The Spark of Humanity: Believable NPCs in VR Games

Believable NPCs in VR Games

Let’s face it—video game characters can be a little weird.

Take the Phoenix Wright series, for example. Every single character in the game is designed to stand out as an unusual, entertaining, and quirky individual. The game is built this way both to make text-heavy gameplay more enjoyable and to help the player keep each character separate in their mind.

While this kind of flamboyant character design is fine for traditional gaming, virtual reality requires a little more nuanceTo help sell an immersive experience, characters have to be believable. What’s more, considering the in-your-face nature of the virtual reality experience, there’s a danger that over-the-top characters within games can startle or disturb the player more than is intended.

But where should the line be drawn? How much personality is too much when it comes to non-player character design? What should players bear in mind when interacting with NPCs in virtual reality? Let’s take a look at what should be expected from the future of character interactions in VR.

Drawing the Line

Pagan Min is not a pleasant character. Violent, offensive, and horrifyingly ruthless, his actions in Far Cry 4 are enough to terrify players, even in traditional video gaming.

Believable NPCs in VR Games

Pagan Min is intimidatingly flamboyant—and isn’t much fun to be around. (Source)

In virtual reality, however, such a character becomes all the more disturbing. Sitting at a table next to a man who is swearing and shouting while torturing an underling with a knife is an intense experience that would be made all the more uncomfortable with the high level of immersion that virtual reality creates.

This isn’t to say that over-the-top, violent, and dangerous characters don’t have their place in virtual reality video games, however. If developers are looking to scare their players in a particularly brutal video game, characters of Pagan Min’s ilk will definitely do the job. There’s a danger, though, that this level of intensity could prove too much for some players, especially depending on the genre of game.

In a VR game with similar gameplay to Far Cry, which focuses primarily on crafting and exploration, it would be all the more jarring to run afoul of a character that’s too violent and angry. It’s likely that future VR titles that are similar to Far Cry will aim for less aggressive antagonists.

This similarly applies to NPCs of all varieties. Nothing kills immersion quite like running into a quirky character that strays too far from reality. VR NPCs need to remain grounded in order to stay believable and stop a player from questioning what they’re seeing too much. That said, this doesn’t mean that NPCs can’t be fun and unique. There’s room for bizarre performances as long as the game setting supports these kinds of characters.

Fitting NPCs to the Setting

Immersion is a funny thing. For a game world and the characters therein to feel believable and immersive, they don’t necessarily have to be true to reality. The human brain is capable of adjusting quickly to a variety of different situations. Exotic science fiction settings can become believable very quickly as long as they adhere to familiar rules and have an appropriate degree of consistency.

Take the latest Deus Ex title, for example. The game draws on real world politics and prejudices to create a setting in which cyborgs are oppressed. Gamers are willing to invest in the setting and the characters they meet because the oppression experienced by enhanced humans feels familiar—it parallels struggles that can be seen in the real world today.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is filled with believable characters that fit the tone of the game world.

The game sticks carefully to its set rules. There’s no magic or mysticism present among the many NPCs the player will interact with, and the game’s serious tone isn’t broken up by moments of wacky or silly characters that would belong in a totally different title.

Contrast this with, say, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It is, for the most part, a very dark, somber experience—until certain characters, such as the Postman, appear. With his noisy entrance and comical mannerisms, the Postman feels very out of place in a game that mostly involves fighting shadow monsters in a ruined fantasy kingdom.

Twilight Princess is a bleak, dark game—with occasional silly characters that don’t match the tone of the rest of the experience.

Proper balance is the key to creating VR interactions that feel believable and maintain immersion, even when dealing with a far-fetched premise. As long as the characters fit the feel of the world, they won’t stand out and become distractions. Looking forward, VR gamers should expect to see characters within virtual reality games that reflect the tone of the full game.

When NPC Interactions Go Well

Non-player character interactions are central to getting virtual reality right. When VR developers nail the right design choices for their NPCs, moments that the player spends with these characters set the tone for the entire game.

In Loading Human, the player takes on the role of Prometheus, a young astronaut with a strained relationship with his father and a complex romantic entanglement with another character, Alice. The game doesn’t give the player all the details of these relationships at first, so the player builds up their understanding of the situation and the dynamics between these characters through subtext within conversations.

The characters within Loading Human drive the story forward and set the tone for the entire game.

The way that Alice and Prometheus interact explains their relationship, as does the way Prometheus communicates with his father, Dorian. Because the game focuses on this relationship triangle, the way these characters engage with each other drives forward the narrative and gameplay.

What’s more, with these relationships playing out physically in a realistic, grounded way, they set the tone for the game—everything in the science fiction setting is interpreted by the player through the lens of their relationships with Alice and Dorian. A large, fantastical sci-fi setting becomes believable and immersive in large part because the player recognizes familiar relationship quarrels between these characters.

A Beautiful Thing

As virtual reality gamers spend more time within digital worlds, well-choreographed interactions will shine out among games to create moments that are filled with nuance and dramatic weight.

Through focusing on the way NPCs behave, VR developers will deliver immersive games that provide the player with an emotional, enjoyable experience that doesn’t become overly intense to the point of breaking the player’s suspension of disbelief.

Character-driven VR games are an excellent storytelling medium. For those who enjoy a good story, there’s no better way to experience a captivating tale.

The first chapter of Loading Human debuts on October 13 as a launch title for the PlayStation VR. The game will also be available on other VR platforms soon after. To try the game for yourself, preorder a copy today.


David Bridgham

Producer, Gamer, Musician, Sports Car Enthusiast, Slow Jogger.

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