Birth of an NPC (part 2)
Writing non-player characters for Double Cross
In the first part of this article, I explained what our goals were in regards to creating unique and memorable NPCs for Double Cross.
We started by establishing what each NPC’s role was going to be, as everything else was going to be developed taking that as a base. Then, during the playtesting that Narrative and Design did with our paper prototypes, we added several details and started to imagine the species and quirks of some of the characters.
Enter the artists…
Step 3: Review and brainstorm
At this point, the creative director, the art director, the character artist, and myself (narrative director) 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.
Sgt. Swole didn't change much. We were fine with any gender or species, but we knew we wanted Swole to be large and muscular. It was suggested that Swole’s species could be something that you wouldn't usually expect to be large and muscular, such as an insect. I believe Buzzwole from Pokémon Sun / Moon was brought up as an example of what we were aiming for. And Terry Crews was still a big reference.
Dr. Sam Squatch was one of the most defined characters we had so far, as we already knew what we wanted his name, species, and gender to be. However, the artists noticed that we were planning several buffed characters with large silhouettes, such as Swole, and explained that they they wanted to make Sam a smaller size.
Sir Gunsalot's main change was the she became Lady Gunsalot. A warrior character similar to Game of Thrones's Brienne of Tarth or Vikings’ Lagertha sounded much more interesting, plus we already had a buff dude in Sgt. Swole. A problem with Gunsalot that the artists had to tackle was that we wanted a character that looked like a stereotypical knight, but we were trying to make characters as different from humans as possible to showcase the world we were building.
The Janitor, we realized, had become an obstacle. Some changes in the game's story required a clue that could be solved by a computers expert (which we didn't have) and no clue required a janitor. So we scrapped the character and came up with a new one — a Hacker who worked for RIFT. Art was given a lot of freedom with the Hacker. Some of the suggested ideas were an arrogant robot, a young girl who loves cats, a guy with a computer as a head (inspired by Saga's Prince Robot IV), a Lovecraftian being from a fully-digital Earth...
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 art director, the creative director and myself 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.
Sgt. Swole, after several sketches that made him everything from a butterfly-person to a broccoli-person, ended up becoming a very muscular flower-person. This picture of myself as a kid might have had something to do with it.
Dr. Sam Squatch was still a sasquatch, but smaller than what the big sasquatches in popular culture. I was initially skeptic about that, but our artists proved, as they often do, that I was wrong about judging art ideas before seeing the end product! Sam Squatch feels unique and full of personality.
Lady Gunsalot had some really awesome designs and was quickly becoming the favourite of several of the team members. Not many changes here.
The Hacker's design followed the idea of the young girl who likes cats... Except actually making her a cat! Her new personality quickly became apparent, a memer with a weakness for everything cute, and with a cat's mean streak.
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.
Sgt. Swole wanted a new name. After discarding Press Johnson, Hammercurl Harry, Dirk McBarBell, Ham Beefhead, Greg Strongjaw, and many others, we ended up staying with Sgt. Sprout Ironbulk. I'm not a gym person myself, but some others at 13AM are, so for his dialogue I tried to copy the way they talk about lifting, protein and gains. During the dialogue review, Alex helped give him a Brooklyn accent.
Dr. Sam Squatch's name is perfect and needed no changes. We gave him verbose sentences full of scientific terminology that even Zahra doesn't always understand. Our lead designer Tom, who has a background in Civil Engineering, was very helpful in getting the right tone for Sam.
Lady Gunsalot's had two problems. The first one was that after some recent school shootings in the US, we didn’t feel comfortable with her name anymore, as it could feel insensitive. Furthermore, her visual design didn't suggest the Arthurian knight we had initially thought of. Due to both factors, we decided to change her name and backstory to make her an Amazon warrior. After doing some research on what Greek writers told us about the Amazons and reading about several of their warrior-queens, we decided that Helena Lycastia was a cool Amazon-sounding name that wouldn't be a mouthful for English-speakers. Her dialogue tone stayed as we had imagined it — overtly formal and knightly.
The Hacker, one of the last characters we named, is now Ada Lovepaws, a reference to Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer in History. When writing her dialogue, I often looked at how our technical director Marty, a man well versed in Internet lingo, talks about memes and computer stuff. I also added cat puns to every single line she speaks in the game (à la Nepeta Leijon). But the crew felt like it was a bit too much, so I removed about 30% her puns… Which felt weird, because almost every single one of her lines is written to fit a cat pun somewhere in it!
Creating interesting characters is easier said than done. But we learned that there are some things you can do to improve the process:
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.
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!
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.
Unai Cabezón worked as Narrative Director and Programmer in Double Cross, and as Technical Director in Runbow.
He loves running Dungeons & Dragons games, consuming media in strict chronological order, and discussing the Star Wars Expanded Universe.