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