Friday, 9 April 2010

Friends, Buddies and Non-Playable Countrymen

Egypt was wonderful, thank you for asking.

I wandered around the Temple of Karnak going (not out loud, obviously) "Wow, it looks just like it does in the game", momentarily forgetting that the Temple of Karnak was built a few years before Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was released.

The Temple of Karnak

Joking aside, those guys at Core did a great job and should be heartily congratulated. They were able to make me feel starstruck wandering around places I had only seen imaginary interpretations of. That's like getting excited wandering around Colorado because you've seen South Park. I honestly don't know what's scarier, hoardes of mummies or Mr Garrison. Ho ho.

If you're interested, I wrote a comparison of "real life" (whatever that is) Egypt with the Tomb Raider version. It's here on Stella's Tomb Raider blog.

Anyway, an awesome thing about Egypt that wasn't actually in Tomb Raider (also missing from Tomb Raider: tourists) was the fact that there are some wonderful street bazaars. Providing you retain a sense of humour, Egypts bazaars are fun and fascinating in equal measure. Before I start sounding like an amateur Lonely Planet writer, allow me to me reassure you that I only mention them becuase their colours and arrangement remind me of just about every video game market I have vistied.

As many a gamer will attest, the most amusing things about videogame markets are the continual nuggets of unsolicited advice and information which float after you down the street.

The majority of RPGs feature some form of currency which can be spent either at small shops or at large markets. Visits to such halls of commerce are generally undertaken by the player in order to acquire vital items before a journey into the wilderness (where would an adventurer be without his shroud of intelligence?). But fun though it is to spend hours choosing between a scout cap (which enables you to creep about more easily) or an iron helm (bit more protection from orcs, about as stealthy as an SUV), more fun can be had by the lazy gamer by simply wandering around the towns and talking to the Non-Playable Characters, or NPCs.

NPCs are unique to gaming, and are one of the things that make it great. Films and books feature minor and major characters, but you can't "play" any of them. Only in games is there a distinction between the character or characters you might control (there are often more than one) and the characters over whom you have no control, but with whom you can still interact.

The "market vendor" or "townsperson" is a beloved video game archetype, and are perhaps best displayed in games RPGs because of their propensity to fanny about aimlessly saying townspersony things in a west-country accent like underpaid extras in a low-budget fantasy film. This is not to belittle their contribution to the overall video game experience. Oh no. The aforementioned unsolicited advice represents a gold standard in video game logic.

You see, these extremely peripheral characters exist purely to bestow facts and advice upon the player. In Zelda (above), characters just seem to wander aimlessly about until you approach them, whereby they tell you about a legend which invariably leads you to something in game. NPCs in Zelda have nothing better to do with their time than tell strangers (i.e. you) that "rumour has it that there is a powerful sword in yonder dungeon" etc. Game lore states that there will therefore be a powerful sword in yonder dungeon, which begs the question of why Duke Townsperson never bothered to get it out himself.

In Beyond Good and Evil, the only town is a small one in which everyone seems to know each other, so at least it makes a little sense that people aren't perturbed by you approaching them at random. Bizarrely though, when you do say hello they reply with batty things like: "It is said that there is a great treasure on top of the Black Isle". And then just stop talking.

Of course, you go and look on top of the Black Isle, and yes, there is indeed a treasure, and remarkably it is guarded by a colony of Crochax, just like your buddy told you it would be. It's just that I wonder why Jade didn't ask Rufus the Shark (or whoever) how his mum was or whether he'd eaten any good fish lately. Games are not big on small talk. This is fair enough, given that if people were more interested in following lines of inane dialogue rather than exploring a game world they'd just watch Hollyoaks*, but this behaviour on the part of NPCs can be jarring.

Similarly, in Mass Effect characters will just accost you as you run around the Citadel and request that you perform tasks on their behalf. Admittedly they know who Commander Shepard is because s/he is famous, but they have no qualms about asking you to fly to a distant star system on the other side of the galaxy in order to find out what happened to their brother on Proteus. In real terms, the players undertake such missions a) through curiosity brought about by a good game script and world, and b) in order to earn experience points (XP) which will enable them to improve their character and gain access to more abilties, but one wonders why, in logical terms, Commander Shepherd is so keen to divert from the galaxy saving that s/he was so concerned with in the cut scene a few minutes ago. I have found that it is actually best not to think about it too much, because video game logic is a law unto itself, but if it amuses you there are others who explore it with wit and affection.

In this sense, the Non-Playable Character is primarily a device, but one shouldn't overlook the immersive value that giving NPCs even limited interactivity has over reducing them to being simply wallpaper. In Oblivion, you can talk to everyone. Further to that, you can actually pick a lock on someone's house, break in, steal some things and then go upstairs to watch them sleep. I think the following video demonstrates a slight bug in Oblivion's near flawless code, but the scenario is fairly common:


When strangers break into my house and watch me sleep, I'm usually not that bothered, and it's quite nice to have someone around with whom to share my concerns about Mud Crabs.

A completely different kind of NPC is the companion. These have become slightly more common in recent years due to improvements in Artificial Intelligence, and although their behaviour adheres a little more closely to reality than their more autonomous chums, they still exist primarily to add another dimesion to gameplay. It's a real bonus when game designers, artists and (most importantly) writers are able to create a believable relationship between the protagonist and the companion.

Some companions are indestructibe, but more often than not they can take damage and eventually be killed. From a gameplay perspective, this makes things much more interesting. The wonderful Ico is story of a boy (Ico) trying to escape from a castle. Near the beginning, he meets Yorda, who speaks a language he does not understand, and is pursued by mysterious shadow-creatures. Ico can run, jump, climb and interact with his environment, but Yorda is largely helpless on her own. She needs him to manipulate the environment for her and help her up on to ledges, and he needs her to open certain doors in order for them both to progress. Although the door restriction is purely a device to ensure the player doesn't just leave Yorda in a dungeon, it's a good example of a gameplay mechanic where a companion is an integral part of gameplay rather than just being tacked on.

The player cannot control Yorda, but as Ico, they can grab Yorda's hand and run around the level, as well as shouting at her to wait or follow. The game is primarily puzzle based, and the shadow creatures' speed tests the patience of the most zen players, but the central mechanic relies on the interaction between Ico and Yorda. It helps that the animation is particularly well-done, and that both central characters speak in a fictional language, allowing the inter-dependence between the two to speak for itself.

Although the Prince might wish that Farah, sensible heroine of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time also spoke a language he did not understand, it turns out that both Persians and Indians actually spoke English in 1200 AD. As I may well have said before, Farah and the Prince's relationship is one of video games' most engaging romances. Which, given that their competition comes mainly from the likes of Mario and Peach, isn't saying much, but it helps that like Yorda, Farah is an important part of the gameplay as well as a romantic interest.

Farah can slip through cracks that are too small for the Prince (easy now) and operate levers, allowing them to reach other areas of the level. Again, Farah's "necessity" is a device to justify her omnipresence throughout the game, but it's not one I mind. Farah is not, like Peach, a peripheral character who turns up in cut scenes every now and again, and I found it much easier to care about a character who was at my side throughout the game, continually engaging in (not unwitty) banter with me. It helps that she shouts "careful!" when the Prince slips on something. Aside from the fact that Farah is integral to the plot, having another voice (and indeed someone for the Prince to talk to or argue with) stops the game from becoming too lonely. Indeed, with its vast environments and faceless sand zombies, Azad may indeed feel a little flat after 10 hours without the continual dialogue between the two leads.

Grand Theft Auto makes use of several secondary characters, many of whom can accompany Nico on missions, and chat to him in the car as he drives them around. Were it not for how needy they are, they would rank alongside the best companions in any game. Alas, it is not to be. The game employs a frustratingly obscure system whereby some characters will only help you out if they like you enough, and they only like you if you take them out to bars at your own expense. I suppose ingratiating himself to opportunistic mercenaries and pursuing emotionally empty relationships is fairly in keeping with Nico's character, and one might suggest that it contributes to his low self-esteem and misanthropic nature, but it doesn't make taking Little Jacob to a strip club any more entertaining for the player.

And then there's the women.

This is Michelle. Michelle has a habit of telephoning Nico whilst he's driving and demanding that he pick her up from her house in an hour, regardless of what part of the city he is currently in. When he arrives, she is likely to make a catty comment regarding his car. The fact that he stole the car is, I think, beside the point. Michelle doesn't know that. If someone takes you out at their expense, I happen to think it's quite rude to criticise the car they are offering to drive you around in. And then when she gets in the car, she starts saying things like "oh Nico, I really don't like those shoes".

The final insult is that you can't even kill her. No. Characters who actually help you out during missions and are polite to you have universally flimsy health bars regardless of how armoured or beefy they are. A few too many shots from a rival gang and they're roadkill, requiring you to start all over again. But not Michelle. Oh no. If you get fed up with her incessant wingeing, you can run over her with your car, stab her, lob a Molotov Cocktail at her or just put her on a motorbike and crash it, but she'll just complain even more and carry on with your date. If you don't let up, she eventually just calls you a psycho and goes home.

A few minutes into my second (and last) date with Michelle, I was longing for Farah. Even Peach would have been an improvement.

There is a final class of NPCs (not that I'm writing a serious taxonomy here), and that is the sheep. In some cases, these are literally sheep. Such as in the little-known classic Sheep. In Sheep, you play a form of shepherd, either a boy, a girl, a male dog or a femal dog, and herd (you guessed it) sheep around an obstacle course. The sheep have AI which  makes them wander off in the wrong direction. You have to stop them. I prefer them to Michelle because if you get it wrong, the sheep don't complain, but do end up getting minced by whatever hazard they stumble into.

That's actually it really. I can feel my blood pressure dropping already. I need to work on my endings. All of that hardcore larding about has left me a little rusty.

*     *     *

I don't know if I have said this before, but I am becoming conscious of the fact that although I explore new subject matter weekly, I do tend to refer to the same few games over and over again. This is mainly because of a lack of time. It would be very nice to be able to devote time (and money) to genres I don't usually play, such as strategy games, or God games (which I used to play a lot more), but practicality restricts me.

It also doesn't help that I have only been gaming with any frequency for about 10 years, and throughout that time I have been primarily a console gamer, which places further limitations on the bank of knowledge I have to draw from.

I have an affinity for games which place plot, setting and character at the centre of Also, when writing, it is much easier to be funny about characters than it is about Tetrads. Although I think I have tried to do that.


*I suppose I didn't really have to name names there, but Hollyoaks is awful.

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