Eastshade: When NPCs Read

There’s a fairly famous quest near the start of The Witcher 3 where a dwarvish blacksmith has had his forge burned down. You can track down the vandal and turn him over to the authorities, and if you do, he’s immediately executed. He’s hung from a nearby tree. It’s a grim quest that tells you a lot about the fictional world. The disproportionate punishment is due to the lawmen being part of an occupying force; they are eager to protect the blacksmith, as he makes weapons for their broader invasion (at spear-point, not for profit). The locals are also racist, so they already hated the dwarf before the whole occupation started up. You know, of course, that this vandal shouldn’t have acted out against the dwarf, but that the violence in turn towards the vandal will only serve to deepen the rift between the dwarf and the wider community. You’ve done the typical hero move by bringing someone to justice, but the quest shows you that your ideas of justice are crude, and that the political realities of the world of The Witcher defy such simple solutions.

This early quest in The Witcher shows how quests generally can serve to communicate ideas or themes within a fictional world. Today I want to talk about another element of video game narrative that can equally convey the moods and ideas of a text: namely, what NPCs do in their spare time. This is something you don’t often see getting that much attention. Animation is obviously quite labour intensive, and there doesn’t often seem like a high return for creating unique animations if the player will see only it once for about five seconds. There’s a cost-benefit proposition here, right. Similarly, the animations that do get included are often kinda uninspired. You get NPCs sitting, standing around, or walking up and down the street on a loop. Then you have a couple animations for farmers in the fields, maybe a couple for miners, maybe someone with a broom sweeping interior locations. Even in games with more sophisticated NPC loops – such as Assassins Creed Unity, which we talked about a few years back – the actual behaviours aren’t meant to connote much beyond the idea of people existing. In that Unity example, the loop has a group of people sitting in the road talking and drinking. There’s a finer level of detail – they clink their mugs together, one man puts his hand on a woman’s knee – but you’re not meant to take much away other than the impression of life, of normal human existence.

It’s interesting, then, to turn to Eastshade, where the NPC behaviours are often a little unusual. You still have your walkers, your shop owners, your people carrying objects round in circles – but then there’s also a really noticeable sub-category of ‘people enjoying art’. I mentioned a couple weeks back the writer inspired by other people’s writing – he’s one obvious example from early on. You find him sitting in the woods on a carpet with a fat stack of books. Other examples include a musician who’s pitched himself a tent near the beach (“It’s a nice quiet place to write music”), a couple kids reading in the forest with a picnic basket, there are people reading on the boat as you sail in – even the first character you meet on arriving in Eastshade is sitting in a chair, reading a book. His shelves sit next to him, there are books on the dresser – it’s still brief detail, but it feels lived.

Just to really drive this last example home, compare, for instance, the shelves in the gallery below, from the airport level in Modern Warfare 2. I actually had that photo to hand – didn’t even have to reinstall the game – can’t pass through an airport without checking out the bookstore. We can see a string of low-res generic titles and images – Shakespeare, Oliver Twist, some ‘what to see in X country’ books – there’s obviously not a lot of care here. I mean, it’s totally acceptable work from the developers – even arguably more work than we’d expect to see for such a brief detail – but it’s clearly background. It’s not meant to communicate anything beyond the idea that you’re in a bookstore.

Compare that to the second image, of Ingov in Eastshade – there’s much more of a sense of lived-ness. The books on the dresser really sell it for me – it’s such a little detail, but it’s telling. When you’re partway through reading a book, it doesn’t go back on the shelf between reads. You put it somewhere separate, somewhere for the books in progress. In this instance, and all the others, there’s a sense that people in this world really take the time to enjoy art. It’s not just the generic NPC fantasy actions of farming or sweeping – this is a game about art, and so you see characters engaging with it, even just as background NPC animation.

And this detailing raises a question for video games – a question that maybe developers haven’t always put that much thought into. What does the activity of the NPCs say about the fictional world? In Eastshade, art is a major part of life – and that’s reflected in the activity of different characters. It’s not something that one special person does, it’s something that everyone enjoys. In many other games, NPC behaviour is largely without direction – that is, it exists, but not in a directed, driven way. It’s really only an indication that a place is populated; there’s no real relationship with the themes or ideas of the story. But with this little shift, Eastshade connects your core gameplay activity with the actions of other people throughout the fictional world. It creates kinship, affection, a sense that your actions are part of a wider social fabric. It embeds you and your work, your play, deeper into the world. You don’t make art in a vacuum – you make it as part of a community, part of a broader society of people. And you see that activity reflected in the characters around you. Games like The Witcher try to connect you to the fictional world by putting you in the middle of seismic political events. You relate to the world through your power over it, through your ability to influence the lives of the people around you. Eastshade suggests that the solution can be even simpler. If you’re an artist, show people enjoying art.

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