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Project: Eternity and Characterization

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Chris Avellone

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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!

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Great article!

I wanted to comment about the first point, combat. While I agree with you, I think it's also important to not make the companions too great. In BG2, for example, some of the companions were built with some downright weird stats allocation - Anomen, a cleric, had 13 wisdom, many fighters had less than 18 strength and many were uselessly multiclassed. This just made them more interesting and usually really drove the character point home. This worked because in party-based RPGs, as long as the companion has a role he can feel serviceably, he is useful enough. He does after all have 5 more charactesr to help him pull the weight, and you only really need one character of each role.

So, what I'm trying to say is that I'll love to see characters creativity also presented in their stats and such even if it doesn't make 100% strategic sense.

 

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.

 

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.

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I think it's fair and a good point - companions shouldn't be (1) more powerful than the player, to the point where they can handle the combats by themselves, (2) upstage the player, and (3) seem to have used the ruleset in ways the player cannot to their advantage (ex: they're allowed to have stat allocations that no normal player could have made). All these things can breed resentment.

 

A lot of the CNPC-initiated companion stuff makes them feel more alive, as long as the execution is handled correctly and it makes sense in the context of the situation.

 

I probably should have mentioned that you need to have balanced companion choices based on player personality - if they are a psychotic, there should be some companions that will stick with you, and the same is true if you walk middle of the road or walk the paladin's road as well. This can depend on alignment range, karma range, or faction range.

 

Anyway, blah blah blah words words words

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The usefulness of the companions cannot be overstated. My two favorite BG2 companions were Viconia and Edwin. It's no coincidence that they were the best healer and mage in the game.

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To dmbot's point about companions initiating the dialogue: I agree that it does make them feel more alive, but it can sometimes be annoying, particularly if it's out of context. In BG2 I would be in some dark, messed up dungeon and then Jaheria and Aerie would start cat fighting over who likes me more (who could blame them). There would always be a dialogue option where you could tell them "not now" or "no one cares" but I never chose those for fear of affecting the relationship with them.

 

So, while I do like when they bring stuff up, there's a time and place. Certain dialogues should probably only be initiated in towns, or traveling between places on the map. I always enjoyed the scenarios in the old SNES rpgs where you would sleep at an inn, and then a couple of your characters would wake up (with the world now tinted blue) and start talking about whatever.

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Great read, thanks for taking the time out to post this.

 

However I should point out I have no problem with a character upstaging the character. If the story calls for it, and it makes sense in the world/lore. I don't see it as a problem. However I can see why you don't do this due to some peoples dislike for it.

 

I also like the comment about PC personality having an effect on available characters, I loathe when a character sticks around even when you do something that goes against their beliefs right in front of them. I would be all for them leaving/ attacking the character based on past/previous/current decisions/actions.

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I was nodding as I read, great article.

 

Most of the points make a good case for a player support character. Made me wonder if an NPC has a plan to derail the PC's plans which gets started once the NPC joins the party. The NPC starts off friendly, builds on the loyalty factor, and then at a critical plot point turns on the PC, and have an attack of conscience. Best NPCs are those who is not fully good/evil.

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re: Influence meter, I don't mind having it, but don't show the player. This is something that should be a background mechanic. And as to player initiated vs companion initiated dialogue, these should not be exclusive. You should be able to initiate dialogue with your companions whenever you want, but your companions should be able to do the same.

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Thank you for posting interesting content news and information on a almost daily basis Obsidian, I love it !

 

Good points by the previous posters, I would also like to give my subjective view on the subject matter. The mechanics described below is how they affect my game experience.

 

 

For a 6 man party based RPG like this, I think it's important for the companions to be equally complete as your own main character.

By complete I mean:

1) If one of your companions is a mage, they need to have access to entire mage spellbook

2) Use the same stats

3) Use the same inventory slots

- etc.

 

1) 2):

When companions have access to the full skillset, they will feel like a real character. If not they will feel incomplete, handicaped,restrained in some degree. I wont care for them much and their oppinion will have slightly less credibility and weight (obviously their background story and the quality of the dialog will have the biggest influency on this).

 

Also it enchance the gameplay value; the longivity of one playthrough increases. Because I can change my focus to one of my 5 companion, when I do not feel like playing my main character. This is something I did alot in Baldurs Gate 1/2 etc.

Furtherly it cater players whom emphasises on customization and tweaking (more 'valves' to turn. adjust and play around with during a playthrough).

Obviously companions individual stats can be adjusted, not every companion have to feel the same.

 

3):

One of the very cool aspects of Icewin Dale, Baldurs Gate etc., it's easy to switch your items around within your party, you don't have to be frustrated with companion only items (I just want to point out, Im not referring to family items, I like those).

In BG most items had an uniq cool story, maybe I gathered rare part of an legendary items and finally got it forged. Elements like this makes you more attached your equipment, it becomes personal to you. Most BG players would probably recon they saved alot of uniq items in their Bag of Holding for sentimental value etc. So the point is: do not make specific companion slots or less slots, its nice to utilize as many 'personal' items as possible.

 

 

 

Companion cannot be stronger than your own main character?

 

As Bos_hyrbrid points out: "if the story calls for it, and it makes sense in the world/lore"; you team up with a legendary Paladin of the Xxxx, it will feel more convincing.

Companion might start out around your powerlevel, but as the story progress, the main character could gain extra features unattainable for companions, hence making you slowly stronger. In this scenario you will also feel progression, you have earned your power, satisfaction etc.

 

The main character always have the last word in dialog and discussion along your quest; you are in charge, you are the leader. Companion strength vs. main character strength doesn't have to be measured only in pure stat vs stat.

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I'm a little weirded out at the paragraph on "ego stroking" the PC. Could you explain further? Taken too far, this could mean that companions have little identity of their own. I've also always enjoyed "bitchy" characters that don't just roll over for the PC.

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Isn't the fact that the companion has agreed to accompany the player and accept their leadership a type of ego stroking, in and of itself. For instance Roche and Iorveth, may accompany the player at various points in the Witcher 2 but in now way are they subordinate to Geralt, their paths and goals have just happened to collide. In a way this is a far more realistic implementation than the traditional party mechanic.

 

That being said the mechanic presented in both Torment, Kotor 2 and Dead Money to explain this subjugation of free will was logical and didn't diminish the companions in too great a fashion. Indeed Kreia still emerges as the most principled of individuals in the whole Star Wars universe. But looking at the characters of Dead Money for instance (especially Dean Domino) would they have ever accepted to even accompany the Courier if not for Elijahs forced co-operation.

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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. :)

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Chris, of all the obsidian guys it is you who i wish the most luck for making this game

the companions are the thing that will make or break this game more than any other

keep on rockin' !

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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!

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Another thing a companion should bring to the game is you should get access to at least one quest that you wouldn't otherwise get access to without them in your party. Also, at some point with any companion-only quest line, there should be at least one interesting decision for the player to make. At the end of the game they should be able to look back on that decision and wonder what would've happened had they made a different choice.

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When you have several companions in a game, imho it's also important that their design quality is mostly on the same level compared to each other. This recurs to Chris' rule "Companions should be optional". If there are one, two, several characters that exceed the others for example in detail or offer considerably more rewards through story angles, quests, banter and so on, it feels like you are forced to choose them over the others. For example I think Morrigan and Allister in Dragon Age: Origins are way to much raised above the rest, 'cause they play a signficant role in the main quest. The worst thing is, when this is combined with a breach of "Combat/Challenge-viable". For me, Imoen in BG2 was such a character.

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- 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.

 

Does that mean I can't have a pretentious professor, philosopher with a handgun and a monocle as a companion?

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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...

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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
    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!

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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.

 

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.

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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. :)

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