Some people think that most other people on this world are wholly uninteresting, and insofar as they think this, they are probably correct. Good personality traits are hard to cultivate, yet nothing else can cause a person to remain interesting to another over a long time scale. As a result of this state of affairs, I find that (1) very few people are interested in engaging their fellow citizens in any sort of meaningful dialogue, for fear that the results will be ineffective or unimportant, and (2) those who attempt to do so must typically confront reactions of stupor, surprise, or even derision. Humans are social beasts, to be sure, but we're usually not outwardly friendly beasts. For the most part, we leave that task to the dogs.
How lucky we gamers are, then, that we can enter the jolly and welcoming land of video games, wherein it seems every character with a speaking role has something substantial to say to us! But is lucky really the right word to use? Upon closer examination, the ubiquity of approachable, talkative characters in games takes on a different likeness. Most games that depend on dialogue (whether it be written on-screen or spoken aloud) for their immersive power seem stilted, bizarre, and alien when compared to real-world experience. The reasons for this problem are at least partially identifiable, and so too, I hope, are the appropriate solutions.
The term "non-player character" originated with tabletop role-playing games, but NPCs of some form or another are now present in a huge variety of video games. Computer and console RPGs supplement NPC interaction with player development and combat; adventure games, with puzzle-solving sequences; first-person shooters, with lots of combat. But even first-person shooters frequently derive a great deal of their gameplay value from NPC interaction. (One need only think of Half-Life or No One Lives Forever.) Even many console-style action games and platformers are now interspersed with dialogue.
The problem, though, is that the vast majority of NPCs speak in a manner that an educated person might write, and almost never in a manner that a real person -- educated or not -- would speak. Allow me to illustrate by contrasting the game designer's common mode of thought with an example pulled from my own spoken, day-to-day interactions with people in the real world. (It does happen occasionally, I promise!)
Three weekends ago I packed my car with all the necessities of amateur astronomy and headed north to Franklinton, Louisiana, where my astronomy society maintains a piece of property under some exceptionally dark skies. Before leaving my hometown of LaPlace, I stopped at my local Shell station to fill up on gas. I'm one of the losers who prefers not to pay at the pump, so I made my way into the station itself. Strangely, the attendant was nowhere to be seen.
I assumed that he or she (usually a she, at this gas station) had run off to the bathroom and forgotten to lock the front door. I stood idly for a moment, and was startled by the sound of glass bottles clanging together behind me. I turned and noticed that the cashier, a rotund black woman of perhaps forty years, had thrust her rather large physique into one of the standing, refrigerated drink cases that lined the back wall. Her front half was obscured while her rump wiggled in the air, and she seemed to be searching for something in the back of the refrigerator, or perhaps in the hidden inventory loading space beyond. I offered a weak "Hello."
She didn't hear me. Her entire body sagged mightily, and as she rested her weight on the shelf beneath her it emitted a dangerous creak. I stood watching for a few seconds before repeating my greeting. The woman straightened and extricated herself from the refrigerator. As she walked toward me, she didn't seem troubled or embarrassed in the least. She said, as she approached the register, "It sure did get cold today. It wasn't supposed to get cold."
As chance may have it, she was absolutely right about the weather. It was supposed to have been a warm day, but the temperature had fallen to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit -- quite chilly by southeast Louisiana standards. Later that evening in Franklinton, it would actually drop below freezing. But for the moment, it seemed more likely to me that the woman's frigidity may have been caused by the full minute that she had spent inexplicably wedged in the refrigerator.
"Yeah, it certainly did," I said. "Could I put ten dollars on pump number one? I'd like a receipt too, please."
"Okay. Just goes to show you, only the good Lord knows what's really gonna happen." She didn't look to me for a reply; instead, she gazed out the window at the sky, as though basking in her God's presence.
I'm sure that at this point in the exchange, space-time forked into two separate universes. In that alternate reality, I said, "Interesting that you should mention that. See, I don't believe in God. Therefore, I don't think that anybody knows what's really going to happen. Although I suspect that the people capable of making the most educated guesses on the matter are the very meteorologists who were wrong about today's weather. I think that their error is one of carelessly dogmatic speech habits. Rather than saying something like, 'The data indicate the weather will be moderate today', they instead say, 'It will be warm throughout the day.' The television meteorologists should be in the business of interpreting the science for people -- not stating their conclusions as facts. When they do this, it engenders unrealistic expectations of accuracy on their part, which in turn are responsible for the feelings of betrayal, resentment, and mistrust that are so common among their audience. Of course, much of the problem should be attributed to an ignorant populace. If the meteorologist says that there's a 20% chance of rain today for a person in a given area, then why do so many of those people become enraged when the weather goes sour?"
But in the real world, I merely proffered a "Perhaps so." She looked at me then, as though she were somehow capable of intuiting the sacrilegious words of my multi-dimensional self in their totality. I thanked her, took my receipt, and left the store. It was a totally surreal and memorable experience, but there was very little verbal interaction between us.
Now, in games, NPCs are generally of two types: those that are vital to the game's plot, and those that aren't. The latter category may be further divided into two subspecies: NPCs of fair to high intelligence, and NPCs of low intelligence. If the cashier had been an NPC of fair to high intelligence instead of a real person, the exchange of words would have resembled this:
"Hello there, and welcome to my store. It's called the LaPlace Shell Station, and although it's not much to look at, I'm pretty proud of my wares. I wish I could say I were the only gasoline vendor in this town, but you'll find a Texaco station just across the road and a BP next door. I don't have any rooms to let, but you'll find a Holiday Inn just south of here along Highway 51; it's cozy, but not too pricey. Anyway, you feel free to look around, and if you need anything, just ask. I'll be here behind the counter, waiting for night to fall... and for my shift to end..."
Had she been an NPC of low intelligence, the exchange might have been:
"Hi. Me cashier. You stranger. You want buy something? Say yes."
Both of these hypothetical NPC scenarios are remarkable; for although they exhibit speech habits totally foreign to the real world, they are all too common in games of every variety. (In neither scenario would the NPC have been burrowing into a frickin' refrigerator, but I digress.) This sort of literary idiocy often hampers even really good games. I have concluded that the way that NPCs have been crafted in the past is terribly flawed. NPCs of every station and walk of life speak and act in a manner that is almost impossible for a person born of this earth to assimilate. If the goal is to make NPCs into convincing characters, they must act in the manner we expect real people to act.
At this point, the game designer's objection may be raised: Everyday people are boring and dull. Gamers don't want to live their lives in the real world, only to come home and play through the same thing in a game.
Fair enough. However, allow me to suggest that if the objective is to create exciting games, turning every NPC into a robotic (but well spoken!) non-human is not a good way to go about it. Instead, give us worlds in which NPCs don't care about who the player is; that way, when they do take interest in the player, it'll be something special. Give us worlds in which NPCs totally freak out when a player enters their house unannounced, or when a player engages in fisticuffs in the street, or when the alien spaceships descend. Give us worlds that we may make into playgrounds, rather than worlds that make playthings out of us.
Model your games after The Last Express. The Last Express is a brilliant game in many respects; so much so that it's worthy of its own article, so I won't spill all the beans here and now. Let it suffice to say that the NPCs are totally independent of the player. They often have conversations among themselves, which the player can only hear by eavesdropping. They have their own agendas and concerns, to which the player is not automatically privy. They move while the player sleeps, speak a variety of languages, and pursue their own hobbies. They are the most believable and authentic NPCs ever designed for a game, and if you think that The Last Express suffers because of it, you're crazy.
And speaking of crazy folk, the next time you're thinking of making an NPC into a "totally crazy person", remember that actions speak much louder than your cumbersome words. Instead of giving the character a ridiculous speech impediment, a penchant for outrageous and unprovoked hallucination, or what have you, why not consider making them burrow into a refrigerated drink rack? I promise you, things like that are crazier than the most deranged words.