On Skyrim IV: We the People

Part 4 of my general wishlist/ramble through memory lane takes us to the NPCs that populate the game world.

A lot of bytes have been spilled on this topic. Some people prefer NPCs to have individual dialogue and some hate having to talk to every Tom, Dick and Harriet that they come across. Some prefer a wide variety of variations in appearance; others prefer different types of clothing; still others claim that it’s the behaviour that’s important.

Let’s rewind a moment. Let’s go back to basics. What does “NPC” mean?

At the most basic level, NPC is an acronym for “Non-Player Character”, which doesn’t help much, because it doesn’t give us any information that we couldn’t have guessed anyway. It tends to end up as a generic term for “Killable things to whom special rules apply”, which isn’t much more help, so let’s look at cases.

In Morrowind, NPCs were interesting, in that they often had huge amounts of information to give you depending upon where they were located, what class they were, what faction they were in, and so on. Savants in particular had huge amounts of information about the world around you. Others had information critical to your quests. For instance, there was one quest that could only be found by talking to almost everyone in Vivec. Yes, you could stumble across it on your own, but the “true” route was to talk to the one person with the necessary information. The problem was that most people stood around in one spot for the entire game – a behaviour mocked brilliantly in Yahtzee Croshaw’s review of Torchlight. If they weren’t standing around stock-still, they wandered randomly and got in your way.

In Oblivion, there were about the same number of NPCs but most of them were supremely dull. Almost all of them had a unique “Hello!” line, plus something about their city, but after that it was all generic rumors. Let’s not even talk about the conversations that NPCs could have with each other – I’m sure we all have our favourite idiotic NPC convo to share. From what’s been announced so far, it seems people are going to have conversations “on the go” – you won’t zoom in on an NPC while talking to them, and the rest of the world will keep going while you chat. This sounds ”much” better if it can work properly, and let’s hope it applies to other NPCs too. It’s quite okay for two NPCs to walk past each other with a quick “Hi!” rather than stopping for a chat about consortiums of wizards in Summerset Isle.

Despite the problems, Oblivion comes close to what’s needed. A city should be full of independent people, all living their lives until (X) happens, which is where you appear and fix it. In a really ideal game, from my personal POV, if you take too long over doing (X), (Y) should do it for you and screw you out of the reward. For instance, in both Morrowind and Oblivion it always seemed stupid that there were loads of contracts available along with several people whining that there were no quests available. Make up your minds! If Radiant Story is really going to work, let’s see the Player lose out occasionally.

There are several bigger problems with OB’s AI. For instance, you can steal everything in someone’s store in full view, then go to jail, take all the items from the evidence chest…. and the person from whom you stole the items is perfectly happy to see you again. Don’t even get me started on the conversations that can spring up after surrendering during combat.

The original videos showing off the Radiant AI from Oblivion seem to suggest it was meant to be far more than it ended up being. On the Collector’s Edition DVD (and I’m sure it’s on YouTube somewhere) we can see someone trying to shoot at a target; missing; drinking a Fortify Marksman potion and then hitting the target. Then there’s the shot with someone’s dog wanting food, being fed, but still being a pain at which point the owner stuns the dog. Awesome as this sounds, various rumours suggest that the problem was that people would start attacking each other, seemingly at random. When looked into, it would turn out that NPC x wanted a rake and NPC y had one. Hence, NPC y had to DIE!!!!

At UESP, we’re involved in a project to document each NPC’s schedule (among other things), and even with the reduced Radiant AI that we were given in the final game, there’s still a lot of activity to be recorded. Get involved now!

So I’ve got this far without saying what I want to see in Skyrim. Let’s try to rectify that.

There should be some kind of real economy going on. For instance, a farmer should work in the fields to produce wheat/corn/barley and then it can be sold in a farm store. Another farmer might be taking care of sheep/cows/guars/whatever and occasionally killing one when stocks were running low. Meanwhile shops stocking these primary ingredients would be preparing them, ready for sale to bakers or butchering them themselves. Taverns and hotels should be dependent on these places for ingredients. This suggests an obvious quest or two, when (for instance) a butcher has a problem harvesting his cattle.

There needs to be better transition between schedules. In OB, you could watch two people and see a silly transition from two people talking to each other to two people walking to the same location ”without” talking to each other! The realism would be hugely enhanced if there were special cases for “Do you fancy going for some food?” and appropriate responses.

In Oblivion an “idle” schedule meant standing around doing nothing. This is just wrong. Nobody does this. If you’re stuck waiting for something in real life, you look around the room, pick things up to look at them, wander around to look at pictures, hum to yourself, read a book if you have one or anything other than standing around doing nothing.

The clothing situation is a bit more tricky. Every item needs detailed design so if you want a large variety, it takes longer to achieve. Oblivion was better than Morrowind in this instance – there was much greater variety, but even so it wasn’t great. Maybe the key here is to go for styles of outfit that can be recoloured on the fly. That’s basically what we do in Real Life – all businesspeople wear suits and everyone else wears some combo of skirt/trousers + T-shirt/shirt (or hoodie these days). Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but look around and tell me it ain’t so in most cases.

It sounds like Bethesda have already addressed some of the larger problems with NPCs. What we’ve seen so far looks great, and what we’ve heard about their activities sounds great, but NPCs are the heart and soul of a role-playing game, and it’s all got to be right for the game to work.

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