MMORPG published an article a few days ago: 5 Things MMOs Could Learn from Pillars of Eternity. It was good to see characters and story near the top of this list.
Some reader comments on the article are skeptical, suggesting that single player RPGs and MMOs are different categories, but no. Characters should be the #1 most important thing in anything fiction, and every video game is fiction.
No? When you think of Mortal Kombat, what comes to mind? The gameplay or the characters? What about driving games? GTA is the best-selling driving franchise of all time, edging out Mario Kart. And Mario Kart is called Mario Kart.
MMOs tend to overwhelm players with too many throw-away character names. Pillars of Eternity tries to avoid this trap. Instead of naming every villager, PoE just calls them villagers.
One of the companion NPCs in PoE, written by Chris Avellone, is the Grieving Mother. She doesn’t have a real name, but she has a long and detailed backstory. This seems to be a self-conscious experiment in naming conventions. When you meet Durance, the priest companion, he says to you:
“You probably find names as useless as I do… The names that litter this world like debris are hard enough to wrap around the tongue, and what do they matter? It’s what’s beneath the skin and the names I care about, what burns within.”
The character of Durance was also written by Chris Avellone. Just a coincidence? No.
Currently, standard MMORPG writing gives a new name to every little quest giver and NPC with a role to play in every quest hub, and you forget most of them. While playing Elder Scrolls: Online, I feel the game is a little guilty of this.
I’m currently playing through Pillars of Eternity with both a good and ‘evil’ party. I’m super-impressed, but I’m not ready for a full critique. I’ve noticed that PoE companions are ‘played slowly’ with their backstory. PoE does a great job with mystery and subtext.
So what can be improved?
Emotion. In Pillars, my favorite NPCs easily are the first ones you meet. You bond emotionally with them through hardship, and they have likeable voice actors. Then they die. Why?
The PoE developers have excellent reasons to kill off these characters: establishing a gritty world immersion through realism and starting a heartwrenching quest that strongly supports the main story. I would rather have Calisca alive, and have a likeable companion with motivation and serious things at stake (helping her sister).
A sympathetic emotional aspect is important for the player to bond with the NPC, and if there is one nitpick I’d have for Pillars, it’s that the permanent companion characters – so far – lack emotion, including sympathetic goals in life and a sense of humor.
Like every RPG, Pillars needs a friendly, likeable sidekick in the beginning of the game. Planescape has Morte. Baldur’s Gate has Imoen. Vampire:Bloodlines has Smiling Jack, who is my usual example. Neverwinter has Deekin (I don’t really remember when he shows, but he’s so cute and friendly in his picture.)
Fewer, more important named NPCs. I would advocate more quests given by a smaller number of NPCs who are central to the story. This means more traveling to visit the same NPCs again and again, but modern MMOs have that covered with maps, portals, and horses.
How many times have you done a lot of work for a faction, like vampire Bodhi in Baldur’s Gate, or the Dark Brotherhood in Oblivion? Now, how well do you remember those NPCs compared to every other non-affiliated NPC in the game world. You remember them better.
You have instant sympathy from being on the same team, plus the extra engagement of your own personal trials and judgement, instead of just helping someone else, plus the human desire to rise in the ranks.
This week I’m pushing yet another revision of novel #3, with my eyes set on finishing my fantasy trilogy, which matches The Lord of the Rings in written length.
After 15 years of effort, I have hopes that these highly-polished epics (i.e. 20-30 revisions over the years for each 130k+ word manuscript) will do better than my published short stories. This writing effort involved sacrifices of money, relationships, my previous job, and a big chunk of my adult life.