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How much character backstory is enough?

Posted by Chris Avellone , 22 January 2010 · 4796 views

Next question about game writing is from Jonas...

WARNING: This blog is a spoiler, so if you haven't played Knights of the Old Republic II you may want to stop reading here.

Hey Chris,

I'll try to keep this short out of respect for your time. I just found myself with a deep desire to know how much background material you tend to write for an average companion NPC in the party-based games you've worked on. I'm trying to get a feel for how much background material I should aim to write in my own work. I realise the proper answer is "as much as your game calls for", but I'd just like some sort of milestone to compare my own characters to. If you need me to narrow it down, I'm one of those Torment fanboys; how many pages of background material (give or take) did you write for the companions in that game? If you've found that there's a significant difference between the amount of work you do on characters in certain games or settings, I would be very interested to hear that as well.

Answer: Attached is the amount of background material we wrote for Kreia on Knights of the Old Republic II, if this gives you an indicator.

My advice: A lot of what you imagine a character to be is simply not going to make it when the rubber hits the road and you start scripting that character in the game engine and in conversations - it's only then they truly find their voice and their theme, so I try not to get bogged down with too much backstory. Anything more than a page or two I find is probably enough to get started and go from there. For example, some of the events in the first draft of what we intended for Kreia ended up not surviving once we were designing full force and discovered there were other more interesting things we could do with the character rather than what we initially thought. But hey, that's part of the design process.

Note that a lot of the "backstory" for Kreia also involves concrete details for what a voice actor needs to know - since it's becoming a staple in the industry that every character is voice-acted, a lot of that stuff we need to write out for the studio (and for our own reference).

Also, one thing I've found often can bog people down is they want to keep exploring the abstracts about a character, when I think sometimes the best thing to do is charge in, start swinging, and find a voice and attitude for the character. There's even times when I write a sample short story for how the player specifically encounters that character and see if that helps me to get rolling on themes and the spine of the character (I'm doing this on our current project, and it's a new approach).

One other thing (I know, I know, can I ever shut up?) that is helpful is also (if the CNPC is going to interject into conversations, like K1, K2, NWN2, etc.) and other designers may be writing dialogue, include a list of key words and situations that the CNPC is likely to "pipe up" and say something because it's true to their character - for example, with Kreia, mention of Sion and Nihilus, mention of Jedi or Sith philosophy, etc. If I can find our interjection charts, I'll post that in a future blog.

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