What Ultima VI Can Teach You About NPCs
Here’s something that was given a well-deserved shoutout by Warren Spector (albeit it was Dominus who brought it to my attention):
— Dominus of Exult (@Dominus_Exult) June 11, 2015
Essentially, there was a fantastic article that went up at Whiskey Barrel Studios’ website, which concerned NPCs in CRPGs. Specifically, it focused on lessons learned from Skyrim and Ultima 6 (yes) about how to do NPCs wrong…and right. They begin by highlighting issues with NPCs in Skyrim:
NPCs are an integral part of any role playing game, but often serve as little more than quest repositories with very short memories – but it doesn’t have to be so! Liam Twose‘s excellent article ‘Giving Non-Player Characters More Character‘ goes into a great deal of depth in exploring how they they can be improved. His key points, as follows:
Get them doing their own things
Give them their own agendas
Make them react in ways a human would
Give them a working memory of things and people around them
Give them a history
Give them decent dialogue
Make their deaths permanent
> “I USED TO BE AN ADVENTURER LIKE YOU. THEN I TOOK AN ARROW TO THE KNEE.”
This line of conversation was so commonplace in Skyrim, it actually became a meme. That’s a problem if you’re trying to make a plausible and complex game world. The worst part about all of this was that different guards in completely different areas of the world all said the same thing. What starts as a charming, offhanded remarks becomes an illusion shattering problem.
They continue by looking at how NPCs are implemented in Ultima 6:
Richard [Garriott] was obsessed with making his worlds intricate and detailed. Every item in the game had a weight, the sun and moons rose and set, waxed and waned and had effects on the citizens of his worlds. NPCs had their own schedules and lives. Arguably the best of the Ultima series was Ultima VI: The False Prophet, in which the player set out to settle a conflict between humans and gargoyles – the game touched heavily upon prejudice and racism rather than the invariable Kill Foozle quests that so dominate most RPGs. In order for Garriott and his team to tackle such an important subject, they tried to make their world and the inhabitants within as believable as possible.
Now, bear in mind this game was made some 25 years ago, in 1990. As far as I’m aware, it was the first game to make its NPCs dynamic characters. No longer would a baker forever sit at his mill baking, waiting for the player to come along and buy a loaf of bread. In the early morning the baker would rise from his bed, head to his mill up the road and bake bread until mid morning. He’d then head to the pub for a few hours, returning to his mill in the afternoon and then back home in the evening.
If the player were to meet the baker in the pub, he would ask you to come and visit his shop later, and perhaps instead tell the player some gossip about another member of the town.
Another NPC, this one in the town of Yew, would visit his brother locked in jail every morning and night. Following this NPC from the tavern to the jail would lead the player to a quest to perhaps free his imprisoned brother. Emergent gameplay happens this way.
Ultima VI ( and its successor Ultima VII ) did a great job of making the NPCs in your party feel alive too. Players turning on beer kegs with no mug under them would hear a dismayed “Waste that not!” from an ale loving companion. In colder climates , companions would utter “Tis colder”. These little interactions make your party so much more than just a series of stats and numbers, but living breathing companions who you care for, fight for and grieve for.
You can take a lot of lessons from both Skyrim and Ultima. Skyrim, in my opinion, did dialogue the wrong way. Thousands of characters, most as generic as the last, spouting the same tired lines again and again, no matter where you were in the world. Ultima, for all it’s age, handled it the right way. Fewer citizens, but each a living, breathing, memorable digital person.
Now, we can certainly nitpick around the edges of this piece; guards in Ultima 6 are as stock and generic as are the guards in Skyrim, for example. But it is generally true that, apart from quest-givers (who must, naturally, alter their reaction to the player if the quest completion conditions are satisfied), most NPCs in modern RPGs are depressingly static. The NPCs of Ultima 6 and Ultima 7, on the other hand, were wonderfully alive, even if there weren’t as many of them. And certainly, this aspect of the world simulation at work in Britannia — the sense that all the little characters we saw running around, going about their own virtual lives — did wonders to build and bolster the sense of immersion players experienced.
(Yes, I’m using Nuvie as the screenshot source. Because why not?)