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NPC Immersion in Video Games

When modding Skyrim the category of mods that had the most entries for me was undoubtedly Immersion. Little things that made the world feel more real and lifelike, such as arrows spinning in the air after they’re shot (which is what gives real arrows their accuracy.) A noteworthy one was ‘Less Bitchy Lydia’ which sought to modify your companion NPC Lydia’s AI, behavior, voice lines, etc.

I was always drawn to NPC based mods because in a world without real people, making it feel real can be an incredibly hard task for the developers. The type of games I’ll be talking about here are the RPG power fantasy type games. Be they whole series with similar mechanics (Fable, Elder Scroll, Fallout, inFamous, Prototype) or MMORPGs (WoW, BDO, ESO, Tera, and the like.)

The Dream

Everyone has a video game fantasy — an imagination of their perfect game that they can’t wait to see made. Mine is an RPG, and while it would be more than a blog post to go over all the details, there is one in particular that I would appreciate above the rest.

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Why do people go to Cheers? As the song tells us that’s because “it’s where everybody knows your name.” Something missing from many power fantasy games is the aura of esteem that should surround your character. If I’m playing an evil warlord and I walk into a town just next door to the one I slaughtered a year ago, chances are my reputation should proceed me and the people would cower in fear. Likewise if I’m the heroic altruistic champion that saved the town just next door from a troll on a rampage or a bandit attack I would appreciate it if the townsfolk don’t give me the stink eye.

Even in a barren hellscape word of deeds done still travels, but not instantly. If I commit a crime and book it post-haste to the next town, chances are nobody from that town has heard (yet) of said crime. Any given offense should radiate outward over time to imitate the word-of-mouth spread of information in a fantasy world lacking The Internet. This goes for Skyrim and Fable, but it’s understandable, I suppose, If more technology-focused games don’t have this (Fallout games have radio stations, inFamous and Prototype take place modern day.)

Judge a book by it’s cover

You might’ve seen many people poke fun at Skyrim in the same way. The hero or heroine is clad in a full set of dragon armor, with a sword that looks like it was smithed by the devil himself, and yet a roaming highwayman thinks he can mug you for your coin purse. There’s no feeling of greatness here, even when you attack them and halve their health pool by batting your eye they still think they can take you.

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Anybody in their right mind would flee in the face of certain death, and while I wouldn’t expect a bandit to be a genius I do expect them to have the capacity to judge a book by its cover. To do so in the real world is seen as a mistake, a flaw, but if it allows me to wear my infamy on my sleeve then by all means please tell your NPCs to have this exact flaw. If I look scary, at least some of the people I meet should be afraid before I even approach.

This could be abused in a positive way, by donning the armor of the land’s trusted army, my evil character could trick citizens into trusting me more than they would if I strolled up on a skeletal horse of death. Betraying trust is exactly something an evil person would do.

Doing it well

Some games have done fame really well, some have done it ok and others are basically lies with the label of renown.

The first Fable game has you playing a ‘Hero’ character. If you’re not familiar, in the Fable universe Heroes are extraordinary people, larger than life, capable of wielding magic, and are superior in every way to your average joe. This serves the Fable renown/reputation/fame system really well, as you can never be mistaken for a common person.

Even if you’re unremarkable as a Hero you’re still noteworthy. When people come right up and talk to you to tell you their personal story, that’s because they’re talking to a Hero, the same type of individual they’ve heard legendary stories about. You’re a thing of legend, even if you as an individual are unknown.

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In Fable you could be Evil or Good, and that system was separate from how well known you were. You are actually tasked with trying to become more famous as time goes on, in order to get more well-paying tasks. In this medieval world you still have to advertise yourself as a mighty individual. It’s left up to you on whether or not you advertise yourself to bandits to help them or to defend against them (evil or good).

Doing it ok

Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls games have a fame system within guilds, and a law system for each town. Guards from one town won’t arrest you for crimes committed in another town, but fame gathered working for the mages’ guild will persist throughout every guild location in any town. Unfortunately this is fairly limited, as dialog is in short supply (a general weakness of the game to begin with). This begins to scratch that itch of feeling larger than life, but doesn’t quite get there. This is better in Oblivion than Skyrim, as multiple towns in Oblivion have a mage’s guild, fighter’s guild, and dark brotherhood hideout, but in Skyrim there is only a single location for each of these factions.

Some MMOs implement a crime system, and along with it there are faculties for fame and infamy. They reward players that bring in criminals, and reward criminals for avoiding the law. Alongside these systems they allow NPCs to have some small amount of dialog to pertain to the criminal status of the player, but I’ve found these really lacking and feeling more like an afterthought than a feature. Perhaps a particularly well implemented one would be different. Also it’s entirely possible that amongst the myriad of MMOs out there I just haven’t played the one that hits this nail on the head.

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Doing it poorly

Some games use the words like ‘reputation’ and ‘renown’ to try to create a facsimile or approximation of the things I’ve described, but don’t measure up at all. As I mentioned before some MMOs are to blame here, using the systems to solve other gameplay mechanic needs.

WoW has a reputation system, where doing deeds for a faction gives you better reputation with that faction. This allows you to buy better tiered gear from them, or if your reputation is in the red they might actually attack you, with you needing to attack their enemies to earn the reputation back. If you’re not attacked they might throw up some text dialog as you walk by, but it’s from a limited list and gets old fast. Being exalted with Dalaran and being Honored with Dalaran is the same gameplay experience. This reputation system isn’t used for immersion, so I hesitate to call it a reputation system at all.

A few games use the words to mean something else. In Black Desert Online ‘renown’ is a gear score, a measure of how well equipped you are. In Rainbow 6: Siege ‘renown’ is their in-game currency, used to purchase equipment. Someone working on these games needs to retake some english lessons here. Using the terms ‘gear score’ and either ‘gold’ or ‘currency’ isn’t that hard, please.

No witness, no crime

Another NPC immersion quirk that really needs to be improved is something that people poke fun at in the Grand Theft Auto series. You see, the system of crime here is a little flawed. If you pull out a baseball bat and hit somebody upside the head with it in the middle of the street in broad daylight then somebody is going to call the cops on you, you maniac. The system is working as intended in this situation.

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However, if you lead somebody to the middle of a desert, a couple miles from civilization, and punch them in their stupid face? Now how did I get a wanted level? Why are the cops after me? Nobody is around me, there is nobody here for miles yet these sand dunes materialize a few cop cars to chase me down. Now either the NSA has some really good satellites following my video game character all the time or the crime system isn’t very smart. Any negative action is met with a bounty, even after the only witness is killed. This just doesn’t make any sense at all.

For once this is something that Skyrim does right. It can be glitchy at times, but when it works right if you kill all the witnesses the bounty on your head can be removed. More games need to have this system.

Acting funny

I’ve gone over how NPCs should act with fear or reverence at the presence of the player. However something that is also important is reacting with confusion and indifference.

In non-Fable games, where it’s possible a normal-looking guy enters a normal-looking tavern to order a beer, the NPCs around that person should be indifferent to their presence. If I dress and look like the average joe, there’s no reason for everyone near me to be so interested in talking to me. Who could say they’ve never been in a public place in real life and been completely ignored (much to their annoyance) by someone when they wanted their attention. GTA, Assassin’s Creed, and Watchdogs do this well. If you don’t draw attention to yourself you can blend right into a crowd.

Something Assassin’s Creed does right is when you’re parkouring all over the map, people say things and react to you like you might’ve gone mad. This makes sense, if you’re walking down the street and some guy starts climbing on the buildings you’d think he might not be right in the head.

Reactions

Ideally I think there should be a spectrum of reactions.

The first meter would be indifference. Despite how famous you are if the NPC is particularly apathetic to your presence then it makes sense for them to act indifferent to you. Another NPC might have a lower threshold and be more willing to have another reaction.

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The second meter would be reverence and scorn. Do they look up at you in awe of your great deeds, or do they despite your very existence. Being scorned and being feared aren’t the same, though. Someone could despise the things you’ve done but feel no threat. A great and experienced hero would experience this to another hero of lesser morals and terrible deeds, but that also is somewhat weak in comparison.

The third meter would be a measure of confidence or bravado. If the NPC is sure it could take on the player, or beat them in a fight, the NPC might be unconcerned with the player. It would create a sort of fearlessness, and unwillingness to do things they don’t want to do. The opposite side of this spectrum would invoke fear in the NPC. The previously mentioned scenario with bandits facing a dragon-armor-clad warrior would kick in here. We would expect them to either run away or stay out of our way.

I’m sure this system could be perfected and implemented, the challenge is getting the dialog, character animations, and facial characteristics to match the emotion. Maybe this level of detail is a bit much for a $60 game. If games of the future have the in-depth modding capabilities like Skyrim (or better) I would love to see this sort of detail worked in.

Software developer by day, gamer by night. I use medium to write about video games and some of their many aspects.

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