So, I’ve started playing a number of games in a round robin, which include Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, and one thing that I thought of while playing Mass Effect 2 is the issue of NPCs in the world that you can interact with. Some of them will give you quests or items or other things, while some of them will just give you a little phrase or comment and then you can move on. The issue, of course, is that you usually don’t know which is which until you actually interact with them. Which means that if you want to get all of the quests and the like you have to interact with all of the NPCs, many if not most of which just say something and let you move on.
This can get very annoying if you have a lot of NPCs and the ratio of useful to colour NPCs is low. I’ve played games where I stopped interacting with NPCs because it was so annoying separating the NPC wheat from the chaff. But the flip side isn’t much better, as if you only create NPCs when they are useful the world can seem empty and unreal, only populated by quest-vending machines and the like. And filling it with people that you can’t interact with at all — like, say, most MMOs — reduces NPCs to background.
Which might, actually, be the best way to handle it. We don’t want players to have to obsessively interact with everyone, and we want populated places to seem populated, so making them non-interactive solves that, at the expense of, well, making them not seem like actual people. It’s nice to have NPCs that are people in at least some sense, but not good if we confuse them with NPCs that matter to the overall game plot and quests and so try to get them to interact with us outside of that. If you do go that route, you have to limit the number of NPCs or annoy the player by making them interact with all of them or else risk missing out on something interesting. And if there’s one thing that players hate, it’s missing out on something interesting.
Ultimately, though, this probably is a problem of balance, striking the right balance of NPCs that you can interact with in passive ways with the ones that open up interesting opportunities in the game world. It does enhance a game to be able to talk to NPCs and have them say things like jokes and give interesting tidbits about the world. It’s just that if you are getting that when you want to make sure that you’ve hit all the quests it will get annoying after a while if there are too many of those. We want to interact with people … but not all the time. Kinda like life, I think.