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* * * * * 22 votes

Project: Eternity and Characterization

Posted by Chris Avellone , 21 September 2012 · 91811 views

Character building for games isn’t easy, and it requires a lot of effort, especially when it comes to companions. I’ve had the good fortune to work on a variety of titles with strong support characters over the years, and I enjoy writing them a great deal. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this (don’t cut me off, Feargus).

There are a few guidelines I try to follow when designing companions (some of these are dependent on the engine and franchise).

- Combat/Challenge-viable. Any companion that can’t hold their weight and help support the home team in some fashion isn’t going to last long in the hearts of players (well, maybe a very forgiving few). This is something I learned way back in Fallout 2 when it became clear that Cassidy was far preferred over Myron, for example (and not just because Myron was an ****, which factors into another point below). It’s also a lesson I picked up while playing Final Fantasy III – every character needs to contribute to the mechanics and challenge mechanics in some fashion (whether combat or stealth or whatever the game’s challenge is).

- Companions should be optional. Whenever possible, the player should never be forced to take them or in the case of true psychopaths, even let them live. The golden rule is the companion should be a support character or a walking/breathing slab of target practice if the players don’t like or want anything to do with the companion.

- Next, assuming the players like the companion, the companion should serve as a sounding board for the theme of the game. It’s not mandatory, but there’s no better way to reinforce the narrative than someone who is walking beside the player for 70-80% of the game. This worked well with Kreia in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, it was the spine of most of the companions in Planescape: Torment, and it worked well with Kaelyn the Dove in NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer.

- The companion needs to ego-stroke the player in a variety of ways. Sometimes this can be romance, sometimes this can be simply reactivity (either brief barks or conversations about the player’s actions), or any of a variety of methods. Ultimately, however, any companion that simply sits around bitching, complaining, and haranguing the player isn’t someone you want to drag into the nearest dungeon to help clear it out… you may simply want to throw them in the dungeon and lock the door.

- A visual and vocal/audio hook. This may be the result of many, many years of comic books, but whenever possible, I try to suggest a variety of “visual ego signatures” that can be integrated into the character design, and audio hooks as well. For example, when doing the Fallout New Vegas: DLC, Dead Money, the visual signatures were Dog/God’s bear trap that was still clamped on his arm (along with his name carved in his chest so it could be seen in reverse in a mirror), Dean’s dapper lounge singer suit to contrast with his ghoulish appearance, and even something as simple as Christine’s throat scar (which we had to position carefully so the bomb collar wouldn’t obscure it). All of these things serve to tag the character and helps make them stand out. Each had their own vocal hooks as well (Dog/God’s voice would change based on his personality, Dean had the drippy smooth singer voice, and Christine’s vocal hook was she didn’t speak at all).

- Speaking of Kaelyn, companions are also a great means of foreshadowing as well. Kaelyn’s relationship with her deity and his role in the Forgotten Realms ended up being a nice way to subtly build on the end game without directly hammering the player over the head with exposition.

- Reactivity, not just to player’s actions but to the environment and events taking place. The Mask of the Betrayer’s barks for when companions would enter certain areas, for example, did a great job of showcasing their personality and also a bit of lore/rumors about the location you were visiting. If we’re able to do the same with game mechanics and combat, that’s an ever better bonus (“aim for the eyes!” “Knock him down again!” “Good one!” “Did Dogmeat just knock down that super mutant?!” “I’m doing the best I can with this crappy knife you gave me!”)

So in terms of companions for Project: Eternity, the process works like so:

- Establish the game mechanics for the title, and when possible, link that into the lore and narrative while you’re doing it. What’s the central system mechanic of the game? (For example, in Mask of the Betrayer, the soul-eating mechanic and basic combat were the two principle systems the player was interacting with.)

- Design characters that support that game mechanic, and if it’s been properly integrated with the lore and narrative, make sure they discuss that angle as well, either though exchanges or reactions to it taking place in the environment.

- Next up, figure out exactly where that character shines in terms of the game mechanics – why would a player bring this companion along? Are they a tank, a healer, or perfect for sniping enemies from a mile away? This shouldn’t overlap with another companion’s specialty if you can help it.

- Build a barebones background. Were they once a scout, an assassin, a merchant, a Sith Lord, a smuggler, a bartender, etc.? What led them to that… and what led them to where they are today in the world? I say barebones, because I prefer to leave wiggle room for exploration and fleshing out the background while writing the character – the most likely avenue a player has to discover a CNPC’s history is through talking to them, so I let the CNPC do most of the work and try to focus on giving the details there and then.

- Gather whatever reference art you can that you feel capture’s the hook of the character (for example, in Dead Money, Dog/God’s reference art often revolved around Mr. Hyde from Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comic) and sit down and discuss the “whys” of each piece with the concept artist. I am fortunate to work with Brian Menze and he’s done a lot of the companions for Obsidian and Black Isle over the years, and seeing what he takes from the brief character descriptions and runs with them is really nice to behold (for example, Darth Nihilus). The important thing about Brian’s approach is he takes a lot of time to delve into the visuals of each franchise he works with and makes sure he’s capturing the art direction as well – and it really served us well while he was designing Kreia, Atton, and the other heroes/villains of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II.

- Build a tone. This starts as soon as you start writing – and sometimes, the tone surprises me once I actually start writing. The cadence of how the character talks, their slang, the subjects that interest them – I start a conversation with the character and try to imagine what I’d like to ask them about as players… and often, I try to steer the conversation into game mechanic help, gifts, new perks and skills to learn from the companion (which we used a lot in Torment, KOTOR2, and Dead Money, for example). The player should feel that they are gaining something of value from the interaction, even if the interaction isn’t mandatory – exploring a character’s personality should be as much fun as exploring a dungeon.

- Keep the theme in mind. As mentioned before, I try to keep the game’s theme in mind while writing (the nature of the Force in K2, the suffering of the spirit in Torment, the idea of “letting go”/obsession/greed in Dead Money) and try to find ways to weave that into the character’s conversation and their history. You don’t want to hammer it home too much, but you want to include enough hooks so when the player thinks back on the conversation, it’ll start to sink in and all click into place once the game enters its final stages.

That’s a bit about characterization – in future blogs, I’d go over a bit about constructing game stories and narratives, discuss some of the companion mechanics we’ve used over the years (influence, reputation, etc.), and anything else you guys would like to read. Thanks for reading!

  • Sammael, O.DOGG, Kargos and 104 others like this



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Karranthain
Sep 22 2012 07:57 AM
"Exploring a character’s personality should be as much fun as exploring a dungeon."

Indeed, that's what made Dak'kon such an interesting character.

Pangur, on , said:

dmbot, on , said:

And since you mentioned influence - I personally hope to not see it in P:E. I think it ruins the immersion and makes me care a little less about the companion - Especially if there are "prizes" for high loyalty. Instead of caring about this character as a person, he becomes a tool I use to gain some bonuses or to "max out" the loyalty meter.
I must say I really liked the influence system both in KOTOR2 and NWN2. For me it didn't break the immersion, on the contrary - I felt like I was building a relationship with the character, slowly gaining their trust.
Yes, this system can be abused, but the idea itself is great. Probably, though, players should not see the numeric equivalent of it, so they wouldn't know how much influence they gained or lost.
Well, that's just my opinion. :)

i agree very much, hide the numbers! i always end up playing in a way where i try to get the highest score with everyone - i just can't resist the numbers :(
away with them! let us _feel_ the reaction of the guy, don't show us the numerical equivalent!

I agree. If the numbers are hidden (both the current influence score and the increase/decrease popups) it will feel much more natural (see #1). You will get to feel how companions think of you, whether it's clear as crystal or more obscured (see #2).

#1 Treat a companion like dirt? After a while she starts to greet you more and more bitterly. Be nice to a cranky companion? He's still a prick to everyone else, but when talking to you he develops a normal tone. With hints like this, coupled with the fact that the player should remember which companions he's been friendly or unfriendly to, the whole influence/friendship part of companions will feel much more natural and less like you're simply manipulating these pieces of data for some reward.
It would also be nice if companions started out with different opinions of you based on their personality as well as your character's class/race/background. A former reclusive might start out with a lower opinion of you than the other companions just because that's how he is - and if you're an Elf he'll start out even lower because of his racist views.

#2 Say one companion is a noble and harmonic knight. Or he may have been schooled as one, but may not live up to that expectation all the time. Anyway, that is what is expected of him. So when you insult his political and religious views, his opinion of you drops to resentment. But because of his schooling, he does not show it in any way. Perhaps you'll only see his true opinion of you in some stressful situation where his facade breaks down for a moment, and if you're an observant player, you'll notice that he actually hates you and so you make up a plan to increase his opinion of you the next chance you get - if it's even possible at this point...
    • Estelindis, Holy Cheese, Pangur and 3 others like this
Here's my wishlist, I know the first two points kind of go against what you guys have already stated:
  • Make it fully 2d and be proud of it. Look at Rayman Origins and King of Fighters XIII for example, just beautiful.
  • Co-op multiplayer with turn-based combat like Fallout. (action points, ho!) Pausing to make decisions takes you out of the action and you generally have to pause a lot anyway, plus it doesn't work in multiplayer.
  • Just get rid of the laundry list-style questlog and replace it with a journal that holds essential information. It'll send a message that players have the freedom and responsibility of choice. If you don't remember the customs on how to address the king, obviously bad things will happen. If the king sends you on a mission to raze a village, maybe it's not such a great idea to comply.
  • The entire journey should be one of significance. It doesn't always have to be the end of the world, there can be personal stories or small incidents that only fit into the grand scheme of things much later. However, playing an errand boy in a fantasy world is just about as much fun as being an errand boy in the real world.
  • Players characters aren't blank slates. Make taverns that don't serve elves, have nobles scoff at your shabby clothing and farmers run or attack on sight due to that massive bounty on your head.
  • Draw inspiration from the act of (pen&paper) roleplaying rather than the number crunching system that enables it. I think what can be done with computers nowadays far outshines dicerolling. It's this magical combination of camaraderie and imagination that is so hard to emulate into the digital realm.
I hope I didn't sound too condescending, just throwing in my 2 cents. (figuratively and maybe literally once Paypal becomes on option) Neverwinter Nights 2 was a truly unique experience, great job on that!
    • Combine and Laakeririkko like this

The companion needs to ego-stroke the player in a variety of ways.

Oh how glad I am to read this.

A lot of people ask for companions who despise the main character (or something along these lines). What they miss, I think, is that if a companion really couldn't care less about the main character, he wouldn't really be fun to travel with. There'd be no arguements, no criticism (when I think someone's stupid, would I bother to tell them?), no witty banter.

As for the influence: I want it badly. Mostly because I've seen it done wrong in modern games, and want to see it done right.

To gain influence over someone in DA:O, you need to say what they like and be in accord with their worldview (so if Morrighan is all for natural selection, you should be too, otherwise nothing good's on the horizont). So you end up maneuvering among what to tell and whom to take.

Which is ridiculous and doesn't work like that at all. What I probably liked the most about PS:T was that characters reacted favourably not to the 'likeable' option, but to the 'smart' option. The whole Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon quest is actually telling Dak'kon he doesn't know a thing about his own faith and his own head. And that's an interesting thing to do, and also — that's something that would get my own favour and interest (if a bit Stockholm Syndrom) in the real world. And that's something I really want to see in P:E.
    • jethro, Zephyr Falcon and cdubthesadist like this
I truly loved reading this blog entry. It reminded me so much of how I enjoyed all the little surprises involved in interacting with the companion characters in KotOR II: The Sith Lords... both in how the interaction took place, and the consequences that followed.

It makes everything so much more lively and organic, in contrast to, say, the Mass Effect series where you mechanically visit each of your companions once after every major mission. And it took until the third game before the Normandy crew actually did things other than stand around and wait for the player to come and talk to them.

I hope that the liberation from publishers changing deadlines, as well as the extra time and money that goes into recording voiced dialogue, will bring Obsidian-style companion interaction to new levels of greatness. I'll try not to expect the impossible, though. :D

EDIT: Oh, on top of my wish list for companion interaction/influence is that you do away with showing their opinion of the player and his/her actions in the form of numerical values. Sure, you can use them in some form behind the scenes, but it's become a bit of an immersion-breaking mechanic to always be shown numerical approval ratings that the player will feel compelled to adjust his/her behavior to. It's better to just let the characters show how they feel through their mannerisms and dialogue. :)
A good article indeed. See how he shines when he is talking of what he excels.

As for influence system, Alpha Protocol had some interesting twists, which made me think that it may not be alway good to attract attentions of a certain people - I kind of felt as if the protagonist was stalked. I wished the themes were much deeper. However, thining of that, I'm not a great fan of 007 series.
    • Monkcrab likes this

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The companion needs to ego-stroke the player in a variety of ways.
Oh how glad I am to read this.

A lot of people ask for companions who despise the main character (or something along these lines). What they miss, I think, is that if a companion really couldn't care less about the main character, he wouldn't really be fun to travel with. There'd be no arguements, no criticism (when I think someone's stupid, would I bother to tell them?), no witty banter.
...


Well, I don't want to be surrounded by yes-men and bootlickers.

My ideal band of travellers would consist of a fool, a joker, a nutcase, a freak and a prisoner (with stockholm syndrome). Of course they would all respect you in some way, but it would be in no way an all harmonious party. Too bad there are only seven companions to choose from, so these - in my opinion way more interesting characters - will most likely not be considered by the devs.
This was a very enjoyable read, thanks Chris.
I do have a few notes which I hope you'll read;

"The companion needs to ego-stroke the player in a variety of ways. Sometimes this can be romance, sometimes this can be simply reactivity (either brief barks or conversations about the player’s actions), or any of a variety of methods. Ultimately, however, any companion that simply sits around bitching, complaining, and haranguing the player isn’t someone you want to drag into the nearest dungeon to help clear it out… you may simply want to throw them in the dungeon and lock the door."
I don't feel like this counts for every NPC. Xan in BG1 was one of my favorites, and all he does is complain. Kreia in KotOR2 strokes your ego occasionally by telling you how important you are, but most of the time she's tearing you down. I even enjoyed Skie in BG1 who constantly bitches about how awful life as an adventurer is, though that's mostly because I enjoyed the sounding board of having a relatively normal person in an adventuring group (because really, it's a horrible life). A friend of mine mentioned during the olympics that we should have 1 normal person running along with the athletes, just for a comparison. Skie was that normal person to me
Err, anyway, "they don't all have to kiss your ass" was my general message here, though I'm sure you already have that covered.

Another point I actually feel more strongly about;
Companion's lives should not revolve 100% about the player character. In 90% of RPG's, companions live and die by their masters and drop whatever they want when their boss comes calling. They'll mention their sidequest but often happily drop it when they get told 'no'. Likewise, when they're not in the party they'll just stand about in a tavern, waiting to be picked up and in the party, they'll not antagonise NPC's if you don't want them to, you can completely dicate their life. I feel this usually doesn't do justice to the character.
I liked how, in BG2, Aerie and Haer'dalis had their own (doomed) romance because it didn't involve the player character (who probably had his own romance) and one of the few things I liked about Dragon Age 2 was that while not in your party, your companions would be out doing stuff (Aveline worked at the city guard, Anders would heal people at his clinic, etc). These are after all people, not robots you just pick up in some random dungeon (and PS:T taught me, even those can have more free will than that).

I really enjoyed reading what you wrote, it gave me new insights in character creation. Carry on, good sir, I will be following this blog closely!
    • Estelindis and DimuthuK like this
nice article. I suspect that it is not easy to balance companions so that they are really useful / entertaining on one hand, but that you can also play the game and have fun without them.
Gann the Hagspawn was an awesome character, anything similar would be greatly appreciated in Eternity.
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Laakeririkko
Sep 24 2012 11:16 AM

And since you mentioned influence - I personally hope to not see it in P:E. I think it ruins the immersion and makes me care a little less about the companion - Especially if there are "prizes" for high loyalty. Instead of caring about this character as a person, he becomes a tool I use to gain some bonuses or to "max out" the loyalty meter.


Im oke with influence and such things, if you make it invisible. So that game won´t show "You gained +2 influence to Jaheira". I would like if there were one implemented in game so that you wouldn´t notice it. It would just run in background. And at some point of the game you would notice that some things you´ve said few weeks earlier made somebody angry or etc. But i think that you ment the same thing. I also know how it is to hunt influence point for Khelgar in conversations and it sucks.
Great read Chris! Puts more perspective into the characters you have created that I have enjoyed playing!
Great post Chris, after reading your blog and trying to imagine the sorts of NPCs that you guys are planning to implement into Project Eternity I started to reflect on the NPCs that were available to you in the BG series (1 & 2).

I felt that due to the lack of interactivity in BG1 you are largely left with self exploration of the story and surroundings, whilst the supporting cast of NPCs simply felt overwhleming, with many crossing over into eachothers roles and therefore making it hard to find a happy medium when playing the game (for me there were a number that just never made the cut, even though I have replayed BG1 about 30 or so times).

This is quite jarring in comparison when transitioning over to BG2 as you end up with a much greater level of depth to each character, but the problem was (at least for me) that you felt somewhat gimped by the choices available to you with regards to party integration when considering the roles you needed to fill vs the interaction of NPCs with either your character or with eachother, sometimes leading to wanting to kill eachother or leave you party for good.

I would think a balance between these two would be the sweet spot to aim for with Project Eternity, by all means have this level of character depth, but leave the options open for other NPCs to fill the gaps that may be left should it not be viable to have certain NPCs in the one party as a cohesive unit.
One thing I worry about,

"Next up, figure out exactly where that character shines in terms of the game mechanics – why would a player bring this companion along? Are they a tank, a healer, or perfect for sniping enemies from a mile away? This shouldn’t overlap with another companion’s specialty if you can help it."

In the video you mention how a companion should be optional and you shouldn't feel the need to have to take that character. To me this clashes a bit.

For example, in Dragon Age: Origins you had the ability to take your companiions and shape them toward what you wanted them to be. You could take Morrigan and if you wished give her some healing spells to make her be the healer in your party instead of having to take Wynee along, even though morrigan is geared toward shapeshifting and wynee toward healing when you first get them, over the course of leveling you had the ability to shape them into what role you wanted them to have.

Then in Dragon age 2 they got rid of this, and made the companions have certain unique skill sets. If you wanted any healer in your party and you yourself weren't a mage/healer, you HAD to take Anders. Even if you didn't like the character (I didn't personally) you had to take him. You could no longer take another mage companion and shape them into what you wanted so you could use that character that you preferred.

Will we be able to have control over a companions abilities in some way to shape them toward certain things we would need to better have a all around good group or will it indeed be locked?
Great post Chris. To follow up on Stiler's comment, I too felt one of the most hopeful lines in your original post was that "companions should be optional". I feel a lot more agency as a player when I can tell this sociopathic arse to take a long walk off a short pier rather than have him follow me around being a total prick for the rest of the game. And when I replay a game with a different character I may take a different view of a particular companion. I can't stand traveling with the paladin when I'm playing a rogue and he keeps getting all offended at my actions. But maybe I like that paladin plenty when I'm playing a cleric instead.

So making each companion fit a very specific role can make it hard to do with out certain ones. I know that personally, rather than picking the character type I want to play in may RPGs I instead play a test game or scour the internet to learn about the companions in detail and then custom build a player character who can complement the companions I can tolerate / enjoy. There are many times I have specifically chosen to play a character type I wasn't really that into for purely mechanical reasons. I hate all the mages in this game so I must play a mage or else my party can't survive.

You're experienced professional developers, so I'm sure you just yawn at all our irrational fears. :) But count this as one vote for a final balancing pass on the companions to ask yourself: What would happen if the player chose to play [each possible class] and refused to travel with [each possible companion]. If the answer to any of those is "the player is screwed" then try to tweak things.

Thanks for listening.
I think all three (right number?) of the evil characters I remember in BG2 were quite fun even when they constantly complained about your decisions, so I don't think it's really as strong a requirement that ego stroking be positive, it's just that most games can't really provide a context for dissimilar characters to be cooperating, whereas in BG2 it was obvious that Korgan cared about loot and Edwin cared about power in ways that let them say funny things and justified them sticking with a non-aligned player character.


Great post Chris, after reading your blog and trying to imagine the sorts of NPCs that you guys are planning to implement into Project Eternity I started to reflect on the NPCs that were available to you in the BG series (1 & 2).

I felt that due to the lack of interactivity in BG1 you are largely left with self exploration of the story and surroundings, whilst the supporting cast of NPCs simply felt overwhleming, with many crossing over into eachothers roles and therefore making it hard to find a happy medium when playing the game (for me there were a number that just never made the cut, even though I have replayed BG1 about 30 or so times).

This is quite jarring in comparison when transitioning over to BG2 as you end up with a much greater level of depth to each character, but the problem was (at least for me) that you felt somewhat gimped by the choices available to you with regards to party integration when considering the roles you needed to fill vs the interaction of NPCs with either your character or with eachother, sometimes leading to wanting to kill eachother or leave you party for good.

I would think a balance between these two would be the sweet spot to aim for with Project Eternity, by all means have this level of character depth, but leave the options open for other NPCs to fill the gaps that may be left should it not be viable to have certain NPCs in the one party as a cohesive unit.


Personally I loved that in BG2 they'd want to kill each other or leave the party for good. The 'gimping' thing is kind of a non-issue in BG2 because you can level so much. But I agree with you pretty much about BG1.
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BruderSamedi
Sep 27 2012 10:34 PM
As you mentioned FO:NV, I have to admit I did not to have any companion on my first playthrough. What I missed here (and in many similar 3D-RPGs) when it comes to combat is control: I think you as the player should be able to directly control your companions, position them, make them use spells, and also level them up, so do everything to them you can also do with your main character. This probably fits into the "Combat/Challenge-viable" category. However, I am not worried about this point for P:E as it will be more similar to Baldur's Gate than to 3D Fallout in this aspect.
Good article. I've always wanted companions that react more to the player. We've gotten too used to being forced to take along psychopaths, which strangely never betray you if you constantly berate them.

Surely every companion should have the chance to betray the player if your goals are not similar, just as they have the opportunity to help the player if they do.
    • DimuthuK likes this
Great post I dont agree with one thing entirely though. Characters should aways stroke the players ego.

Some great games have down right annoying characters and have been better for them.

Yuffie in Final Fantasy VII. One of the end lawyers in Phoenix Wright the first game.

I think it would be interesting for your companions to seem to have a life of their own and motivations of their own.

What about a companion setting you up and betraying you?

Annoying characters in movies and tv series are some of the best most memorable.
    • DimuthuK likes this

i agree very much, hide the numbers! i always end up playing in a way where i try to get the highest score with everyone - i just can't resist the numbers Posted Image
away with them! let us _feel_ the reaction of the guy, don't show us the numerical equivalent!

Exactly. I like to describe it as showing us, rather than telling us. If I gained or lost favor with someone, show me with facial experssions, gestures, words. Don't tell me with a +5 friendship.

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