My friends, there is a terrible disease ravaging it’s way across the universe. It is a tragic affliction striking where it is most unwanted.
It sweeps across cities, towns, villages, dungeons, and cool Mos Eisley-themed space cantina night clubs.
The effects of this terrible, terrible malady are felt by all; close friends, loved ones, even perhaps yourself.
I of course speak of the devastating power of Bioware Disease.
What, you may ask, is Bioware Disease? It is simpler to examine the effects than to describe the complex life-cycle of the virus itself.
Imagine, if you will, the setting of the popular 2011 game Dragon Age 2. We are in Kirkwall, described as the “city of chains”, it has been spoken of in hushed whispers by many a world-wearied adventurer. It is apparently, according to the wiki entry, “a major population centre” where “prowling groups of outlaws” hound its lower class denziens.
Venture through Kirkwall though, and you experience something totally different to all that you have been told. Vast areas of silent space. Small groups of what we designate as “none-player characters” (Or NPCs) do stand at random points. Sadly Bioware Disease has rendered even these staunch folk most noticeably silent. Most cannot even move, let alone speak.
Positively Teeming with Life. And chains.
There are no prowling groups. Not even much of a population, thanks to Bioware Disease.
Overall it has destroyed, rendered mute and completely nullified the atmospheric impact of any NPC in Bioware’s multiverse.
Scientists believe the viral strain of Bioware Disease, or BD as we like to call it here at the Centre of NPC Rehabilitation and Reintegration, began to take root in critically acclaimed role-play games in the early 2000’s. Neverwinter Nights is often cited as the progenitor of the disease.
Scoring highly in the ratings of popular review hotspots, the Gamespot and PC Gamer[s], few saw the birth of something that would eventually go on to fester, corrupt and ultimately sour Bioware’s entire catalogue of “RPG” games.
Neverwinter Nights featured an OKAY story. Its setting was also pretty good. It had potential. What it also had was totally faceless, dull and annoying NPCs. Sure it was hardly the dawn of the super techno-age where every NPC had a voice and a family and a bank account or anything. But these NPCs didn’t do anything. Most of them just stood around. Most of them didn’t even speak. They just stood (or sat, or lay) where they were in complete other-world absentia.
This killed the atmosphere for many. The game sounded great. It played well. But the nicely designed tavern, the weapon shops, the armed camps, the courtrooms, all of it seemed horribly static, horribly hollow. Why? Because a place is only as lively (or in this case deathly) as it’s inhabitants.
It slowly started to get worse too. NWN became Knights of the Old Republic, another game lauded by the critics and the players. Another game where greatness was within it’s reach, snatched away only by this terrible malady of poorly written, immobile NPCs.
Now in a future setting you’d expect more people, more activity. People coming and going. People leading their lives. Okay we don’t expect to see them go take a dump in a local toilet (we’ll discuss this in a moment). The game doesn’t even need to have a day and night cycle. But any sense of realism is shattered whenever a city or a town is under-attack and Joe Blacksmith/Jenny Lightsaber Crystal Saleswoman are still stood, calm as Hindu cows, doing NOTHING behind their barely decorated store counters.
The typical reflex is “but but but the Mass Effect characters are some of the deepest, most interesting, coolest guys in video game history ever”. We agree. Save for Kanye West in ME2 and the confused Latino in trois, the main crew of the Normandy feature high on the badass rogue’s gallery of rogue badasses.
But it’s at all the other locations with all the other characters that the game is ultimately let down. Mass Effect 3: The Endening – during the time you go to the hospital on a planet with FUCKING HUGE SPIDER ROBOTS WALKING AROUND ON IT do you ever see a doctor run? Do you see one even move? Do you at any point feel a sense of impending doom, or urgency or panic, or any other sensation you’d feel during a potentially species ending war in the middle of an emergency room?
How about the Afterlife Club in Mass Effect 2? Omega looked great. It looked like the kind of shit-hole that the scum and villainy of the galaxy would be attracted to. Didn’t see many of them on the streets…but that’s not the point. As you approach this massive nightclub on this atmospherically lit hive of nastiness, you spot a miniscule line of NPC not doing anything. That’s cool though. You can almost feel the bass of the club’s generic future electro funk. Holy shit, I thought, this reminds me of going out clubbing when I was 16!
My thoughts are confirmed the moment I get inside. It’s like I really was 16, and like when I was 16, this place is eerily similar to all those places that would happily let in a teenager; it’s fucking empty. This isn’t a party. It’s the 5:00 am coked up remnants of a party.
The aforementioned Dragon Age 2 is the worst culprit of all. Dragon Age: Origins had taken a step in the right direction. Most NPCs were triggered the moment you got close to them. Most if not all had some dialogue, even if it was just a line. There were lots of them. They populated the locations and made the locations feel populated. Yeah they didn’t move around much. But it was progress.
Then comes along this shady, “sneak-a-video-camera-into-a movie-theatre-then-sell-it-on-ebay” knockoff, Dragon Age 2. Not only did Dragon Age 2 abandon everything that made Origins so good (the ambiguity, the open world, the difficulty, the tits), it set a new record in completely sparse settings. Kirkwall was meant to be thronged with poor people when you get there. There was barely anyone there. Most of them didn’t say anything now. Most of them didn’t ever move. Most of them were like static blocks. Dogshit, in a word. Solid non-player dogshit.
Yeah you can say Bioware isn’t squarely to blame. Some of the other giants are pretty shoddy motherfuckers too. Yet Skyrim is forgivable for having utterly forgettable retard NPCs because there is so much other forgettable stuff to do in the game. So when you look back on the 100+ hours you spent playing you can only really remember the inventory screen (which is where 20 of those hours went). Oh maybe that spazzy guy who saves you at the beginning. Maybe, MAYBE one of the lizard men. Fuck anyone else.
World of Warcraft has equally stationary drones. But they are merely the mise en scene of a grand, rich world that you can forgive it. Wow’s environments are so huge, so vibrant, so absurd, and so colourful, that it makes the flat rigidity of Old Republic all the more apparent. Yeah it had the biggest voice cast ever doing the most lines ever. I don’t give a damn if those lines are being read out of a robot that looks and acts like Ferris Bueller’s teacher.
Skyrim and WoW do some things well, some fantastically. Bioware’s RPG titles push themselves on immersive worlds and stories. I mean, let’s face it, their mechanics are hardly anything special. So I do not understand why they scupper themselves by completely neglecting the “other” people in their worlds. It can be done right as these great titles display:
Metal Gear Toilet Man Okay so I said I didn’t want to see anyone go to the toilet. I lied. MGS may have lots of simple guards wandering around doing simple guard stuff, and are all voiced by one guy. Sue me. They also get spooked, radio in, follow tracks and become significantly more advanced with each and every game. And these are guards. JUST THE GUARDS. Lets not speak of the awesome cast of EVERYONE else, all of whom seem like ACTUAL characters where ACTUAL thought has gone into how they are portrayed and what their purpose is.
Biggs, Wedge and Jesse
You will care…you will…
SPOILER ALERT they all die. About 5 hours in they die. Yet these three are cool as fuck and you are legitimately sad when they are smashed by the floaty city block. Every location in FF7 is filled with movement and life. Whether it’s bikini clad blocks/babes lounging around in the Costa Del Sol, to the skittering patrons of the Gold Saucer. For such an old game it’s replete with character and atmosphere.
Shen Mue The Godfather of the immersive world. One of the first games where you truly think that each and every character had a place, a role and a life within the world itself.
Assassins Creed THE CROWDS. Oh my God the crowds. This is how cities should look and feel.
Red Dead/GTA Again, like Shen Mue, everyone seemed to have a place. Even the crazy little side missions, everyone looked the part, sounded the part. People lived. They gambled, drank, slept, danced and shot through their lives.
No it’s not a roleplay game. It is so utterly thematic though. It nails the mechanics, but also completely nails every other element of gameplay, including the locations, the set pieces and the NPCs. Squads in the distance advance, retreat, fire, flee, and do shit in such a realistic way that you feel part of the action. They are not marching forward in binary derived precision formations. They scramble like real people in a real situation.
So it is possible. Bioware Disease doesn’t have to ethnically cleanse the galaxy of realistic, energetic, and atmosphere-building support characters. I fucking loved Mass Effect and Dragon Age. I’m fond of KotoR. But they could have been better. And the above is just one way how.