Andrew Ma 27392699
Mabinogi is a fantasy massively multiplayer online role-playing game(MMORPG) which was developed by devCAT studio, and released by Nexon in 2004 in South Korea and 2008 in North America. The game engine uses hand-painted textures along with edge detection outlining which results in visuals that are reminiscent of anime and manga style drawings. The game world has been continuously under development; important releases that include new areas, additional features and further depth in the storyline are named “Generations.” While some game mechanics have been changed over the years for convenience, the core of the game remains the same. The player character(PC), a character directly commanded by the person playing, has a customizable appearance, an age, between ten and seventeen, statistics (hit points, wound points, mana points, stamina points, hunger level, strength, dexterity, intellect, will and luck), a level, a total level, ability points(AP) and the ability to be reborn(Rebirth). Ageing once per real-time week, players can earn extra stats as well as extra AP. This amount will decrease as the PC gets older, until they cannot earn any more. AP and stats can also be learned by earning experience points and leveling up as in other MMORPGs. However, since there is no level limit, the Rebirth feature is essential as it allows a player to reset their age and current level, therefore earning AP at a faster rate. Skills can be learned by equipping different items, questing, talking to NPCs and ranking up other skills. While Mabinogi is one of the only MMORPGs with a freeform skill system that allows players to learn any skills from any combat trees at the expense of AP, the design of non-playable characters(NPCs) and the design of our interactions with them as players is the area in which the game truly shines. NPCs in Mabinogi are an integral part of the game world as they contribute to the coherence of the narrative and the consistency of the game world itself. Consistency can be defined as the application of something in a conform manner for the sake of logic and accuracy. In the context of this essay, the player has to feel that the NPCs belong where they are and do not feel out of place. First and foremost, the affordances used in the design of the NPCs and the interface through which players interact with them made those NPCs recognizable and distinct. Next, the interface used during an interaction with an NPC creates a sense of intimacy with the player. Finally, by taking a closer look at the system behind the interface used, we notice that conversing with an NPC in Mabinogi is the same as interacting with one that is in an interactive fiction game or a visual novel as the NPCs seem to be aware of the world, the other NPCs and the PCs around them. A combination of these three elements is the recipe that is used by devCAT to create NPCs that a PC can relate to from the point of view of the game world and therefore create consistency within that game world. In turn, it will increase a player’s level of immersion or, in other words, a player’s connection to the game world since the NPCs feel “alive” so to speak and since the NPCs evolve and change due to a player’s actions.
When I first started playing, I walked into a town called “Tir Chonail.” Nothing seemed out of place and all the NPCs or residents seemed to belong here. Even though the graphics are dated today, the amount of details that can be seen in the looks and the mannerisms of the NPCs is simply astonishing; we are able to guess the functions of each NPC by taking a look at what they wear and what surrounds them. For example, let’s take a look at the affordances used in the design of the NPC Malcolm. He wears what seems to be a set of worker pants, holds a lute, a wrench, stands by a workshop full of tools and is surrounded by a wide variety of items. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for him to be the owner of the general shop and to be able to repair all items that are not weapons or jewelry. In addition to this, in case the player was not able to see the wrench properly, Malcolm was also designed to occasionally do a torquing movement with the wrench on the top of the lute to insinuate that he is repairing it.
Here’s another example: Elen and Edern from the town Bangor. Elen wears little clothing, a hairband, holds a hammer that she swings around, stretches occasionally and stand by two furnaces and an anvil. Edern is topless, is well-built and hammers what seems to be the hot blade of a sword to be on an anvil. Even without the displayed blacksmith sign, players could have easily guessed that those two were the people who sold and repaired weapons as anvils and hammers are often associated with blacksmithing. In addition to this, it is logical for both of them to wear little clothing because of the heat coming from the furnaces and the molten metals; the impression of heat is given by the fumes and the liquified metals. Also, a player can guess that Edern is a better blacksmith than Elen for several reasons: we are under the impression that Elen is lazy since Edern is the only one working, Edern is a well-built man, therefore a symbol of strength, and Edern’s hair is white which means he is older and probably has more experience than Elen. My doubts were confirmed once I talked to both of them and learned that Edern had a 98% success rate for repairs versus Elen’s 90% and sold advanced weapons which Elen cannot make. Again, this is a proof of consistency in NPC design as players are able to differentiate and recognize NPCs and their functions based on the affordances used in the creation of their looks and mannerisms.
The two following affordances used are subtle and concern two specific features of NPCs in Mabinogi overall. The first is used to simulate the feeling that the NPC a player is talking to has their attention and is listening to them. devCAT induces this feeling by making each NPC look at the PC it’s interacting with.
The second is used to make the NPCs feel “alive” by giving them player like characteristics such as the ability to show different facial expressions, all of which are available to PCs as well.
This leads to the next element used to create consistency in the game world which is the system of conversation using keywords and gaining closeness with an NPC as a result. Beforehand, we need to take a look at the affordances and the techniques used in the design of the interface used during an interaction. The portrait of the NPC is displayed while the rest of the screen is partially blocked by black bars. This is an extra diegetic element that is used to create a sense of focus around the conversation with the NPC. In addition, the animated portrait, the message box as well the option buttons are put forward to further accentuate that focus. As a result, the player is unable to click anything else than the buttons. When conversing with an NPC, a travel diary, symbol of exploration and discovery, with all the keywords learned by the PC is opened. As soon as the PC learns a new keyword, it is automatically written in the diary and can be used when conversing. The diary also has the shape of a book which symbolizes knowledge and learning. The keywords are in a color that sets them apart from the usual black and white words, blue to be precise, and are put in boxes. Also, the blue color of the keywords and the response produced when the interactor puts their mouse over them is reminiscent of the techniques used in hyperlink based interactive fiction games and visual novels. On top of that, the diary is designed to be used like a book, an object that is common in real life. A mouse click on the edge of a page is used to flip it; a click on the right page flips it, allowing you to move forward in your reading of the book and vice versa for the left page.
Now, on to the keywords and closeness system that define the conversation system in Mabinogi. In addition to a player being able to uncover an NPC’s past through the “Generation” quests, an NPC’s character and past can also be discovered by conversing using the keywords from the travel diary. devCAT has incorporated many elements from interactive fictions to create NPCs that are distinct, aware of the existence of PCs and other NPCs, have their own past, personalities and therefore, an irreplaceable part of the game world. Here’s an example of an interaction with Aranwen.
I have talked to her several times with this character, therefore we can say she was fairly open towards me. We also notice that she was aware of the existence of other NPCs as well as all the locations in this town. It makes the players feel like she has her place in this town and has been there longer than I have been. What happens when we talk to an NPC for the first time, you may ask?
A description of the NPC is the first thing that is displayed whenever a PC interacts with one. It helps define the overall look of the NPC and the aura surrounding it. It’s also the kind of description that can be found in fiction as well as interactive fiction as seen in the following picture.
Next, the interactor has the option to start a conversation with an NPC. Upon doing so, we notice that there is also a feedback system where the overall impression an NPC has of the interactor is displayed as the conversation goes on. It is also vital that the first person is used in the NPCs’ dialogs and feedback as it helps create a sense of closeness and intimacy.
Although the feedback provided is mostly positive, an NPC’s attitude will change throughout the “Generation” quests, especially when trouble arises or when they desperately need you, the PC. The feedback is there to encourage players to get to know an NPC and maintain good relations with them. This is further enforced as NPCs seem to be able to remember the PCs. Let’s take a look at my interactions with Edern and Caitin for example. While both these NPCs fulfil their functions as blacksmith and grocery store owner respectively, with the conversation system in place, players are encouraged not to limit their interactions to simply using an NPC’s function. Edern spoke to my character, Fireblades, in a cold, business-like manner the first time I spoke to him, but remembered my name and acted in a friendly manner after I conversed with him.
The same goes for Caitin who smiled at me like she’s known me forever and even joked around somewhat embarrassing information with me when we conversed
.The idea of maintaining good relationships with NPCs is reinforced once again when Nerys, the weapon shop owner in Dunbarton, tells me how to please Aranwen, the instructor at the school, so she will teach me a new skill.
Furthermore, the NPCs are also aware of the PC’s accomplishments in the game world and will change their attitude towards them as they progress in the “Generation” quests and learn more about the world and its people. For example, after completing “Generation 1,” Duncan, the chief in Tir Chonail remembers that I have saved the world from the resurrection of a fiend.
Another pertinent example of a change in attitude would be that of Kristell, a former succubus. Her usual warm demeanor changes as soon as I talk to her with the “Succubus Slayer” title, a proof that I have killed one of her kin. However, she is not hostile to me anymore and even offers me help because I was forced to fight succubi during “Generation 1” and because I have developed a harmonious relationship with her while doing the “Generation” quests. On the other hand, the screen turns partially red; it is a sign that I might have incurred her wrath.
The different attitudes and reactions of NPCs towards PCs create a sense of consistency within the game world and give the illusion that the player is a seamless part of it and has an effect on it. Despite its ability to showcase an NPC’s personality, past and its relationships with other NPCs, the conversation system used in Mabinogi falls short when a player uses a keyword that is unknown to a certain NPC, such as knowledge from another continent. It is explained in the game that NPCs from one continent are not aware of the existence of NPCs on other continents. Whenever such a situation arises, the NPC will answer in a manner that signifies “I don’t know.” While, in my opinion, it does not break the connection I had with the world as a player, it was certainly a disappointment to receive an unsophisticated one line reply.
While there is much more depth to the NPCs in Mabinogi such as NPCs opening secret shops to players and offering them secret quests once a certain level of closeness is reached, three important points remain: the NPCs’ looks must be conforming with their surroundings to create a sense of consistency, the interface used during an interaction must be intuitive and designed to create a sense of intimacy, and the NPCs must have enough depth to make a player want to maintain harmonious relationships with them. Those three key points were cleverly exploited to design NPCs that are clearly distinguishable from one another, have different pasts, personalities and needs, fulfill their roles, belong to the towns and the areas in which they are, help the progression of the narrative and, more importantly, make the player feel like they are part of the game world and have an effect on it with each interaction.
N.B. Here are the single images in case you can’t zoom in on them.
Montfort, Nick. “The Pleasure of the Text Adventure.” In Twisty Little Passages. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 1-36.
Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 118-30.
Stern, Eddo. “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer RolePlaying Games.” In Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, ed. Frans Mayra. Tampre University Press, 2002.
Mabinogi (Nexon, 2008).
List of NPCs studied: