From BioWare love interests whose arcs span entire series to minor companions whose deaths shake players to their core, our investment in non-playable characters can make or break a game. Crafting meaningful relationships is one of the industry’s greatest challenges – but the payoff is a story that will stay with you for years to come. At PAX East on Thursday, writers and designers on “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” “The Walking Dead,” “Divinity: Original Sin II” and more gathered to discuss the secrets and stumbling blocks that have shaped their approach.
For Emily Grace Buck, a narrative designer known for her work on Telltale’s “Batman” and “The Walking Dead,” Cullen Rutherford was the first character to make an indelible impression. “I played the games as they came out,” she said of the Dragon Age franchise, “and being able to go through that relationship-building experience in real time over the course of years of my actual life was extremely powerful for me.” Sweeping AAA games offer the chance to get to know a character more deeply and forge an organic connection along the way – but when she entered the industry herself, she struggled to achieve the same authenticity in shorter stories. “Telltale games aren’t very long. So, how do you put in romance content when it’s someone you’ve known for such a short time?” she asked. “Should you even try?”
To make the relationships in “Batman” feel real, Buck decided the best course of action was to acknowledge those limitations upfront. If Bruce tells Catwoman he loves her at the end of the first season, she’s understandably alarmed. “She’s not ready or interested in hearing that, because, like many real adults in the world, she’s known your character for a week and slept with you once – that doesn’t mean she’s in love with you!” Buck said, laughing. But as time passes, the character becomes more receptive to the idea.
Others on the panel had different strategies for highlighting their NPCs’ humanity. As Larian Studios’ Swen Vincke explained, characters in “Divinity: Original Sin II” begin with a vulnerability. “You start with a mask, and over time that mask starts cracking,” he said. “And if you manage to convince that character to learn how to deal with this fear, loss, betrayal, or wound, the trait is going to change – it’s very rewarding to see at the end of the game.” He cited the Red Prince as an example: his arrogance may be off-putting at first, but over time, “You start to see the cracks and care for him.”
Jill Murray, a lead writer on “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” concurred. “What people end up responding to most viscerally doesn’t come from a place of ‘what do fans want and how do we give it to them’ – it comes from who we know,” she said. “If you can tap into what your core vulnerabilities and issues are as a human and find a way to put that into characters, people generally notice and respond to it.”
As the designers acknowledged, they can’t always anticipate the way players will react – in fact, Vincke nearly cut a companion who ended up becoming a fan favorite. The black cat in “Divinity: Original Sin II” was a remnant from a quest that had been killed earlier in development. With no other reason for him to exist, a scripter devised a scene in which a guard would shoot him. “I wanted to remove it from the game, but we left it in early access, and it ended up becoming a big moment because everybody was trying to save the cat,” Vincke said. The team decided to reward players who went the extra mile, building out a series of cat-based skills for those who managed to rescue their feline sidekick. “So, the cat was awesome! But that was something nobody expected.”
Another character who risks being overlooked is, ironically, the player’s own. While there’s a long tradition of blank slate protagonists, Tanya X. Short believes real chemistry and emotional investment require more. “We found that giving the player character a few distinct character traits really helped tell a story that’s convincing,” she said of her forthcoming indie, “Boyfriend Dungeon.” If NPCs are expected to connect or even fall in love with the hero, they need a personality in their own right.
All of the panelists are still looking for new ways to take these dynamics to the next level. “While we had relationships between [Origin] characters in ‘DOS2,’ they weren’t as evolved as we wanted them – so in the next game we’re doing, we’re focusing very, very heavily on that,” Vincke teased when asked where Larian Studios will go next.
Relationships also take center stage in Buck’s latest project, “Waylanders,” which she says will include queer companions and romances complicated by the story’s “time-travel element.” Some love interests are immortal, and others are reincarnated as you move through different eras, which poses a unique challenge for writers and players alike: “How do you reconcile the difference between this being the person you knew in the past and being a new person with the same soul?”
As for the future of narrative design more broadly, both Buck and Vincke are optimistic. “In many ways, narrative is being taken a lot more seriously than it has in the past,” Buck said. While the number of would-be designers outstrips opportunities within the industry right now, she’s hopeful that people will “start creating those jobs for themselves and telling stories that none of us have ever seen before through interactive media in a way that’s going to inspire empathy and stretch people’s minds and be really exciting.”
“There’s so much that hasn’t been done yet, and so much potential in emergent narrative and player agency,” Vincke added. He believes the hunger for such stories will only continue to grow: “Narrative will be at the top of the food chain in the coming years.”