It’s Complicated

Ideal NPCs and the space between love and hate

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Adventure Editor's Pick Editorial


As I use my spinning grappling hook to decapitate a foot soldier in the final act of BioShock Infinite, I wonder briefly about the ever-presence of violence in video games.

This does not occur every time I, through a steely avatar, end a virtual life. If it did, I’d be spending much less time playing video games and much more time with a corn cob pipe and brows furrowed muttering, “What does it all mean?” But, my in-game companion, Elizabeth, has already called me a monster for my killing spree, and this has pretty much forced me to take a second and think about the matter.

Violence, like the most basic blocks of computer code, is binary. You are attacking someone or you are not. You are winning and living or losing and dying. What middle ground there is, what opportunity for some other side of human interaction to bore its way into the basic struggle of kill or be killed, is rarely covered by video games, because it’s much harder to program than, “This guy will shoot you if you don’t shoot him.”

Human relationships are not binary, however. And so while video games are pretty good about programming NPCs to freak out if you walk up and hit them with a wrench, they’re less adept at making people’s opinions of you shift on a more minute basis.

I’m thinking less of linear games. BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth regards you with a number of shades of affection and disgust throughout your journey with her, but she has that luxury since the game is set on a fairly straightforward path. While she is one of the more consistently impressive NPCs I’ve come across in a game to date, her emotional twists and turns can adhere to a relatively set script. Without saying too much, I will say that BioShock Infinite is as much about free will and fate as its predecessor was, and so Elizabeth’s beautifully rendered relationship with the player character plays out against that backdrop — but it is a backdrop that does not bend to the player’s will. Her wide-eyed horror, her righteous outrage, and her tender moments of vulnerable affection all happen within a set path on her and Booker’s journey together.

What I’m interested in is seeing how fluid an NPC’s relationship to a player character can be in a game like one of BioWare’s Mass Effect or Dragon Age titles – or the even wider worlds of Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls games. These games all tout social interaction with the world as one of their RPG credentials, but making a live, human player fit into a programmed social net is easier said than done.

In something like Fallout: New Vegas, the world is so large and the possibilities are so vast that they settle for a combined legal system / relationship engine. If you’ve wronged a certain faction by hurting one of their members or accomplishing goals contrary to their aims, everyone in that faction is a bit likelier to attack on sight. If you help a faction and its members, you’ll be greeted in more enthusiastic terms by the populace and may receive perks like lower store costs.

But on a personal level, this is only shallowly effective. You will get people loudly remarking on your exploits (“That’s the guy who killed Caesar!”) and hunting parties sent for your blood (“Ave, true to Caesar!”), and in some cases the effects of your actions will surprise you. I actually found the possibilities in New Vegas superior to those of Skyrim when it came to NPC reactions to in-game events. But on the whole, they have to either approve of your actions and express it through basic means like gifts or friendly greetings, or disapprove of your actions and express that through other basic means like shooting at you or saying hello in a more curt fashion.

In Mass Effect or Dragon Age, the relationships have a little more substance since they, while accommodating different branching plotlines, are set into specific paths. Your party members can feel many things toward you, including outright love, grudging respect, mild dislike and almost complete hate.

I think the original Dragon Age, though in terms of tone and overall story not as enjoyable for me as the Mass Effect games, had the superior NPC relationship AI. Talking to Morrigan, your party’s pragmatic, sarcastic sorceress, I remember it was the most completely I’d felt disliked by a party member in any RPG I’d ever played. Whatever decision I made, she seemed to throw it in my face. It really irked me. Usually, in RPGs, your party members either give you undisputed benefit of the doubt, or at least will be your pal if you work hard enough at it. It was confusing – and actually extremely refreshing – to meet a character who just didn’t like me, and who I was worried might actually walk out on me before my playthrough had ended.

Now it’s true at this point that AI is still defined by a pretty set pattern of “if-then” decisions. And there’s only so deeply that you can simulate human interactions, which are full of pettiness and awkward indecision, neither of which can really be recreated by a computer quite yet. However, in BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth, I wondered if there was an answer: economy.

I’d imagine that Elizabeth’s journey through the game would be less striking and almost certainly less fleshed out if you had not one companion but a party of them during your quest through Columbia. If the game had to juggle your interactions with not only Elizabeth but three or four other NPCs, the whole thing would lose its focus and diminish the potential for something like a real connection between the human playing the game and the simulated one inside the game.

And, in seeing that where big games like Skyrim fail to pass the test of believability is in their huge cast of characters, I wonder what the potential might be for a large, open-world game with only one actual, fully-realized NPC. Something like a zombie apocalypse game, where there can be multitudinous enemies, but only one other real human – your comrade. You’d have to make choices and relate to just one other human survivor, and based on everything from what jokes you made to how often you put them in danger to what kind of music you put on when you two were holed up in your bunker, this one NPC – who all of your decisions directly affect – would grow to love you, hate you, or any area in between. With the removal of all characters with any kind of social interaction possibilities except this single companion, the developers could put in a huge amount of emotional triggers in this single character, and instead of recruiting a huge voice cast, all you’d need is one single actor recording a massive variety of lines.

By the end of the game, you could have a companion who thought you were a callous jerk, but respected and feared you enough to never leave. You could have a partner who, like any good roommate, shared the load of responsibility and felt like they had an equal say in the decisions made. Hell, if you made all the wrong decisions but managed to survive, the game might even end in violence between you and the only other survivor of this terrible apocalypse – the one person who you could talk with, reason with, befriend, romance, reduced to a target to shoot at just like everything else in this stark game world.

Now that would be a type of video game violence that would make me put down the controller for a little while afterward and reflect on what I could’ve done to avoid it.

Filed Under: Adventure Editor's Pick Editorial

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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