I have seen new RPGs marketed as having a “living, breathing world that reacts to you!” That’s all well and good, but I think the life being given to these games is done with the wrong thing in mind.
Most of the examples I come across involve making game environments change in response to player choices. Lionhead studios’ Fable 2 comes to mind first. Depending on the choices you make (mostly either polar good or evil, why that’s a problem is another post entirely) a given subarea of the game can change its environment.
If you make the good decisions the environment will give off a warm fuzzy feeling. Plants will flower, light rays will be turned up to 11, and everywhere it’s a warm sunny afternoon. The grass is green, the water is blue, and … well you get the point. Making the bad decisions is as much an opposite as you can imagine, as the land is corrupted, corroded, and scarred with decay. The land is meant to reflect you and your choices. There’s really only three versions of a subarea of the game, though. Neutral, good, and evil are all the variety we get. We can do better.
Another alternative is a destructible environment, ala the red faction series. I’d never dare criticise the red faction games explosive fun. They did destructible environments right. This doesn’t necessarily make a world feel like it’s alive, though.
If you give the player the ability to destroy the earth, rock, trees, and plant life that could make it feel a bit more real. However, ‘real’ is very much different from ‘alive’. It may react in the same way that setting gas on fire is a reaction, but that’s no different from giving a child a bunch of sandcastles to knock down. They may have fun at first, but eventually you’re just left with a pile of sand.
The World Around Us
It seems that game designers think of the “world” around us as being very tangible. The trees and rocks, the buildings and bridges; these things are the stage for this play. Entertainment largely comes from the actors.
The most in depth play thing available to us, is the human mind. Our interactions with other people, that is what makes up a large part of our lives. Our humanity lies in our society, we are social creatures after all. The relationships we make, build, and spend time maintaining is what creates our world so much more than the wood and stone of the buildings we live in.
If RPG game developers want to make a world feel “alive” it should do for NPC AI what red faction did for destructible environments. The focus needs to be on how we can interact with NPCs, how we’re regarded, respected, or even feared. Blowing up a bridge is fun. Manipulating NPCs to do your bidding is fun. Unlike the former, the latter doesn’t get old after doing it a dozen different ways.
The Way Forward
Instead of consulting an architectural engineer for your next game, maybe consider instead a sociologist or psychologist. Give NPCs a motivation that needs to be discovered and manipulated. Give NPCs the ability to remember things, but also give them the ability to forget after enough in-game time has past. Red Dead Redemption 2 and other games have done a good job of the remembering, but to my knowledge nobody saw fit to make them forget.
Some RPG NPCs remind me of actors in TV or other media. They’re too perfect. How often do you see an ugly person playing a role on your favorite TV series? Probably not a lot, and for good reason. This isn’t very realistic, though. News flash, people are flawed. Put that in video games, could we?
Make some characters awkward. Make some characters ugly. Make some characters a bit weird or unpredictable. Make some interesting, but also make some boring. Something that is also very important, is the variety. Make a lot of characters to be just normal people. I know when you’re creating something from scratch it has meaning to you, and by extent you’d like it to be special. Unfortunately not everyone is a special snowflake, and an accurate world of NPCs should reflect that. Ensure that there is a bell curve, a normal distribution of personalities all throughout. Otherwise a player will go up to a new NPC thinking “alright, spill it, what’s your special thing?”
Build characters ground up with AI building blocks the same way you would a physics engine.
Start with an origin, how did they get where they are. A tragic backstory affects a character different than a privileged one. These aren’t concrete personalities, though. After an origin, or modified by the origin, give them a motivation. After 5 or 6 different categories of these fractions of a personality the combinations that can be created will explode.
The building blocks are all just that, fractions of a whole. NPCs should be a sum of their parts, and if you want to make characters procedurally generated you’ll have to randomize their building blocks.
We have the technology to choose words with variety to fit a sentence, text encoding has been done and can be used to this effect. For any given noun in a sentence randomly swap out with another word that means about the same thing. The time you’d save on writing would be staggering.