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NPCs to Designers: Shut Up

March 17, 2008

Suppose a you came to visit me in Savannah, and in your first 30 minutes here, I had you talk with 20 of my friends who had information about the area that would make your understanding of it richer. They didn’t want you to do anything for them, no quests per sae. Your likely response? “Brenda, can I just explore and figure out what I’m interested in first? Can I at least develop the interest and the question before you shove someone at me with an answer to a question I didn’t know I had? And I mean, is all this history necessary right now?” Seems silly in the real world, and it’s not a whole lot different in games.

I thought of this in response to a question reader Nightrise asked:

Instead of having an NPC standing around waiting to deliver an item [edit: or some information] to you like some kind of in-game loiterer, what do you think would be a better way to implement them? Is it better to just have books and bookshelves instead of book and bookshelf NPC’s?


Sort of.

As designers, we have a tremendous tendency toward sharing everything we’ve uncovered about our world. Think of it as “parent syndrome.” This game is our baby, and we’re going to tell you about it, several dozen times if you let us. Does the player really care? Do they need to know?

Maybe not. Probably not.

We do. If we want to make this world come to life, we need to know everything about our world, its people and its history. It’s in that knowledge that we’ll make the funky connections and pull a great story off. Mark Nelson, the story designer behind Oblivion, recently told me that he uses somewhere around 25% of the information that’s generated for a game. I’d wager that the percentage would actually be lower if Mark included the stuff that he grokked but never documented, considered while he drove to work and talked over with his fellow designers.

Sometimes, we feel compelled to share all that information with the player. It’s so important to us that we’re unable to figure out what might be important to the player. So, we create “bookshelf” NPCs whose job it is to stand around and spew information about the world. Just in case. [Edit] I’m not necessarily talking about quest givers here, either. I’m specifically referring to those NPCs whose sole purpose is to stand around and give information only. [end edit]

It’s a huge problem, and the problem is this: we’ve stopped trusting the player. We fear that if we don’t give them all 200 pounds of our documentation through dialog, books or whatever, that they won’t see the magnificent world that we’ve built. They won’t be able to truly enjoy it. It’s a selfish tendency we have, but it’s not unlike most artists who want their admirers to understand a piece’s depth whether it’s a painting, a movie or a book. It happens without us even intending it.

There’s another trust issue here, too: we fear that what we’ve created isn’t interesting enough by itself if left alone with the player’s imagination. So, we start adding stuff to make our world seem richer. Just in case. We forget just how powerful imagination can be. The Sims series does a great job of providing nothing and letting the player fill in all the blanks. It trusts.

So, on behalf of NPCs everywhere, next time you consider using an NPC as a bookshelf, think twice.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2008 11:24 pm

    Some of us care. I think. =D

    The catch is, much like comedy, the delivery. Rich and entertaining quest text is rare. Most often players are seeing a textual version of the Peanut’s teacher “mumblemumble-blahblah-yaddayadda” and we just skip to the ‘OK’ button and see how many mobs we need to kill or how many grotesque mob innards this person wants us to collect.

    The second part is not everyone plays the game 24/7 and even when we do we’re not necessarily doing a continuous quest chain all in one go. So all that lore, background, etc.? It’s already been forgotten.

    Lore and all is important, but it needs to be consistent and interesting. Most importantly, to get *us* to care, it needs to be presented in a way that promotes interest and retention. Reading boring text that has no impact doesn’t do that. Not in school, not in life, not in games.

    But yeah… the whole “talk to 20 people for the story” stuff needs to stop. Really. Right now. Before the designers just plop quests into their little NPC containers and send us gallavanting through the wilderness, apply just a teeny bit of thought into whether it actually makes sense. How many quests have I done where I’m told “Great! Congratulations! Now go talk to Joe NPC!” Meanwhile, Joe NPC is standing *right next to us!* Why tell me to talk to someone standing right here? *YOU* talk to him, Mr. NPC. Better yet, Joe NPC would obviously overhear us, why doesn’t he just speak up himself?

  2. March 18, 2008 6:06 am

    Talyn – excellent point about the delivery. You’ve just given me ideas for at least 3 more posts. 🙂 I also edited the main post to specify the NPCs that are the primary offenders. It’s even worse when they don’t have quests to give.

  3. March 18, 2008 9:33 am

    The whole “just in case” thing CAN be okay. Extra information about the world is fine… as long as it’s optional.

    The problem with NPCs is that if even a single NPC in the game has to be talked to for gameplay reasons, the player MUST talk to ALL of them, just to be sure. In this case, the problem runs deeper than bookshelves: it’s like we’ve given the player a task, “talk to every NPC everywhere,” and only a few of those interactions have a meaningful outcome. The rest of the time it’s time wasted, which is frustrating. And it means the NPC interactions aren’t optional, but forced.

    So, I’d say that it’s BETTER when NPCs don’t have quests to give. If all NPCs in a game are entirely backstory, with no one EVER giving the player items or quests or anything that advances the game (AND if this is made clear to the player at the beginning), then the player can feel free to ignore them.

    There’s a problem with that, though. Suppose a player is interested in one small section of the backstory but doesn’t care about the rest. Which NPCs to talk to is not a meaningful decision, because you’re given no information ahead of time about what they’ll say. You enter the conversation blind. So even if NPCs are purely optional, you either get none of the backstory, or all of it. Drat.

    Of course, this still doesn’t answer the question of what to do with NPCs, if not use them as bookshelves. Some ideas:

    * For backstory, use bookshelves, notebooks, computers, etc. — and put context clues around them so that the player can figure out what kind of information is where (e.g. if you find an office that belongs to a certain character, you’ll probably find notes about that character in there). This lets the player choose what to read, and gives them enough context clues that it’s a real decision whether to read something or not.

    * I’m also reminded of the “blood in the gutter” from Understanding Comics — the idea that what you DON’T show/tell is as important as what you do. Instead of including all that backstory in the world, leave it out, and let the player fill in their own blanks. Brenda hinted at this in the original post. (This has the side benefit of reducing the chances of your plot accidentally containing inconsistencies.)

    * Of course, none of this says what NPCs *should* be used for. Maybe they shouldn’t exist at all, but then the game will have a lonely feel to it. That’s fine in games where loneliness is a theme (Shadow of the Colossus), but it’d look downright strange in others (GTA). If the world is populated by lots of NPCs so that it looks like a real, breathing world… what do they do?

  4. March 18, 2008 2:20 pm

    What’s funny is, when I started writing the third draft of NightRise, I sort of realized that there had been too many bookshelf NPC’s, so I cut them out entirely. The game’s story is too fast-paced for people to be talking about the backstory, so I decided to take alternate approaches to conveying it. One of these approaches I’ve already started, which you can see up at the game’s website (, where I am conveying the backstory in a graphic novel format. This way, it doesn’t interfere with the player’s time at all, and they can read it whenever they want, in or out of the game.

    It really comes down to a matter of time. If the player has hours to kill reading backstory in game, they probably will. However, most people play a game to… well, play a game. Not read it. So I think, if you need to convey the backstory in some way, it’s never a bad idea to find some alternate way to do so. Plus, it expands the universe of your game beyond the borders of the box.

  5. March 18, 2008 2:42 pm

    Good points raised, when I play a game with a new world, I like to explore it – I do ask around sometimes, but it’s sometimes more fun to just run around it.

    I like the option of having more stuff to talk or read about. For instance, in Portal, not one of the computers you see (or destroy!) you can interact with – I got more backstory out of the promotional site (backstory which was humorous and could have even been copied into the game as an optional element) then from the game itself.

    I don’t like having every NPC being talkable – at least in an in depth way – since it means searching the ones with stuff I like out (Oblivion…grrr…didn’t help that everyone had the same voiceactor). Of course, there is fun in that – if it’s pretty obvious that big grunt with a gun at the bar who’s eyeing you, won’t be up for a friendly chat about the local tourist spots – I might even want to be penalised if I start asking him about them and interrupting his drink 😀

    NPC’s are too nice, hehe 😉

    Optional texts are nice for backstory. Usually the story and gameplay revolves around now, and so the backstory is near irrelevant (the start of the story likely upsets the normal pattern of the last hundred years anyway!). If I like a game, I might want to read this, and text gives me time to. It also allows me to re-read it later.

    The Witcher was nice – when you right clicked a book (and yes, sometimes when you talked to NPC’s), it added the relevant info to the info screens (in categories about monsters, characters, factions, places, history, etc.), in easy to read ways. It kept your characters memory intact, especially for NPC’s you had a long relationship with, where it recorded what happens with them throughout the game (and stores what you know about their past too). This is great!

    I think I’d like it to be like a museum – all the set pieces (massive castles, huge war machines, temples, cities, people…) all have backstories, but unless I’m truly interested in them, I don’t usually go looking for the tour guide, so don’t force me to talk to him! A nice “get to the point” item might be good for some games – although if you’re good, supposedly it means you are never to the point and will listen for hours what the king has to say about past wars…Zzzzzz…

  6. James Caskey permalink
    March 19, 2008 2:13 pm

    Mass Effect falls into this trap hard. I’m sure you’ve heard of the lengthy dialog trees and the hundreds of NPCs that want to tell you the history of life, the universe and everything. Not only that, but many people you talk to, or items you look at or pick up will add entries to your “codex,” a sort of encyclopedia that ends up providing information on anything you see in the game.

    In some cases it’s nice to have, when you’re curious about something you’ve found or want to know more about something. On the other hand, it can take away from the exploration experience. It really goes against the “do, don’t show” rule.

  7. Daniel Eißing permalink
    March 20, 2008 3:08 pm

    I personally experienced bookshelf NPC never as a problem, as long as the important ones (those giving the quests) were clearly distinguishable from them.

    For me those NPC who are chatting off non elementary bits of the world, do a good job in suggesting that there is more about world, than me and my adventure. Thus making the world deeper, making it more realistic.

    But with the danger of repeating myself: I don’t want to approach a NPC to find out if he/she has to say anything important.

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