TLDR: Scroll to bottom for main points.
I've been playing through Fallout NV recently. It's excellent quest design has brought to my mind a few points I'd like to share about NPC agency.
Let's talk about the oldest trope in fantasy RPGs - that of the "quest".
Usually a PC is given quests that entails "solving" problems for NPCs. If the player accepts a quest, then directions to complete said quest and possible rewards for doing so are made clear. If the player chooses to ignore the quest, then not much of anything happens (more on this point later).
This plays into the power-fantasy that these games have historically filled. The player is either a White Knight travelling from town to town solving problems or an Evil **** (my own label) who benefits from said problems. This has always struck me as shallow and ultimately conceited; the White Knight's motivation is seemingly helping others in need but in actuality, his/her true motivation is the feeling of power gained by doing so. And if the player chooses not to engange in a quest (for whatever reason) then nothing changes because the NPC is incapable of handling the problem without the player's intervention.
In my opinion, Kreia (from KOTOR 2) is the best NPC character I have ever encountered in any game. Her interactions with the player shred all the preconceived notions about being both a White Knight or an Evil ****. The conversation where she tears the player a new one for the ostensibly "noble" act of charity toward the traveller trapped at the port in Nar Shadda is permanently etched into my mind.
"Such kindnesses will mean nothing, his path is set. Giving him that which he has not earned is like pouring sand into his hands."
The notion that simply doing good deeds for others is the end-all cure to their problems was in desperate need of being thrown out with the rest of the simplistic moralism espoused by a lot of fantasy games - and Kreia was the one that did it for me.
Back to New Vegas - one aspect of the quest system that really stood out to me was it gave the player the choice of not only solving the problems of NPCs but empowering NPCs to actually solve their own problems. A great example is one of the first quests you receive: Ghost Town Gunfight. Instead of merely eliminating the Powder Gangers and "solving" the problem, the player is put in a postition to empower the people of Goodsprings to help themselves. Rally the troops and have them play to their strengths in order to fight off the invaders. There is certainly a sense of satisfaction to be had from helping people help themselves.
Sadly, this was not done nearly enough (even in NV). By declining to do a quest, the NPC would usually see you off with a "I'll be here if you change your mind" and then simply wait around for you to return and help him/her out of the problem. The quest that comes to mind is the one where the Brotherhood of Steel initiate asks you to return the laser pistol he dropped in the wastes while running from Radscorpions. I wanted to tell him that if he snuck out of the bunker for target practice, he can certainly do it again to retrieve his pistol, and if he's too cowardly to do so, he can talk to the quartermaster, admit his mistake, and bear the consequences of his actions. In short, he should SOLVE HIS OWN DAMN PROBLEM. Sadly, this was not an option provided in the dialogue tree. I left that quest undone on moral grounds, even though to complete it would have probably netted me some free supplies from the quartermaster.
For those of you who are still with me, here are my simple recommendations for dealing with NPC agency in quests:
- Ensure that there are noticeable outcomes (positive, negative or otherwise) for both choosing to accept a quest and NOT choosing to accept it.
- If possible (because it isn't always possible) enable player to help NPCs solve their own problems.
Seeing as how both the games from where I have taken ideas are Obsidian games, this is probably already well understood by the devs. I'd simply like to see more of it.