So, you might not know this, but like Eric, I’m in the process of writing a gamebook.
(Refresher: a “gamebook” is the unofficial term for a browser-based, text-only videogame made using the Choicescript program. See the Choice of Games website for more on that.)
Like many existing gamebooks, mine concerns a player-generated hero who embarks on a nonlinear adventure, finding and befriending NPCs along the way who help the hero overcome trials and all that good stuff. It’s a fantasy story, it’s got lots of fighting and exploring — you know, like every other RPG ever made.
My game is still in the roughest, earliest stage of development, and I’m only now just beginning to flesh out the hero’s teammates, the most critical NPCs in any RPG or gamebook. This was what I would like to call a Mistake: defining the hero’s party should’ve been among the first bullet points on my game design plan.
(Of course, I don’t even have a game design plan, let alone bullet points for it to hold, but you get the gist.)
As I’m struggling to catch up I figure, hey, I might as well take advantage of my negligence and share my findings with the rest of the class.
So here I am, and like I said, I’m kind of struggling. Writing NPC teammates is harder than it seems. (Shocker, that.) Don’t misunderstand: it’s not that I have never written supporting characters before. That’s not the problem. On the contrary, I already have one (as of yet unpublished) novel under my belt, and a screenplay before that, and both boast a handful of supporting characters. If I were feeling proud, I would call them well-polished, and if I were feeling big-headed, I would even call them memorable.
In short, I’m hardly a stranger to writing interesting characters for a traditional, linear story. The trick is writing interesting characters for an interactive, nonlinear story.
Anyway, what does any of this have to do with Garrus Vakarian?
MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE MASS EFFECT SERIES FOLLOW
Out of all the NPC teammates in Mass Effect (or any RPG, Bioware or otherwise), I think Garrus serves best as a template. He has all the qualities that personify such a character, and when writing my own, I will think of these qualities and use them as a sort of guideline. As an NPC and a template, Garrus possesses:
- Coolness. In an RPG, particularly any RPG containing spectacle or sensational violence or any kind of action at all, Coolness is necessary. Coolness fills a niche in the player’s expectations — if we have cool people who like us or help us, we feel cool too. Garrus looks cool, talks cool and fights cool.
- Angst. Yes, believe it or not, I’m advocating some degree of Angst in my characters and yours. Not melodrama, I’m not saying the character needs to whine or sulk or rave, but the best character will have a Problem that the player can soothe or solve entirely. This also fills a niche — assuming the player is invested in the character, then alleviating their Angst will make us feel responsible. Garrus has plenty of Angst across all three games, and he usually keeps it close to his chest.
- Intereaction. This is my nonsense word for when the NPC reacts dynamically to the variant choices taken by the player, a portmanteau of “interaction” and “reaction.” Every character has this to a certain extent — why, each time the player character chooses to talk to an NPC and they respond in some way, that response is a small Intereaction. But I’ll use Garrus as a more concrete example: in the first and second Mass Effects, Garrus will converse with the player and ask for their opinion on such matters as Justice VS Vengeance and the issue of ends justifying the means. Depending on the player’s actions, Garrus’s whole perception of justice can change, leading him down a more peace-keeping path or a more direct, legally-gray one.
- Resonance. Technically I’m talking about both Thematic Resonance and Story Resonance. (These are two slightly different qualities, which is cheating, I suppose, but never mind.) No matter the character’s Coolness, Angstiness (?) or Intereactive nature, if their existence doesn’t correlate with the plot at large then they will feel unnecessary. At worst, they’ll feel intrusive, like a cereal flake crammed into the empty spaces of your keyboard. Garrus fits the bill because he is relevant to each Mass Effect game in a different way, both in terms of Story and of Theme.
But even pretentious concepts like the above won’t save your character if they don’t also have:
- Humor. Any character will start to grate on your nerves if they don’t possess Humor. If I could indulge in a tangent, this is my big problem with Jack, another teammate from Mass Effect. She has Coolness — she can blow up tanks with her mind — she has Angst — hell, her psyche has third-degree burns — and it’s all justified, since her powers and personality were formed by the same organization that funded and restored Commander Shepard, the player character. Thus, she has both Thematic and Story Resonance. But she just isn’t very fun to have around.
So, to recap what we can learn from Garrus: whenever possible, give your NPC teammate a dose of Coolness, a smattering of Angst, a portion of Intereactivity (. . .), a degree of Thematic and/or Story Resonance and, please, a big helping of Humor.
Follow these guidelines and you will have one spectacular character.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go try this out for myself and discover whether I was right about this, or if I was just talking out of my ass the whole time.
Thanks for reading and happy gaming.