In an effort to come up with a concept that allows for even greater immersion than current video games, I thought of a process of combining different mechanics into a single one. The most important parts to achieve a great level of immersion are environment, perspective, and character-character-interaction. Today, I´ll be writing about the latter.
NPCs, the non-playable characters, in video games often are the weakest part of a game. Even if we take a game with supposedly fantastic npcs, such as the Mass Effect-series, it is limited to only a few characters, while the majority of on-screen npcs cannot be interacted with. They might say something as you approach them, but you aren´t given the option to actively talk to them. That is the currently best the industry has to offer. Typically, you cannot interact with npcs at all. Popular examples for such games would be Grand Theft Auto 4 or Assassins Creed 2. There are thousands of people (aka npcs) in these games, and all you can do is ignore or hurt/kill them. Now, some might say that it isn´t financially feasible to design each and every npc as a fully interactable being, but not only am I going to write about a concept that could work around heavy costs, there´s also an example of game that did make the majority of npcs capable to interact with.
First of all, said game is Vampire Masquerade: Bloodlines, one of the best RPGs for PC. Even though it´s quite old by now and combat is clunky, this title lets you initiate talk with seemingly every npc you can see. No, not literally everyone, but the ratio between interaction and non-interaction is so high that you get the feeling of being able to talk with everyone.
Now, as for the concept I came up with. Imagine you have like 20 or such different character traits. Funny, friendly, cold, success-driven, old-fashioned, romantic, asshole, evil, sexist, playful, happy, sad, motivated, disenchanted, arrogant, shy, and so on. Let´s then imagine that each and every npc randomly features one to up to three of these traits that build its personality. However, that doesn´t mean that a npc is static in behavior/personality. Every npc would have access to ALL 20 traits. It´s just that 1-3 of these form the current expression of a npc´s personality. Due to this structure, you could talk to each and every npc in a game like GTA4 or AC2 and engage in a conversation with them a la Mass Effect. All it takes are these 20 fleshed out traits and, of course, a lot of lines for npcs to choose from. However, unlike having to work on 100,000 characters individually, it only takes a tiny fraction of the effort/money to create. Thanks to the access to all different traits, you could talk to and transform npcs´ personality. Get a friendly person to insult you, talk an arrogant bitch into sleeping with you, or persuade a killer to give up and turn himself in. To make it even more interesting, there could be hard-wired traits amongst others that cannot be changed. So a “cold, sexist, asshole“-npc with the “sexist“-trait hard-wired could be turned into a “friendly, sexist, playful“-npc. It would make the concept all the more realistic, since everyone of us is made of traits that follow us through the whole course of our lives.
That´s it, my concept for a whole new level of immersion regarding npc-interaction that keeps costs reasonable. I´m not all that confident to see games using the above any time soon, since killing npcs seems to be still the most fun thing for the majority of gamers. But there´s always hope that at least one developer/publisher will attempt something different. Until then, the mindless npc-genocide continues. At least I am killing giant, reptilian monsters in MH3!