15 February 2012

Animals are the better NPCs…

Video game programmers have been giving you a “friend” to go a bit of your in-game journey with you for decades now. It has always been a nice thing not to be all alone in a virtual world, a friend is someone who isn’t out to get you. Or a major annoyance and the buster of the suspension of disbelief.

There are four basic types of non-hostile NPCs (non-player-characters for those unfamiliar with the lingo) in video-games. The first two types of NPC are relevant bystanders, such as shop-owners and quest-givers, and civilians, who mill about just to make the world seem more alive. These have been present from the early days of RPGs and have since invaded other genres, such as action-based or strategic games. As backdrops and static shopping-implements, these characters are okay. The other two types are what can get really frustrating: Protectees and Side-Kicks. And any combination thereof. Let’s talk about them.
When asked which of the two is worse for you as a gamer to be paired with by inconsiderate game designers, most people will probably be quick to go with a side-kick who needs to be protected in order to advance in the game. Escort-missions are notorious for being frustrating and a good side-kick can possibly hold their own in dangerous situations and/or be immortal for story-reasons. I believe that both are equally annoying, if implemented in the wrong way. The problem is, most of the time, bad AI. If the NPC you’re supposed to protect can’t appreciate a dangerous situation and runs head-first into a horde of monsters, that’s one thing. Them getting stuck behind a chair and being unable to keep up with you is worse, as it shatters your suspension of disbelief. Nothing screams “this is a video-game” like someone running in place behind a small obstacle and this applies to both the “helpful” and the “to be protected” kind of ally. The problem is that enemies, most of the time, only have the job to either patrol a certain area or to single-mindedly attack the player character. As such, they don’t need to much refinement to look somewhat believable in the thick of the action. The more open the game-world, the less the game will be able to mask deficits in the AI-department with clever scripting, which in my opinion may be one of the reasons why there is a strong resurgence in “realistic” corridor-shooters these days. The thing with your NPC-sidekick is that they are around in different situations and must usually traverse far greater ranges than your enemies, which leads to situations where they may simply be out of their league when it comes to path-finding, danger-avoiding and, most important of all, natural-behaving.

Which gets me to the point of this post: Animals. The thing about the suspension of disbelief not working with most human characters is probably a problem of expectation: You expect a human being to behave somewhat smart. To think some actions through before doing them. This is especially true if they have lines to say. As I stated in my play-diary about Oblivion: It’s infuriating to have an NPC next to me yell “This one is mine!” and then stand in place without drawing their weapon while some monster is clawing at me. It ruins the immersion. When I think back to any game I played over the past two decades, the only useful-seeming human sidekick I remember was Alyx in Half Life 2 and she only had a very few scenes in the heavily-scripted corridor that game was. Animals though…

Animals are better sidekicks. There are two reasons for this. The first of these is that animals are cute. You can’t deny it and Hollywood generally likes showing who the good guys are by giving them dogs for pets or even making the good guys look like dogs/cats (see Avatar). There is no easier (cheaper) way of stirring up dramatic emotions than to have a dog die in a dramatic fashion. I guess we as a species like the innocence we see in them. The other thing is that we are much more lenient with animals when it comes to AI. If a dog does something stupid, it’s not stupid, it’s naïve! A dog won’t yell one thing and then do another because they can’t talk (I’ll keep anthropomorphic animals out of this). Of course not all animal sidekicks are equally qualified for the job but some do stick to your mind. And as humans are used to taking care of pets, protecting them from the dangers of say, the traffic of the town outside, the neighbor’s cat etc., we are much more willing to protect and shepherd an animal in-game than we would be with a human NPC. I strongly propose somebody make a simple game containing an escort-mission, re-skinning the escorted NPC once as a human and once as an animal and let two test-groups of players play one version each. Their reactions would probably go in favor of the animal NPC, not because of game-mechanics but because of emotions and a story-element.

When I think about in-game NPCs I had a good time with, almost all of them have been animals. There was that dog in Fallout (and Fallout 2), which you just KNEW would get shot at some point and you dreaded that moment. There was my dog in Minecraft, which sacrificed itself, leaving its’ post to save me from an Enderman, leaving me so bummed-out that I had to close the game for a while. There was that Lynx I had in Torchlight, which was at least clever enough to flee when its health dropped to zero…

And then there is the horse in Shadow of the Colossus. My favorite game of all times containing my favorite NPC – and I normally don’t really like horses. Just compare Aroo (or however its name is written) with the horse-skinned motorcycles you have in Oblivion. The latter stands there, you climb on it, you ride it like a vehicle and then you park it somewhere. The former whinnies and huffs, reacts to you, you can fire arrows while it gallops along the edge of a cliff, finding its own way, because, you know, it’s an animal and it has instincts and a brain too! It’s also the only friend the player has in this forsaken empty landscape, the only living thing that’s on your side, always coming back for you. Probably the only living thing between you, the dead girl, the gods you slay, and madness. The horses’ role in the end of the game made a tear roll down my cheek. It’s the only time a video-game has ever made me cry.

Edit: An hour after posting this I notice that Yahtzee has written on the same topic today... Go there for a better read than mine!

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