RPG Grind Time – The Importance Of Crafting Interesting NPCs

by Kimberley Wallace on May 28, 2017 at 06:25 PM

One of my favorite things to do in RPGs is immerse myself in the world. I chat with everyone and learn every intimate detail. As we’ve seen through the years, developers are placing more emphasis on creating bigger, more realistic environments, both physical and social. I couldn’t be happier about this, but one area I hope gains more depth as the genre evolves is NPC development. I’m not talking about party members; I’m talking those random, minor characters you bump into along the way. I’m over the days of them merely being background decorations, muttering tired, repeated dialogue and not being a living, breathing members of their communities. While the journey should definitely focus on the main characters and overarching narrative, NPCs are essential to selling the experience, and are an asset when it comes world-building. Developers should craft rewarding moments for interacting with them, whether it’s a cool questline, interesting tidbit, or even tangible rewards such as new items or weapons. 

I don’t expect every random person I interact with to have a compelling story, but I’d like to think, "I’m glad I took the time out of my adventure to talk to that stranger" more often. For instance, The Elder Scrolls’ M'aiq the Liar is a recurring NPC I look forward to finding every game. Not because he has some expansive questline, but just because I want to see what crazy thing he’ll say next. After all, he’s touched every topic from fish sticks to nudity. Similarly, Fallout’s Harold, a mutant who resembles a tree, has his own arc that expands across entries and takes interesting twists and turns. Some of my favorite interactions in the Fallout: New Vegas’ Old World Blues DLC came from a toaster...who simply happened to be hellbent on destroying the earth. Extra creativity can go a long way and break up the tedium of a long journey. 

The Legend of Heroes: Trails series’ calling card is the detail of its NPCs, from cameo characters Anton and Ricky (who are searching for love for Anton) that appear across games, to dialogue that updates frequently to show the progression in their lives. For instance, a character might tell you they’re crushing on someone, and you can check back later to see if they ever mustered the courage to tell the person. This progression prevents the world from feeling static and artificial.

Of course, NPCs should also be used to showcase the issues going on in the world, especially in terms of politics and war. The best NPCs shed light on the larger conflicts at hand, giving you a more personal glimpse into their impact. One of my favorite parts of Dragon Age is just chatting with the various groups that are at odds to try to figure out who to support and what’s best for the future. BioWare did a fantastic job at showing plenty of gray areas in the Templar/Mage rivalry. There are always multiple sides to every story, and using NPCs to showcase this gives them depth beyond simply being signposts that mutters generic phrases. 

One thing I loved about The Witcher 3 is that it felt like life was going on all around you. You could trigger random events, such as investigating a fire or following a young lost boy. These experiences didn’t always yield favorable results – sometimes poking your nose where it doesn’t belong gets you into trouble – but there is a thrill in that. I still remember telling off a preacher and having him send witch hunters after me as retaliation. I also still have ill feelings toward that little boy. After all, it ended up being a setup where he led me to a group waiting to mug me, but these are examples of how such small interactions can stick with you. 

I’ve written in the past that side quests need to evolve and get more interesting, and making stronger NPCs is another extension of that. As games become more realistic, the people inhabiting them should as well. Many developers boast about giving them their own routines and motivations, which is a step in the right direction. An NPC shouldn’t feel like a cog; they should add something to the world, even if it is a small bit of storytelling. As a player, my favorite part is the excitement of not knowing what or who I’ll find. For now, I just hope these interactions keep improving, giving me more to look forward to every time I explore.