Back in the comments on Video Games: Irrelevant?, C. remarked that stories are about people, their relationships with one another in difficult situations. This is, of course, true, and is where games usually fall down.

For instance, we know all the “people” (a.k.a. NPCs) are really there just for us. They populate the world so it won’t look empty. They wait around with little odd jobs for us to do outside of the main line. They provide cannon fodder so we can grab goodies and level up on our way to Foozle.

Added to that is the fact that NPC personalities tend to come in just three flavors: forgettable, obnoxious, and helpless. Throw in the difficulties of conversation, and it’s no surprise that we have a hard time feeling anything beyond exasperation or antagonism for any of them.

These are some reasons why stories often seem drab in RPGs. The NPCs are just robots running through their scripts; they have little or no personality.

Actors in a movie also go by a script. But they get across shades of meaning with tones of voice, facial expressions, gestures, mannerisms, postures, that make the characters believable.

In a book, it’s a bit different: everything must be conveyed by text alone. Even so, memorable characters have been created by good authors. Ergo, it isn’t just the visual/vocal alone that engages our emotions and interest. The written word has power, too.

This power is often lacking in games. Part of that may be because games are a visual medium primarily, so the text doesn’t affect us as strongly as it does in a book.

Also, consider how many characters we meet in a typical RPG, as opposed to the number of major (and almost-major) ones in a movie or book. It isn’t easy to come up with distinct personalities for so many. Especially if most of the work is being concentrated on what the designers consider “story”.

One other thing: because these games tend to be linear, we’re always moving on. This town, that town – and we hardly ever go back. It’s hard to care about anyone we meet once or twice and never see again.

So most NPCs are just throw-aways. What’s needed is a new focus. Dump the “epic storyline” that too often devolves into the same old grind of clearing out the rats in the cellar and the bats in the belfry.

Start with the people involved. Make them really a part of the events, not merely one-timers with a walk-on role. That’s how it’s done in books and movies (and TV show, etc.). Develop the personalities over time, so we can get to know them. Fewer NPCs in a smaller environment could go a long way to achieving more satisfactory tales in RPGs.