How to Make NPC's Feel Alive


Game Design / Storytelling Principle: How to make non-player characters feel alive

  • Do not have non-player characters stand around, waiting for the player to interact with them. Have them move and pursue their own goals, even if the goal is simple as wanting a glass of water.  Make them indifferent to the player. Make the player earn their attention. 
    • In The Year After, the father wants to feed the squirrels and tend his plants. The mother wants to work on her paintings and nurture the tree. As the story progresses the player understands the reasons for these wants.
    • In my game this indifference to the player is easier to pull off because the characters literally cannot see you but the same idea applies to ordinary situations. If there's a shopkeeper,  make her preoccupied with doing inventory. If there’s an old man on a bench make him read a newspaper. 
  • Do not repeat dialog or reactions. If NPC's always sit fixed in the same spot and deliver the same lines of dialog they feel more like machines waiting to be triggered rather than living breathing people. Can they move around?  Can they walk off or disappear after the player finishes interacting with them? The player’s mind fills in the missing detail, imagining what they do off-screen. In the game, the squirrels do not overstay their welcome. They watch the player but if the player returns to the same spot again they are gone. If they are always there it becomes obvious how robotic they are. 

These are all technology agnostic techniques to make NPCs feel life-like. They are doable  whether the game is old-school 8-bit or 3D-VR.

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READ MORE: Cut With the Grain

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Honestly one of the best pieces of game design advice I’ve ever read and I’m in grad school for this.