A Day in Skyrim: An Analysis of NPCs & Storytelling in Video Games

Lauren Quigley
Feb 20, 2015 · 9 min read

Non-player characters are in nearly every video game. Sometimes all they do is educate the player on mechanics of the game (“Press J to access your journal!”), allow the player to sell and purchase items, or just give a one-liner’s worth of entertainment and atmosphere.

For some games, this may be all NPCs are really needed for, and that’s all we expect of them. Otherwise, NPCs can and should do more to seem alive, especially in games where there are stories we’re meant to discover — as opposed to just fighting battle after battle or solving puzzle after puzzle.

Last year I joined a game development project as one of two writers tasked with creating cultures, characters, missions, dialogue, the whole shebang. It’s been an incredible experience so far, but we’re at a stage of development now where some pretty significant questions come up with regards to our NPCs. Beginning with the age-old question:

  • How can we make NPCs feel alive?
  • How do we make NPCs really worth talking to, not just a wordy way for players to gain access to missions or items?
  • How can we use NPCs to educate the player about the universe, while being careful not to over-explain things the player can find out through other means?

Besides doing “traditional” research online about what other game writers and designers suggest, I’ve been doing more fun research by playing some beloved games and paying special attention to the way these issues are handled. It turns out that Skyrim does many things right with regards to NPCs, but has also prompted some strong opinions on how those interactions can be improved.

In an attempt to answer the questions above, I’m going to pull a bunch of examples from Skyrim about NPC interaction and dialogue, the “intelligence” of NPCs outside of dialogue, and storytelling through NPCs. (After all, Skyrim’s got about 600 character examples to choose from!)

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On Seeming Alive

The most immediately noticeable qualities of NPCs in Skyrim are that they look at you directly, and they’re voice-acted. This lends to the sense of immediacy — the body language and voice of the NPC are attentive to you, and help maintain the illusion of a dynamic interaction rather than a scripted one. I understand not all games can or should be voice-acted, and there are many immersive NPC experiences accomplished only through text, but it’s an aspect worth pointing out here.

Even without an actual conversation, NPCs show a decent balance of attention and indifference to the player when you walk into the room. It isn’t made awkwardly obvious that you’re the center of the universe, but at the same time, NPCs do react to your presence the way real humans could.

By extension, not all interaction is dependent on you walking up to someone and pressing E to talk — they can come to you. NPCs can also have conversations with each other, without demanding that you listen in unless you want to. Sometimes they take notice and stop talking, making it clear you’ve interrupted something.

In terms of their non-verbal behavior, characters walk around their towns, stopping to sit or interact in a few different destinations. Yes, you can predict these paths if you pay close enough attention to them for 24 in-game hours, but ain’t nobody got time for that, and it’s easily better than having NPCs that stand in the same location or two all the time.

If you’re on the road, guards escorting prisoners will often resist speaking with you unless you really pester them. Couriers will run by, and if you can catch one you can try talking to them, but most of the time they’ll only say a few words before going along their merry way (leaving you no chance to respond).

So far, most of the qualities I’ve mentioned have much more to do with game design rather than the game’s writing. Without a thoughtfully-constructed framework in place for player-to-NPC interaction, it almost doesn’t matter what the NPC has to say—we should try to create the illusion of life before the NPC even opens his mouth. Even the best writers will struggle to rescue a player-to-NPC relationship if that NPC stands in the same place, 24/7, not speaking a word to the player unless spoken to, and totally non-reactive when the player punches him or something. Bo-ring.

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Quest-related NPCs in Skyrim can’t be killed without a mod, but guards definitely react when you attack someone. Or their dog, or chicken…

Finally, one of my favorite things about Skyrim, as insignificant as it seems, is that NPCs (especially guards) will comment about you as you walk by. “The divines gave you two hands, and you use both for your weapon. I can respect that.” Or, “You’re the one who took down the Dark Brotherhood!” Others will notice your outfit, the fact that you’re actively carrying your weapon (though “A guard might get nervous — a woman approaches with her weapon drawn” gets really old…), or say “You’re not looking too well” if you’ve contracted a disease like vampirism. Even more fun are the snide remarks based on your skills, like, “Keep your hands to yourself, sneak thief.” A few of those off-hand comments go a long way in making me feel like part of the world, not just a visitor.

More Than Vending Machines

I’ll restate the obvious: NPCs have some kind of utility in any given game, but games are much more entertaining when their characters do more than that. This is the “storytelling” side of the gameplay/storytelling coin.

Skyrim does well by subverting expectations here and there. Most merchants rarely have much to say beyond a rumor about town, but sometimes you stumble on a piece of larger story that merchant’s involved in. It’s the same with any given townsperson. They could offer a sentence or two, or they could have a much larger, juicier dialogue tree of information—encouraging players to at least take a shot at talking to most NPCs just to find out. You never really know what you’re going to get unless you explore.

I personally enjoy learning about Skyrim’s lore through the NPCs, but even I have to admit it can go overboard and right over my head, even when I think I’m paying attention. (Don’t ask me to remember anybody’s names besides Ulfric Stormcloak or Lydia on any given day.) There’s a fine line between enriching the player’s experience through an NPC’s storytelling, and just encouraging the “Lawnmower Effect.”

Lawnmower Effect: term borrowed from Lee Sheldon’s book that describes procedurally going through every branch of an NPC’s dialogue tree just for the sake of completion, usually in hopes of reaching the assignment of a mission or quest. The player barely reads the dialogue or may skip it entirely.

We’ve all done this before. There are times when you just don’t care and wish this random character would get to the point.

There’s nothing wrong with that every once and a while, but we don’t want to make that mentality so easy to fall into. Some quick tips I’ve learned based on Skyrim and other games:

  • If it seems too long to be read out loud without interrupting the flow of gameplay, it’s too long. Make every word worth it, and break up the conversation with player responses so the interaction isn’t just a character’s monologue. (Unless your player never speaks, a la Gordon Freeman. In that case, just be a really good writer?)
  • Don’t make player responses pointless. The tired formula of “1. Benevolent response. 2. Hostile response. 3. Neutral response,” drives me nuts, but if you do follow that pattern, AT LEAST make the player’s choice impact the conversation and/or relationship with the NPC. Too many games provide the player with the illusion of choice when the ultimate result is the same. If that’s the case, what’s the point?
  • Make quests easier or more fun to accomplish when the player has bothered to read what the NPC said. This doesn’t necessarily mean just handing over information about where to go or what to find, but incorporating some sense of intrigue that makes the player come up with her own questions that she wants to find answers to. (Abandoned castle, huh? This kid’s dog got lost inside, so I need to find him, but I wonder why people hear singing just inside the gates every night…)
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Showing vs Telling in Video Games

This is where any reviews on Skyrim get interesting. As part of the larger Elder Scrolls series, there’s a lot of lore. If a player isn’t particularly interested, the Lawnmower Effect ensues, and a considerable part of the game experience is lost. (Note I didn’t say all of it, or even most of it.) Even those who are interested still have to deal with what Kotaku writer Tim Rogers refers to as being an “Eternal Rookie.”

My problem isn’t with fantasy per se; fantasy is neat. A well-crafted fantasy tale (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, R.A. Salvatore, someone else with initials) casts a spell over the reader by making him feel like an Eternal Rookie, always lost in a different world which reveals new lore with each plot twist. A well-crafted fantasy tale is at its most supremely cathartic when it leans on the familiar, however, not the unfamiliar.

Rogers goes on to analyze a few Skyrim conversations the player either overhears or takes part in, and highlights how many bizarre names and places and events are thrown at the player with almost no context. While his whole article is meant to be a bit nit-picky for humor’s sake, he does make some great points about how much responsibility is placed on the NPCs for storytelling.

Tom Bissel takes these points further in his review, “One Night in Skyrim Makes a Strong Man Crumble.” Bissel says much of the drama and intrigue of Skyrim’s dialogue is lost in the sheer size of the game and the choice to have all the dialogue voice-acted, as well as a limited number of character animations that eschew the more dramatic video game convention of cinematics. Basically, the game design doesn’t seem able to carry the weight of Skyrim’s own lore and convey that to the player without bogging them down—even to the kinds of players who love lore.

He compares Skyrim’s storytelling approach to another fantasy game series, Dark Souls. NPCs barely speak at all in Dark Souls, and when they do, it’s either to buy/sell or offer a brief hint about what’s up ahead.

The NPCs of…. Dark Souls are never primary vessels for storytelling. The primary vessels for storytelling are the nonpareil environments and the player’s experience within those environments. We can be sure that From Software has a long and complicated bible that spells out its games’ (doubtlessly quite formidable) lore…. but all this work is wisely withheld from the player. Why? Because no one cares…. And it seems increasingly clear that video games are neither dramatically effective nor emotionally interesting when the player’s role becomes that of a dialogue sponge.

Bissel admits that Skyrim would no longer be Skyrim if it tried to take the same minimalistic approach as Dark Souls, but still asks, “Why make every character a walking lore dump when lore can be more effectively embodied in the world and environments?”

This can be a difficult lesson for video game writers to learn—myself included. We put so much hard work into developing multi-dimensional characters and histories of entire civilizations. They’re our babies, but we can’t fool ourselves into thinking every player will want to interact with our characters just to chat and enjoy their quirkiness or learn their backstory.

Video games are not books. Video games are not movies. Video games can and do tell powerful stories, but those stories won’t come to life the way we’re used to through other mediums. Just as we can’t expect our NPCs to carry the entire weight of storytelling in-game (we need those rich environments and intelligently-designed gameplay, too), we can’t flatter ourselves as writers and expect to execute an amazing story on our own. There needs to be a healthy balance and understanding between writers and game designers about how and why a game’s story should be told.

There’s no one way to tell stories in video games, and I love that so many independent developers and studios have taken the unique interactive qualities of games and turned them into experiences that are so much more than the sum of their parts. That’s my hope with the game project our team has taken on, and in whatever ways we succeed or fail, I’m excited to learn more about this incredible beast.

I want to hear from you! What storytelling qualities do you see in your favorite games, and why do you think they work or don’t work? Leave a comment, write your own response, or tweet me @thickrimmedgirl!

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