Birth Of An NPC: Writing Non-Player Characters

By Unai Cabezon [04.18.19]

In Double Cross, you play as Zahra Sinclair, an agent of RIFT, Regulators of Interdimensional Frontiers and Technology. Throughout the game, you gather clues in different dimensions and show them to non-player characters in RIFT headquarters to solve the mystery behind a masked traitor that threatens the organization.

From very early in the process of writing the story for Double Cross we knew that we wanted an interesting cast of NPCs for players to interact with. A slide in our very first story pitch depicted the casts of RPG masterpiece Final Fantasy VI and popular anime series My Hero Academia as examples of what we were aiming for. Visually appealing characters with complex personalities that make you want to know more about them.

After some research, we decided to base our secondary characters upon stereotypes at a first glance, but with unexpected twists that'd made them stand out and become memorable. We also wanted to make them unique from each other and give them clear roles within the game, to help guide players who were trying to find the right NPC to show a clue to.

Besides their personalities, we really cared about the characters' visual design. We intended to give them a variety of recognizable silhouettes, carefully crafted to match their roles and personalities. We have a very talented Art Team and we knew this could be a strong selling point for Double Cross. Furthermore, we wanted to use the visual design of the characters to showcase more about the game world's multiple dimensions. We knew we were only showing 3 or 4 alternate Earths in the game levels, so the characters were a good chance to show what else was there. Talking dinosaurs, fruit people, Lovecraftian creatures... The weirder, the better.

With this in mind, I'll walk you through the process we followed to create four of our NPCs.

Step 1: Character roles

First of all, we had to establish what each character's role was going to be. This way, the entire design process could have a clear focus and everyone involved would know what each character's purpose was. Besides, we didn't want to spend our valuable time making additional characters that wouldn't add something significant to the game - our resources were already pretty stretched as they were! Much of this initial process was carried out by Alex, Double Cross's creative director, and myself, the writer.

Each of the 4 characters whose development I'll explain have three roles, two of which they share with each other. First - They are all fellow RIFT agents, helping Zahra figure out clues she finds. Second - They are suspect of being the traitor you're trying to unmask. Third - A unique role within RIFT:

Step 2: Adding details

Once we knew how many characters we wanted and what their roles were, we started to come up with more details, such as what clues each of the characters would solve, some ideas for their names and species, and what their personalities could be.

This process happened during the paper prototyping and playtesting part of designing the investigation system, so a designer and myself worked on it.

At this point, the characters were developed enough to take the next step forward. We had defined their roles and some basic personality. Now we were ready to leave these doodles and get the Art Team on board!

Step 3: Review and brainstorm

At this point, the creative and art leads, the character artist, and myself met to review the characters and adjust them before their concept art was drawn. The purpose of these meetings was to establish some guidelines for the artists to follow, such as gender, size or world of origin; but it also worked as a review of what we had so far. This was a very important step, as we had to make sure that the characters were unique and coherent with the world we were building.

Step 4: Visual concept

For several weeks, our character artist played with these characters and one by one drew a variety of ideas for each of them. The different departments reviewed each of them before she made the final version, making sure that each detail matched the artstyle, the story, and the creative vision overall. As part of this process, all of their characters got their final species, personality and silhouette.

This was obviously a much longer process than what I explain here, but I'm focusing on the writing side of it. I will try to convince the artists to write something about the process from their point of view!

Step 5: Final pass

Once the character designs were approved, the character artist began to draw different portraits for them, while on the narrative side of things we started to establish their voice and final names.

Learned lessons

Creating interesting characters is easier said than done. But we learned that there are some things you can do to improve the process:

  1. Understand a character's gameplay purpose before thinking about how they look, how they talk, or what's their name. This will help you stayed focus and reinforce the character's role in the game.

  2. Make sure that everyone working on the characters is on the same page so that all the pieces are coherent with each other. And you never know who's going to come with some great idea!

  3. Review the characters early and often and don't be afraid of changing what doesn't work or what could be more interesting. The sooner you do this, the fewer time and resources you'll spend.

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