I finished Mass Effect a few weeks ago, and it quickly climbed the ranks of my favorite games. It felt more like a real science fiction than any futuristic title I've played to date. Though I did not enjoy Fallout 3 nearly as much, they both succeeded in creating an environment with its own unique personality. And its set of inhabitants seemed as if they would go about their lives long after I turned off the console. John Doe Alien and Jane Doe Wastelander are both crucial in creating these living environments, too bad they talk too much.
In order to create what feels like a persistent world, there must be a gaggle of pedestrian individuals to wander about and make each place feel "lived in." The job description for a videogame extra is simple: sit around with other NPCs , eat a bagel, mutter something about the weather, go home at night, done. Here is the problem as I see it: We make these prop characters more realistic by allowing the player to interact with them, but they don't have anything interesting to say. The fact is, most everyone is boring.
So imagine an immensely interactive game, one in which you can have conversations with anyone you see, a truly realistic world. As players, should we feel obligated to experience each conversation in order to partake in all the game has to offer? Is there a fear that repetitive dialogue with unimportant NPCs will train us ignore everyone, thereby missing out on some compelling narratives when we pass by a more significant individual? Is it pessimistic to say a realistic game environment is a world mostly full of mundane and uninteresting people?
Maybe it's a completionist tendency of mine, but I already feel compelled to talk to everyone whenever I play an RPG. As you can imagine, this can make walking through any RPG town a disgustingly time consuming endeavor. I may have spent more time wanding the Citadel in Mass Effect than exploring the far reaches of space. Likewise, I was more familiar with the labyrinthine halls of Fallout's Rivet City than I was with the remnants of Washington D.C. Most of the time in these places was spent tirelessly exploring every dialogue option available.
Most NPCs in Mass Effect will follow three tactics when interacting with the player. Some will say just a few words of greeting, or hostility, and remain essentially non-interactive. Some will give the player insane tasks to ask of a complete stranger (Seriously, the number of random civilians I assisted in Mass Effect is mind boggling. Why anyone would trust a space marine to solve domestic disputes is beyond me.) Lastly, some NPCs will tell you a great deal of unnecessary information about the world and those living in it (When does knowing the main export of an alien species come in handy?).
<Having too many significant NPCs is distracting and unbelievable. In-depth dialogue trees with unimportant civilians is too often boring and uninformative. Now I'll admit, this could be partly my fault. I should probably take my mother's advice and stop talking to strangers. But if I can interact with anyone, how do I figure out who to talk to? One option is to make videogame dialogue more like a conversations in a stage performance. Because of set design and time restrictions, spoken words are chosen carefully and frequently advance the plot. Or perhaps its best to play the role of a upwardly mobile businessman, talking only with the people who matter.
Another option is to borrow the improve dialogue options mechanic from these games, and incorporate relationships into Player-NPC conversations. Instead of allowing the player to increase their charisma or intimidation, dialogue options can increase naturally from the type of interactions players have with extras. Stop by a bar and get some strange glances from customers and a gruff bartender. Frequent this same pub daily and the bartender may greet you with a free drink while Cliff from Cheers tells you all about his day.
The inverse could also be true. Stop playing frisbee in the park every weekend, and maybe people change or forget about you. Understandably, this would require an expansive RPG set over a long period of time. I'm not trying to finalize anything, just theorize ways out of the tough position between storytelling and technological advancements that allow persistent worlds. Who knows what kind of star role a videogame extra can become. After all, a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet.