations". It almost reads like a checklist for how to make interesting NPCs.
     
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  49. Tomnnn

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    Whoa, let's not get political here ;) lol

    I know where I'd be in that though. Survival is bae. Quality of life is secondary. I'd live post-nuclear war fused with a tree stump if need be.
     
  50. ostrich160

    ostrich160

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    Oh that wasnt supposed to be any kind of religious statement, being religious myself. I guess by logic I meant cold hard numbers.
     
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