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Project: Eternity and Characterization

Posted by Chris Avellone , 21 September 2012 · 91796 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



Another thing I think is important and you didn't mention - Most recent RPGs chose to have mostly the player initiate dialogue with companions. You know, you talk to them, you see what's new, they tell you about themselves then you do it again an hour later to see if any new option popped up. While this is fine, I think this is a bit overplayed. I think these sort of dialogues work much better when they are initiated by the companion (like the BG2 banters.) I think it makes them feel more alive and active when they can decide to talk with you just as much as you can decide to talk with them.


Hear, hear!

I think there is a great deal of room for innovation in the relationships between players and companions. Many RPGs today have reduced companion interaction to a post-quest checklist: do something in the world, return to base and talk to everyone, repeat.

It would be wonderful to have these interactions happen in a more organic way, as they do in real life. To me, that means having companions with their own hopes/dreams/opinions who react to their their circumstances in a way that reveals those things. Sometimes they need to tell you something important. Sometimes they really want a beer right now. And they probably don't want to tell you their deep dark secrets while standing in the middle of a crowded street.

So let's hear what the companion says when there's only one room left at the inn.... awkward. Let's have one companion burst in and tell me the need to talk about one of the other guys. Let's have someone disappear for a day and not tell me where they were...
    • Elidar, DimuthuK and TigrisW like this
Great article and great replies with concerns. Now a few things that are important for me personally:

- Ego-stroking.
While I don't have a problem with this, I feel that I also don't want to see companions that do nothing but praise you or support your actions. Real life example: If you're with a friend somewhere and he/she says something stupid or out of place you may agree and, perhaps defend their opinion to a point, but afterwards, when no one sees you'll say the truth "Are you freaking stupid? What was that?!" and so on. Now why am I saying this... I'd really like to see reactive companions, but I want them to have personalities. I'd like to see my companion disagree with my actions if they go against his code or beliefs and I want him to show his/her resentment for my actions, behavior, etc., perhaps to the point where they'll leave the party as was in BG series. At the same time I don't mind if a companion likes what I do, say, etc., and says so IF it corresponds to his/her beliefs. This makes them alive and makes you as a player attached to diverse and interesting personalities. For me personally I'd rather have a clever non-combat (or a weak combatant) NPC who would tell me I am an ass (IF I am really being one or IF he/she dislikes me for whatever reason) rather than an able-bodied and seasoned fighter that will tag along and nod no matter what I do and behave.

- Approval.
I really enjoyed reading posts that asked to conceal or change the existing approval/disapproval mechanic. For me it totally breaks the immersion. Someone mentioned DA: O and I'd totally go against such implementation where you're forced to balance between what NPCs like and dislike in order to attain max approval that gives those companions some decent bonuses. I say make a system where approval or disapproval of an NPC builds up upon your actions/conversations with them/your behavior, like BG series, for example, but don't make it obvious to the players and please no numbers. Totally kills the whole feeling of epic adventure. I’d really like to have conversations where I need to think carefully what to say and when, because it’s not obvious that an NPC will like or dislike what you say. Besides, I think that as of recent RPGs the possibility to reflect your own beliefs (for the character or your own) onto your character became very limited indeed. I’d really like to see options where you could express those beliefs in dialogs, especially when conversing with your companions.

Otherwise everything looks really solid and thought out. Looking forward to seeing this implemented in P:E.
    • DimuthuK and TigrisW like this
I have a question:

Will you make all women look like whores, pinups, fap material etc ?

Or are there some people that have figured out that the point of a chainmail or even a leather armor is to protect and not show off a square mile of cleavage?


If you want to put hot chicks in there then simply give characters a casual outfit so you can put **** on your advertisements.
Good read, Chris! Just a few things:

Character overlap is welcome to me if that means I won't have to choose between highly specialized companions that can be described as The Warrior, The Rogue, The Healer and the whatnot.

I don't want every companion to be equally balanced or to more or less appease me at every chance either. Quite the opposite. I want to have to appease, argue or put up with characters that are otherwise overpowered, like the warrior who is way stronger than me and tries to intimidate me into making the choices he wants, or a highly skilled chemist/thief with an insufferable attitude. Or why not a useless halfing gambler who basically just takes up a party slot for the sake of offering sazzy commentary.

One of the things that made BG2 so great was that your companions had their own lives that you more or less had to put up with if you wanted them to stick around. They didn't exist for your sake.
    • DimuthuK likes this
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UncleBourbon
Oct 18 2012 03:57 AM
One of my favorite companions in New Vegas was Raul, especially with the impact you could have on his life after the game through chatting and in-game choices. I've found companions I can't really work with in a party - often rogue like characters, as I tend toward them myself - but who I love to party with because of their backstory/banter/choices. Sand and Sten are examples of a different dynamic: I liked their respective skills and abilities, saw them as minor antagonists in the story, but all the same really liked taking them with me. I enjoyed having the option to choose between Sand and Qara, and I think an important quality to companions is a reaction to certain character traits or histories. Rose of Sharon Cassidy and the Cherchez La Femme perk come to mind.
I definitely don't think companions need to conform to the options available to your own character. Out of the box abilities/stats is part of what sets them aside and makes them unique. Eg: Morte has bite attacks and powers not only related to his ?race? and class, but a slew of curses that he gets just for being himself.
Very interesting and very enjoyable to read.

While I was reading this, I kept thinking of how the folks at the Penny Arcade: Extra Credits web series often talk about how a game should not be valued solely on its writing, but how well the writing, themes, and characterization are integrated into the game mechanics. For example, how themes present themselves in combat, exploration, aesthetics, quest-completion, character arcs, and so on. While reading this blog, all I could think was how well you follow their advice. ^^

BioWare games are often praised for their writing, especially in their most recent Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, but to be honest it seems like a lot of their games rely on writing so much that they end up inadvertently creating visual books or clickable movies as opposed to interact-able stories or... playable games. I find your approach so much interesting and engaging, and you are clearly thinking of this from the perspective of a game designer (and an RPG game at that) as opposed to an author or filmmaker. ^^

With that said, there are some passages that concern me.

- "The golden rule is the companion should be a support character or a walking/breathing slab of target practice... the companion should serve as a sounding board for the theme of the game." I hope this doesn't mean the characters have weak personalities. No offense, but I don't want to feel like characters spring into existence when my player meets them, exist solely to serve my character's every whim, and then cease to exist as soon as my character stops looking at them. While it's what they are (meta-wise), I don't want them to look or talk that way in-game. I want to feel like they're real people with their own pasts, histories, thoughts, opinions, hopes, dreams, goals, ambitions and futures just like anyone else.

While I love the idea of their goals coinciding with the player (why else would they tag along?), and their histories, personalities and/or situations helping to highlight the overall theme (helps from a narrative perspective), I would rather they feel like well-rounded people who tag along because of mutual interest rather than mindless automatons waiting to serve my character's every whim. You've written some great characters in the past, so I trust you to do well with these guys too, but just the same hope you keep this in mind as you write them.

- "The companion needs to ego-stroke the player in a variety of ways." I'm sure you get this a lot, but I hope this doesn't mean the companions all blindly agree with the player's every action. I agree that "any companion that simply sits around bitching, complaining, and haranguing the player" is no fun, but at the same time, please don't be afraid to let some companions disagree with or even chew out the player if it fits their character. Again, I'd rather they feel like people with their own thoughts and opinions instead of satellites revolving around my character.

Otherwise, I have no real concerns. This sounds like it's going to be an amazing role-playing game, I love the role-playing game designing approach you're taking (again, I think it's really amazing that you seem to be approaching this as a game that players interact with, not just a movie that players keep going by pressing buttons), and I cannot wait to see how this evolves! ^_^
    • TigrisW likes this

I just wanted to say that Myron is one of my favorite companions ever, and I am not the only one who believes he is good. His complete "me being me" attitude with great place in the story of the world he lives in and weakness in combat made him unique.

 

Myron is not a character testers and players will favor at first, but he is the character which made Fallout 2 be remembered fondly over the years. These sorts of characters are a risk, but they can be great investment in what a game achieves overall.

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KKDragonLord
Feb 05 2013 09:05 PM

To be honest i particularly dislike the flagrant Ego Stroking that happens all the time from everyone in games like Mass Effect... particularly the way how every female character is commenting on how handsome Sheppard is and how much they want to have babies with him... it makes me feel sleazy that being a gamer developers think i want all the hot ladies to give me fanservice all the time and that it will make me enjoy myself more while playing the game :-/

Seriously, i really wish there were women in games that are not falling over their heels to get in bed with the main character and who actually have some depth and independence from the fact that they can also make babies.

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Lord Lierdan Firkraag
Mar 18 2013 04:25 PM

You see, when games like Fallout 2 or Vampire Bloodlines or PS:T came out, i realized that a remarkable NPC makes the game spicy. Anyone remembering Jack from Bloodlines? Or Marcus from Fallout 2? Not to mention Dak'kon or Minsc. Those NPCs had a real character on them. And after years of gaming, i still can remember them and the conversations i made with them. The stories they told was impressive and they had a belieavable past. They were quite handy as a companion (well, not Jack). They had unique lines of speech and some "tone" on them. Sum of all; they were a real character, not some unsuccesful fiction.

 

Secondly i can tell that; companions should have thier own unique quests, own personal life and lastly they should have their own unique, remarkable items; just like in BG2.

 

This means, only a very talented and hard working man with a discipline can create them; like Chris Avellone. I have faith in you.

    • TigrisW likes this

I loved this insight into the writing processes! And it's also and bunch of free tips and help for amature writers! You guys rock.

This should be mandatory reading by Devs who work on affected games.

 

I've recently played a game with very poor (lifeless, unbalanced) companion implementation. I believe the game could be considered excellent (depite its other flaws) if  this area alone were fixed.

I've seen games that may not be excellent but are considered such because of the experience the companions delivered to the player.

 

This is a good topic to share with story modders and indie/aspiring game devs. Awesome!

 

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