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Friday, April 14, 2006

I Remember My Aces

For his next RoundTable, Corvus asks us how we have dealt with our NPCs in the past. Honestly, recent shooters have made me bemoan the NPC as a zombie-like automatons that almost invariable get in the way as much as they actually help. Half-Life 2 may have had the most advanced facial technology of any shooter to date, but frequently my allies were little more than fodder. The bugs, once controlled with pheromones, were far more useful than any of the humans - because they all knew how to zerg correctly.

Even Unreal Tournament's vaunted AI, which works brilliantly on well-developed maps and correctly coded gametypes goes horribly awry when ... well, you don't have well-developed maps or correctly coded gametypes. One of my mods, Grind did little more than alter the movement code for the player pawns ... but convincing the bots they could jump at the appropriate times proved Herculean in nature.

But I digress. The point is that I found much more interesting NPC interaction before things went all 3D on us. The one that strikes the loudest chord is X-Com. Being a turn-based strategy game, everything comes down to how the pawns perform. You might want to snipe that alien from afar, but you can only succeed if the little soldier makes it's shot. Some of it's strategy, some of it's luck, and some of it's the skill of the soldier on the ground. Much of it, actually, is the skill of the solider ... so when you got a soldier who would survive long enough to actually be good, you got a certain rapport for them. You would try to give them more backup. You would go back a save just to keep them from dying. When you got an ace in X-Com, you worked for them so that they'd keep working for you.

They were important, and because they all had their own names ... it was oddly personal. In the Rebelstar followup on the GBA, this isn't really the case because all the characters are the same for everyone. But "Alice Jones" would be your ace. She would win your battles. Alice wouldn't go slutting around and fight someone else's alien invasion. If you kept her alive, she'd try her best to keep you alive.

Simple and effective. No need for fancy eye textures or complicated mo-cap animations. Just a personal level of trust and some reward in maintaining a relationship.

Or to put it very basically - would you feel more connected to ... Half-Life 2's Alix or your Sim?

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