Spoiler warnings for Mass Effect 2.
I’m not sure why I liked Kelly Chambers so much. There’s definitely more exciting characters in Mass Effect 2. She was just cool is all. They seemed so good together, her and my Shepherd, two straight-talking women on a ship full of neverending melodrama, quipping back and forth along the bridge. But I was trapped in a loveless relationship with the odiously boring Kaidan Alenko. So Kelly remained elusive: the steadfast second in command, a constant source of warmth, good sense and pragmatic kindness.
Anyway, she melted. In fact, most of my crew died in that final mission, but Kelly was the first, melting down into flesh chowder in a giant frosted glass tube. Afterwards I read that the only way to save everyone was to max out your relationship stats, upgrade your ship to the nth degree, and hightail it over to the suicide mission the moment you can. Reader, that’s exactly what I did. I went back to the start and put another 30 hours into that game, telling myself I was getting value for money. But in my heart of hearts I knew it was all for Kelly.
I’ve been thinking about Kelly recently, and also about Solaire of Astora, the ‘Praise the Sun’ guy from Dark Souls. Saving Solaire is one of the most unintuitive, confusing, goddam inconvenient side quests in the whole series. Look up the wiki if you don’t believe me. But people do it. I did it! Why? Why go that far for someone who doesn’t exist?
To answer that question, I thought I’d speak to the people who make the people: the developers, the writers, the myriad artists who swirl around every project, hunting for the grandest NPC love stories I could find. Some very cool folks sent some very interesting answers. I hope you’ll enjoy what they had to say.
“… it’s a labour of love for a shade who’s always been there”
Kim Belair is an interactive storyteller with experience across the board, from triple-A juggernauts to wee indie darlings and everything in between. She’s the co-founder of Sweet Baby Inc, a narrative design consultancy based in Canada. @BagelofDeath
“Okay, so recently, I’ve been regularly doing something nice for a beloved NPC, with the only reward being literally putting a smile on their face. This NPC is the unsung hero of Supergiant’s Hades: Zagreus’ Fan.
“Zagreus’ Fan is a single, unnamed shade in the massive crowd in Elysium’s arena. Around them, greyish shades fill the stands holding banners for my opponents, Theseus and the Minotaur, but Zagreus’ Fan is the only one who shows up for ME. They’ve come with a little banner with my face on it, they’re wearing my colour, and they’ve gotten a front row seat for the show. The Theseus/Minotaur boss fight can be a tough one, especially in the first few encounters, but seeing my little fan in the stands makes it all worthwhile.
“Now, on every run, I make sure to give a little extra time to my fan. When I’m fighting, I keep the action close by, so they can see their champion at work and get a good story to tell their friends. And when I win, I never forget to make a stop over at the stands to say hello, and get a grinning emote for my trouble. It has absolutely no bearing on the game itself, but it’s a labour of love for a shade who’s always been there. Thanks for believing in me, buddy; I’ll see you again soon.”
“There was a long moment of hesitation. ‘I can’t kill a young couple…'”
“We were playtesting Dishonored with a game design student who was playing the game in a way I’d call ‘highly lethal, ranged-based stealth’: saying far away from enemies, shooting them with the crossbow, and not bothering to dispose of any dead bodies. They massacred every City Watch officer and unlucky civilian that stood in their way without a care in the world… Until they made it to the posh Galvani mansion on John Clavering Boulevard.
“The playtester proceeded through the lower floors, meticulously shooting everyone in the head or planting a blade between their shoulders, and made it to the floor where a guard and a maid were having a conversation. They climbed on a chandelier and aimed at the head of the maid, ready to shoot as soon as the characters were done speaking. The dialog went like: ‘The boss TOLD you not to touch that shelf!’ ‘But it was dusty and nasty!’ ‘Come on, I don’t wanna lose my job! ‘Sigh… Will it be like this when we’re married?’
“The player, still pointing a crossbow at their heads, said out loud: ‘Wait, what? That’s a young couple?’ There was a long moment of hesitation. ‘I can’t kill a young couple…’
“They knocked the maid out nonlethally and threw her on the floor in a bedroom to the right. Before leaving the room, they looked at the maid for a few seconds, probably thinking: ‘I can’t leave the poor girl like that.’ They picked her up and laid her down in the bed. They waited for the guard to come back, shot him with a sleeping dart, and threw him on the bed next to the maid, saying, ‘At least they’ll get to wake up together.’
“They then proceeded to kill everyone in the building without remorse.”
“I bet if I check in on that old save file today, he’s still locked in there”
Formerly a triple-A marketing consultant, David Bedard now works as a free roaming narrative designer at the aforementioned Sweet Baby Inc. @dbed
“I was done with almost every side quest in the Arkham Knight post-game, and focused on catching one last villain before that 100 percent mark: the Riddler. The quest line involves finding Riddler trophies and fighting him when you’ve found enough, before he sends you back out into the overworld to find more trophies. After a particularly gruelling fight, the Riddler made a huge laser box appear around himself, and proclaimed, ‘Enough! […] Solve every last Riddle in this city and I’ll fight you, Batman, but not a moment before!’ And then locked himself in an underground hatch. So I shut down my console, having narratively – if not mechanically – 100 percented the game and caught the Riddler.
“After all, Edward Nygma is a man of his word, and if he says he’s going to stay there until I solve every riddle in the city, then I can keep him locked away by never solving a single additional riddle. I bet if I check in on that old save file today, he’s still locked in there. The best part is, this all made me actually feel like Batman, outsmarting a villain like that. It truly felt like accomplishing something – and 100 percenting the game! – even if I didn’t engage in the game’s explicit mechanics to do so. So thank you, Riddler, for giving me that rush. Let me know if you need a snack.”
“I had them as my clique of private In-queer-sition members”
Olivia Alexander wrote the Grantebridgescire bit in AC: Valhalla and many other cool things besides. She’s currently a senior writer and narrative designer at Eidos Montréal. @oliving__
“In Dragon Age: Inquisition I always grouped Iron Bull, Sera, and Dorian together with my character because I wanted them all to feel queer solidarity with each other. Dorian had a streak of loneliness to him that I thought would play well with Bull’s calm, steady energy; I just generally knew Sera could use a friend in Bull who also unabashedly loved big beefy women; and I feel like all gay men can use a chaotic lesbian in their lives to keep them in check (looking at you, Dorian).
“I did this in my second playthrough, as in between the first and second playthrough I’d come out as queer – so putting this party together was like befriending people from high school you only discovered were cool after you graduated. I had them as my clique of private In-queer-sition members.”
“I left that place cleaner than I found it”
Amy-Leigh Shaw is a proper multi-medium creative: TV, film, video games, the works. Right now she’s at Rocksteady Studios working on the new Suicide Squad game. How cool! @DiveAmyDive
“It’s only been a few months since I played Gone Home for the first time, and throughout I found myself trying to be considerate, not just of people who don’t exist, but of people who you – spoiler – never even see.
“I pulled an all-nighter playing this game, exploring every single aspect of this huge house, and every time I opened a cupboard door, took the lid off a box, moved anything at all, I put it right back the way I found it. It probably doubled my game time. It didn’t help me find anything new or get any achievements. Still, it was only polite, as a guest in this family’s home, to leave everything neat and tidy for their fictional return.
“If anything, I left that place cleaner than I found it. That laundry hamper… wow.”
“Struggling in the face of inevitable failure sticks with me longer than actually succeeding”
“I’m definitely one of those players who is very precious about NPCs. I have never played one of the modern Fire Emblem games with permadeath on, and I probably never will. And even then I’m reluctant to let characters die in battle, though I know they’ll come back just fine afterwards.
“But at the same time, as both a player and a creator, I love the suffering of trying to fight an inevitable death. When the game doesn’t give you a choice, when you know the characters have to die, but you try as hard as possible anyway in the hopes that you can somehow secretly circumvent fate? That’s the really good stuff, and the stuff that sticks with you the longest.
“There’s a point when you’re playing Shadow of the Colossus, for example, where you start wishing desperately for a way not to kill the Colossi. If only there were some alternate path, some secret ending, some way to one hundred percent the game that would let you escape the tragedy of those beautiful creatures dying. There is not. It is heartbreaking, and it is delicious.
“Another recent example was Before Your Eyes. Without giving away too much about this great little game, you will desperately try to stop something from happening, and the game’s mechanics mean that you will not be able to delay it forever. Knowing that you are fighting a losing battle makes you much more aware of just how hard you are trying.
“Struggling in the face of inevitable failure sticks with me longer than actually succeeding. I do think there’s something about the fact that trying still counts, even when you fail. It’s perhaps a little sisyphean, but the emotion and care that you invest into characters is important and significant, even when you’re powerless to decide what actually happens to them.
“Imagine my surprise when I saw that, as the game progressed, the villages started recovering”
Mohammed Fahmi created the low-key barista sim Coffee Talk, which was one of my favourite games of last year. He followed that up with What Comes After, a love letter to people who think they’re a burden to others. @Fahmitsu
“I remember in Wild Arms 2, a Japanese role-playing game for PlayStation 1, there’s this one NPC who said that he lost his wallet somewhere during his travels. That line of dialogue felt so important to me, so I started looking for clues and finally found an accessory called Coin Purse (it gives you more money after each battle). I was so stoked to finally find the wallet and immediately returned it to the NPC – and was highly bummed when I saw that his lines of dialogue didn’t change at all. He kept talking about losing his wallet, even though I had the wallet right there!
“I even decided to make a backup save and used Gameshark (you know, that cheat code on PS1) to get all the items, hoping one of those items was this guy’s wallet. And no, the only thing that could be considered as a wallet was the Coin Purse. Apparently it was pretty common in old games to have NPCs saying random stuff as a hidden guide for the players to tell them about something, without having any other lines of dialogue to comment on your progress. I remember I stopped playing the game for around two weeks after that because I was annoyed I couldn’t return this one nameless NPC’s wallet, even though I had it in my inventory.
“This is a slightly different case, but in another PS1 JRPG, Suikoden 2, there are two small villages called Ryube Village and Toto Village. A few hours into the game the main antagonist destroys those two villages in a very gruesome manner. Though I had already recruited the NPCs I could recruit there, I always felt attached to those villages, even though there weren’t any secrets or meaningful interactions there. Everytime I finished a story arc in the game, I always took some time (it could take 30 minutes-ish without the teleportation skills and items) just to re-visit the village and see the remnants of the attack.
“Imagine my surprise when I saw that, as the game progressed, the villages started recovering little by little, from the trees to the animals. And by the later-half of the game, new villagers started to appear, trying to rebuild their homes. You didn’t get a bonus or anything for going back, but seeing how the game actually cared about telling a hidden story of these two villages striving to get back on their feet was something I’ll never forget.”
“The old game Thief sets up a really nice dichotomy…”
Lucas Pope is a bona fide indie legend, the solo developer behind modern classics Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn. His latest project is a game for the Playdate called ‘Mars After Midnight’. @dukope
“The old game Thief sets up a really nice dichotomy where you can either go in and murder everyone, or just knock them out and dump their body in a closet or something. That was more of a general playstyle, though, and I’m not the only one that went to extremes to not kill anyone in that game.
“There’s one mission in particular that requires you to break into prison and rescue one of your NPC friends. The way you do it is by knocking the guy out the second you meet him and carrying his body back out the way you came. This isn’t easy, and it especially complicates dealing with the guards without killing them, so a good strategy is to gently knock out every guard in the prison first, then blackjack your bud and carry him straight out.
“It feels like they built a body-stashing mechanic for dealing with knocked out guards, and then subverted that halfway through the game for a rescue-your-drunk-bud mission. Really beautiful mechanical economy in my opinion.”
“It wasn’t about saving anyone; it was about reflecting, acknowledging, honouring someone else’s existence”
Aleš Kot wrote the official Bloodborne comics, which are extremely good. Based in LA, he also works as a director and producer on TV and film. @ales_kot
“I guess I tried to save Eileen the Crow after she died during my first Bloodborne playthrough, though I’ve chosen a bit more of an… unconventional route.
“After the opportunity to write the Bloodborne comic presented itself, I quickly realised it wasn’t about saving her, but about giving her more life, which, in fiction, doesn’t have to mean the same thing. In a way, the Eileen volume of the Bloodborne run became an empathy engine, which is, to me, one of the key possible functions of art: a chance to see from the inside of someone else. I was processing lots about trauma and survivorhood watching Twin Peaks: The Return, thinking about trauma loops and not overcoming things, because trauma is not something one can necessarily overcome but perhaps something we can learn to live with and manage if luck and work, and other things, come together right.
“And I guess, for me, there was a semblance of peace in showing Eileen dealing with that, without a neat, simplistic resolution. We are more than just our traumas, but sometimes trauma and horror and terror can take over our entire lives, and a single moment of peace may be one page of a comic book. Maybe we’ve done that for Eileen. We’ve definitely done it for me. And, if I’m very lucky, maybe others saw themselves in those moments too, and understood they are not alone. So it wasn’t about saving anyone, it was about reflecting, acknowledging, and honouring someone else’s existence.”
“Kim was such a breath of fresh air within that world”
Zach Soares and Lu Nascimento are the co-founders of Bunnyhug Games, the studio behind upcoming fishing RPG Moonglow Bay. They answered this question together because they’re just that cute. @Voxels / @viiolaceus
“Almost every time we learnt we’d lost an NPC we loved, we’d reload a save and try everything to save them. We play a lot of games together, especially RPGs with branching paths.
“A more recent occurrence of this is with Disco Elysium. We adored Kim and when we learnt that he could part ways with us in the end, we tried everything possible to make sure he would remain our partner for the future. He doesn’t die so we’re not quite ‘saving’ him, but we were very keen on making him remain a part of our character’s life. Their dynamic was so fun and Kim was such a breath of fresh air within that world, especially with your own subconscious tormenting you. We even, at one point, lost an hour of progress in the story just to roll back our save and remake decisions not to upset Kim, ha ha!”
“This question certainly brought back some memories”
Ray Willmott is the Community Manager at Coatsink, an indie publisher based in the North East – England’s best corner. Coatsink has produced myriad titles including Onward, Cake Bash, and PHOGS! @RayWilmott
“This question certainly brought back some memories. So many times I’ve reloaded a game or jumped to an earlier save point in the hopes of saving a beloved friend, looking everywhere for an alternative path that may change their fate. While many games offer multiple endings and varying narrative strands, occasionally you just have to accept that no matter what you do, some outcomes remain the same.
“One of my more recent attempts is right at the beginning of A Plague Tale: Innocence. Those who’ve played it probably know what I’m going to say next. Those who haven’t, obvious spoilers to follow.
“Amicia begins her journey in the forest with both her dad, Lord de Rune, and her doggo, Lion. Amicia is keen to relive her youth by taking on the Knight’s Challenge, and part of the challenge involves hunting a boar. It doesn’t all go to plan and the beast manages to escape. Trusty Lion chases after it to keep the scent, but tragically ends up getting sucked into the ground and devoured by a horrifying entity.
“I may or may not have replayed that opening section a few times, trying all sorts of different strategies to keep the Guyenne hunting dog alive. Aiming closer to the boar’s head with my slingshot, speedrunning the section as fast I possibly could, all while holding down the Right Trigger so hard it almost broke. Unsurprisingly, none of it worked. And once I accepted poor Lion’s fate, I actually really got into the story and was completely gripped all through to the end.”
Wow, okay. I’ll admit, when I started nosing around for these answers, I didn’t expect quite such an emotional jambalaya. From grief to loss to laundry, all life is there. But among them I can detect one common thread, which is that all these stories feel just a teeny bit rebellious. Reloading saves, using cheat codes, deliberately wasting time: there’s a mischievous glee here, a pleasure in ignoring your orders or going against type. Think about Solaire again. To keep him alive you have to play the game out of order, ignoring the obvious path, time and again, in favour of a sneakier back route. But it doesn’t feel like a tedious side quest: it feels like cheating.
Here’s to doing the right thing the wrong way, and to bold, subversive kindness. Long may it reign!
Massive thanks to everyone who contributed.
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