I read through an article over at Elder Game about NPC social interactions seen as progression from their initial attitude (or “friendliness”) to a gradual building of friendship through appeasement of said NPC. It was an entertaining read, and it sounds like a start in a good direction, but I see a beginning and a middle without an end. Why does the player interact with the NPC?

NPCs are one way for the player to accomplish things in the game that their character can’t do alone. Maybe it’s calling in an air strike, maybe it’s finding that weapon or armor upgrade that they were missing, maybe it’s just finding a place to sleep at night (however important these things may be to the game). I think those reasons should drive most social interactions with NPCs.

It could be something as simple as the “social” bar in the Sims 2, where your character’s mood worsens the longer they go without interacting with another character. Perhaps it replenishes your character’s stamina or sanity by chatting up friendlies in the tavern, and enables them to go out and perform the fundamentally disturbing task of slaughtering monsters that rampage across the game world.

I think if eating food, drinking water, and sleeping can all replenish your hit points in Fallout 3, how about chatting up the intelligent ghoul or super mutant that joined your party and is following you around in the wastes? That would be a fantastic reason to form a party — here you have an immediate source of social interaction when your character is threatening to go all feral and antisocial.

I’d like to think that the scope of a game includes all the sorts of things you might expect from a real, breathing world, even if the players can’t interact with it directly. Maybe they can’t influence the economy, no matter how many gold pieces they dump into the local market, but their friend the banker can take their investments and buy them a cool pad for them to crash in, and they don’t have to stay at the inn.

The thing is, though, that it has to seem like the NPCs can actually do the things the players can’t do, and it may be necessary to limit what the players can do in order to make sure the NPCs “have something to do.” The players will need to be able to see what the NPCs do when they interact with the world in their stead. Forge that sword! Invest in that keep! Show don’t tell, you know the drill.