Birth of an NPC (part 1)
Writing non-player characters for Double Cross
In Double Cross, you play as Zahra Sinclair, an agent of RIFT, Regulators of Interdimensional Frontiers and Travel. 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. On a slide in my first story pitch included images of 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 analyzing how the secondary characters work in those two pieces, we decided we wanted ours to be based upon character stereotypes, but with unexpected twists that make them stand out and become memorable. We also attempted to make them unique from each other and have 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 wanted them to have a variety of recognizable silhouettes, and to be carefully crafted to match their roles and personalities. We have a very talented team of artists and we knew that 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 we were going to show in the game levels, so the characters were a good opportunity 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.
Adding the details
Review and brainstorm
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 would have a clear focus and everyone involved knew what was each character's purpose. 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 the creative director, and myself, the writer.
Each of the 4 characters I’ll explain today had one role in common — They are all fellow RIFT agents that help Zahra solve one of the clues she finds, but are also suspect of being the traitor. Besides that, each had a second role unique to them:
Character A guides Zahra through the tutorial mission in RIFT's gym (a few on the creative team are quite into lifting at the time, so this was a must). So their role is the Trainer.
Character B is the brilliant mind behind some of Zahra's tools, such as the grappling hook ('proton slinger') and the technology to travel between different Earths. So their role is the Inventor.
Character C takes care of the prison where the villains Zahra defeats in the boss battles will end up. So their role is the Warden.
Character D didn't have a clear secondary role, it was just a character we needed for one of the clues. It could be someone who knows a lot about RIFT and can help with worldbuilding. So their role could be the Janitor.
Step 2: Adding the 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. I worked on this alongside the designer assigned to developing the investigation system. Paper prototyping was a key element in the process, and a fun one at that. I've explained more about it in this other article.
The Trainer was creative director Alex's favourite, and he imagined him as basically Terry Crews. So that's what we went with! For every other NPC we had a number of characters from a variety of media that showcased what personality we wanted to give them, but the Trainer’s document had nothing on that section but a picture of Terry Crews. We called him Sgt. Swole.
The Inventor quickly became Dr. Sam Squatch, a sasquatch. Our art director, Takashi, had joked about having a character by that name since pretty much day one. In Sam's Earth everyone is a sasquatch or other mythical creatures, who sometimes accidentally cross portals to our Earth. We all liked the idea and he fit really well with the Inventor's role. We gave him the personality of 007's Q and the X-Men's Beast.
The Warden was soon assigned a clue related to some weapons Zahra was trying to identify. So we came up with a cool idea for a character that fit both as a warden and a weapon enthusiast — Sir Gunsalot, an Arthurian knight who always carries a bunch of weapons with him. We thought this was both unique and would help players realize that he was the one to talk to about the weapons. His personality was that of a noble, stereotypical medieval knight.
The Janitor became a comedic relief character in our paper prototype, a grumpy man who complains about Zahra getting the newly cleaned floor dirty, and pretends to be a full RIFT agent on his free time but is kept as a janitor (because he's actually the Best Janitor in All Dimensions). We also toyed with the idea of having several of him in RIFT headquarters — RIFT hired alternate versions of him at every dimension where they found him. He never got a satisfying name other than “the Janitor”.
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!
Check out Part 2 of this article, coming soon!
Unai Cabezón worked as Narrative Director and Programmer in Double Cross, and as Technical Director in Runbow.
He loves running tabletop roleplaying campaigns and discussing the old Star Wars Expanded Universe.