Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame de­vel­op­ment


James Leach be­comes ro­man­ti­cally en­tan­gled with an an­noy­ing NPC

As some­one who plays games I have to ad­mit I’m a sucker for the sim­ple tricks devs play. The Christ­mas trees and snow that crop up in on­line games dur­ing the fes­tive sea­son. The nods to other games and even to the pop­u­lar cul­ture of the time. Yep, it can all get a bit meta and date awk­wardly, but I find it en­dears the cre­ators to me.

Ear­lier in the year I was tasked with adding some DLC in this vein for Valen­tine’s Day. A sul­try vixen love in­ter­est non­player char­ac­ter was re­quired in a game for the play­ers to fall in love with. Yes, I know the many ob­vi­ous prob­lems here. You don’t have to roll your eyes.

I ex­plained to the team that fe­males also play games, and no­body ever falls in love with the sul­try NPCs. No­body ever falls in love with videogame char­ac­ters full stop. Un­less it’s the love you feel for a brave Ger­man Shep­herd or a leave-no-man-be­hind pla­toon leader. But nope, we have to cre­ate this gor­geous vi­sion of shim­mer­ing love­li­ness and get it in by Fe­bru­ary.

I have to say, the re­sults sur­passed my ex­pec­ta­tions. Lucy, I de­cided, would have a no-non­sense tough per­son­al­ity. She’d al­lude to hav­ing carved her own path through the game be­fore crop­ping up. She’d also give out info that the player might not know. A few lit­tle bonuses and even an un­lock code or two. For this rea­son if no other, I thought the player would want her around.

Then I tried play­ing my mas­ter­stroke. I cre­ated lines of di­a­logue that made it clear she was keen on the player. Such were the me­chan­ics of the game, the player could in fact do noth­ing about this, but, be­cause I’m a bear of lit­tle brain, I hoped the un­re­quited, never-to-be el­e­ment would cause love to flower in the hearts of all those play­ing the game.

What ac­tu­ally hap­pened when she was in and be­ing tested was very dif­fer­ent. In­stead of her be­ing smart, con­fi­dent, use­ful and al­lur­ing, the ver­dict from all who ex­pe­ri­enced her was that she was ex­tremely an­noy­ing. Pas­sions among those who did mis­sions with her ran high, but not in any way ro­man­ti­cally. Plans were made to drop her but we had a bet­ter idea. She was to stay, ir­ri­tate the player then was to be killed by en­e­mies in a sense­lessly sat­is­fy­ing way. Once she was gone, we would find a scrap of di­ary in which she pro­fessed her love for the player. Plus give a load more use­ful info on how to pro­ceed. I didn’t want that last bit but the team did, so in it went.

We were left with a love story that never was, a re­la­tion­ship doomed from the start with an irk­some NPC and some fairly de­cent tips on what to do next. It some­how felt right. And what I liked was that find­ing a char­ac­ter an­noy­ing, or funny, or sim­ply in­ter­est­ing is the key. Love and hate don’t trans­late well to game char­ac­ters. Ain’t, as the say­ing goes, no­body got time for that. But to en­gen­der some feel­ing is great. The big fail is to cre­ate some­thing or some­one no­body even has an opin­ion on, and Lord knows I’ve done a few of those over the years.

Chiefly, though, both­er­ing to ac­knowl­edge some real-life an­nual event in a game sends the mes­sage to those play­ing it that the team are still there, they still care and they value you as a cus­tomer enough to spend hours do­ing some­thing for you. Even if the re­sult is an over­bear­ing, soon-to-ex­pire woman in a crop top and cov­ered in tat­toos.

So what next? De­lib­er­ately make our char­ac­ters an­noy­ing be­cause it’s at least a re­ac­tion? No, I think this was a one-off and we got away with it. Writ­ing for the au­di­ence and hop­ing they have the vis­ceral re­sponses you want is the road to mad­ness. The char­ac­ters have to be what they are. My trade se­cret – well, not a se­cret now – is to give them four traits. Four el­e­ments that de­fine their per­son­al­i­ties, and to have one of those change dur­ing their jour­ney through the game. It isn’t al­ways pos­si­ble, but it’s sat­is­fy­ing when it hap­pens. Oc­ca­sion­ally have them say some­thing pseudo-pro­found and, prob­a­bly most of all, give them names that peo­ple aren’t em­bar­rassed to say out loud in the play­ground, park or pub. The truth is, I’m never re­ally sure how much peo­ple care. It’s rare for me to lis­ten to a char­ac­ter in a game I’ve had noth­ing to do with and not sim­ply judge the qual­ity of the writ­ing and the voice act­ing. And to cringe when I hear the same line twice in game. Peo­ple do re­peat them­selves in real life, but hear­ing the ex­act same line in a game makes my teeth itch, so ir­ri­tat­ing Lucy, at least, never did, even when she was get­ting raked by en­emy fire. And now she’s dead and we all have to live with that. Un­til Easter. Ooh, I’ve just had an idea…

Peo­ple re­peat them­selves in real life, but hear­ing the ex­act same line in a game makes my teeth itch

James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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