There is a strange thing in certain RPGs that seems to be the norm, namely, a great disconnect between the player character and the world around him or her. Being asked by a rather pushy peasant to ensure that their mother’s necklace is recovered from a nearby swamp is a common occurrence in the lands of Tamriel or the nuclear wastelands of America, regardless of whatever pressing issues might well be at hand. One might get the impression from this that a lot of the inhabitants are fairly hopeless at this whole adventuring lark, and are not above asking the local authorities to help find their keys. Luckily, for them it seems that adventuring and solving problems is only the business of the one sentient being in the entire universe.
However, this doesn’t seem to be the case in certain situations. An apparently docile community of villagers will turn immediately hostile if you are to say kill the wrong hen or perhaps steal the wrong bottle of ‘Nuka Cola’. You can simply rock up to a small village fully kitted out in demonic plate mail and wielding a sword that has defeated champions from every corner of the land and yet still you will be challenged. A peasant will pull out his lucky chisel take a swing regardless of your level, or the amount of bones you are wearing. If only the villagers possessed the same initiative when it came to saving their own lives against the many monsters of the world.
It is not so much an issue that NPCs attempt to defend themselves. Whoever you are fighting, if faced with near-certain death anyone would at least try and put up a fight in order to survive. Though, in retrospect, if I were to witness Sauron the Deceiver steal a pack of hobnobs from the local corner shop, I’m most likely going to step aside. NPCs however, will confidently attack you regardless of how powerful you actually are.
The seeming lack of fear that exists in the standard NPC found in many RPGs to date is crippling to the character building that is the bread and butter of an RPG. The inability for denizens of the world to recognise you and react to your developing personality and your particular set of choices makes those very choices seem pointless or of little effect. Games such as Fable have tried to have NPCs react to the player differently depending upon their moral alignment. Evil players will cause NPCs to run away terrified, while morally righteous players will be greeted with cheers and adoration. It is, of course, a little forced and doesn’t really come across as authentic in any stretch of the imagination; but at least they react to you in some way at all.
It has become something of a joke that in games like Skyrim NPCs will often ignore your great feats of heroism. You can be taking your victory lap after defeating the first born of Akatosh, saving the very fabric of time and space, and still be treated like a common sweetroll thief. The disconnect between your deeds and the reactions of those around you is more than enough to pull you out of the moment. It doesn’t make for much of a heroic experience to be listening to idle chit-chat about the price of iron daggers plummeting when the world has just been saved from total destruction, by you.
As previously mentioned, the main rub stems from the inability for non-player characters to understand who or what you are. Bandits do not run from you as you crest the hill, villagers do not cheer as you repel an attack of rampaging monsters and no one seems all to thrilled that some silent hero has waltzed on in and saved them from any responsibility over their own lives. The entire experience reeks of a complete disconnect from the world around your character, as if they have merely been spawned into the environment for no purpose other than to serve as a vehicle for the plot, or in reality, to entertain the player. The desire to entertain the player is often thwarted, however, when interactions with other characters or the completion of quests turns out to be hollow due to not feeling as if your actions actually mean anything at all.
In some cases the NPCs do seem to get involved in the whole business of saving the world. In the majority of cases, however, they seem to either get in the way or offer no real support to your efforts. You can enter a room and brutally slay a cabal of demons single-handedly, and yet the cut scene after will place your companion as an equal to you in the engagement. Of course, they are placed into this position for the necessity of the narrative, but it is no less jarring for it.
So, it is all well and good to simply complain about how poorly integrated the main character is into a game like Skyrim or Fallout 4, but what it is it that can be done about it? Well, the first thing to look at is how to make quests and interactions mean something to the game-world and its inhabitants, or at very least leave a lasting impact on the player’s character by the end.
If we take a look at a game like Dead Rising, one of the first things we notice is the timer on certain story beats. In Dead Rising, if the player neglects to undertake certain missions at certain times the story locks out for that play-through. That’s it! Gone forever. Imagine if a game like Skyrim had quests that worked on a similar principle; a man who is looking for someone to rescue his daughter from a gang of thugs outside town might go and try to save her himself if you don’t help him first, dying valiantly. Perhaps, not intervening in a war between rival families or clans will lead to a bloodbath that could have been avoided. The simple idea of adding a time limit as to how long you have to complete quests not only simulates the urgency of the plight of a quest-giver; but, more importantly, it simulates a living, breathing world.
One of my favourite gaming experiences that came close to this idea was that of the title Majora’s Mask. This incredible game changed the way I looked at gaming by adding a constant sense of dread to your game and your quests. The world will actually be destroyed if you don’t get off your heroic arse and defeat the end boss in time; it’s just that simple. The feeling of a looming apocalypse spurs on the player to solve the world’s problems before it is too late. Comparing this to the experience of Skyrim, problems are simply put on hold until you felt ready to deal with them. The evil monster at the end of the dungeon will sit there and wait until it is convenient for you to face it. The stakes are not high at all, as you can stall them for as long as you need to, making the sense of urgency that should exist completely moot. Quests should not be available at your convenience as having to go out of your way to save the town or village from attack is the very thing of hero business.
Another mechanic that is often dabbled with is that of ‘survival’. On paper the idea that your character has to find food or shelter in order to keep on going is naturally immersive, but it often becomes an unrealistic burden rather than thematic. Veterans of DayZ, or similar survival games, will remember the constant annoyance of having to feed their characters every 10 minutes, regardless of how much they have previously eaten or drank. Fallout: New Vegas featured a survival mode which was fairly interesting in principle, but the very nature of the game made it so that it was very easy to remain fed and watered, as surprisingly both food and water were incredibly plentiful across the wasteland. Survival elements in games should only go so far as to hamper the player’s efforts if not checked upon every so often, rather than becoming a chore (like that in DayZ), or an easily overlooked nuisance such as in Fallout: New Vegas. The former only serving to ruin the gaming experience, and the latter serving no purpose at all.
A game series like that of Dark Souls, or the newly released Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, have used the mechanic of weapon degradation with mixed results. The former, I feel, hits the nail on the head by not hindering players by removing their weapons but making them less effective. This leads to a tension that ensures the well-versed player brings items into the dungeon to fix or maintain his or her gear if the need arises. Breath of the Wild, however, wills its players to believe that a steel sword, a properly designed spear or halberd can only withstand a few blows to a squishy Bokoblin! Often, it seems that adding such effects can only work to make the experience all the more unrealistic. Similar issues in games like the aforementioned Dead Rising, I feel, serve to only stand in the way of the enjoyment of the game itself, rather than adding to it, which itself is the antithesis of the game’s chief aim. In Dead Rising, a crowbar will break after a few measly swings, the same way that a piece of wood might do after repeated use. The end result is to make no particular weapon special or feel like a decent find. Terrible, makeshift weapons should easily break apart upon repeated use, but a proper weapon should be sturdy and reliable as a reward for finding it; which in itself spurs the player to explore the map in search of decent weapons to defeat enemies. A newly minted hero of the realm should have to rely on blunted axes and rusty or chipped swords before they are able to afford or earn more effective weapons, as this makes each new weapon earned a major step forward and not just dead-weight in the inventory.
All of these mechanics, when used properly, help to integrate the player into the world they are inhabiting. In the same way that caring about the characters of the movie is crucial to caring about the story and it’s outcome, ensuring the player feels connected to the world is essential if you want them to care about trying to save it. Quests likewise need to feel difficult and rewarding to a player, as if they are gradually improving and moving forward, rather than simply gunning for 100% completion.
In short, the top of the list when it comes to making a player character feel part of the world is establish that character in a world that reacts to the player’s choices and style of play. If a player didn’t stock up on supplies before setting out on a quest, their experience will be changed dramatically as they spend their time scavenging for them. A player who has earned the respect of a village might find it easier to get local information about their next quest than a player who burned down their town hall. Having the world react to your exploits and understanding what kind of person you are makes for an experience than encourages experimentation and more importantly, a enjoyable time spent.