The playable characters in a game are the lead characters. But in the context of a video game, what is the role of “supporting” characters? What does that “support” look like? They are NPCs who contribute to world-building, the development of the lead characters and the overall richness of the world. The prominence of these characters in a game narrative covers a wide spectrum, to the point where I think it’s best we split things up into two categories – “True” Supporting Characters and Background Characters.
A “true” supporting character typically has a more involved role in the narrative. However, these characters don’t necessarily have entire story arcs of their own or, if they do, it’s not experienced with the level of detail given to the heroes. Their primary role is to help flesh out the main characters by giving them opportunities to show different sides of themselves. A small child might bring out the gentle side of a tough guy, a jabbering know-it-all might be struck silent when the object of their affection walks by, and a mysterious, scheming villain may only reveal their true scheme in the presence of a trusted friend.
Also, just because they’re called “supporting” characters doesn’t mean they necessarily have to offer emotional support. In fact, conflict is a great way for a supporting character to reveal more about the main characters. The arguments someone has with their parents, for example, reveal a great deal about a character’s childhood and the struggles they carry into adulthood. Even something seemingly insignificant like pet peeves adds texture to a character.
As we get into Background Characters, there’s one important element to consider – diversity. You could define this in a few ways. The more traditional way means that the entire human cast of a story should reflect the diversity of humans in real life. This is always a plus, but in fiction we can go farther than that. If you’re dealing with a world that has non-human characters, use that to your full advantage. It might be disorienting at first to explore an area where humans wander freely alongside hulking orcs or cyborgs or green-skinned aliens or whatever creatures inhabit the world of your story, but when the player gets used to it they will be grateful for the unique surroundings.
The whole “low-profile” thing was getting old.
On that note, a lot of towns in games seem suspiciously underpopulated given the size of the world these stories take place in. There are often outside factors contributing to this – games made on a small budget can’t afford to devote the precious time of their artists to nondescript townspeople. If you can’t afford quantity, definitely go for quality. NPCs in towns don’t have to be mindless drones repeating the same “Welcome to town!” phrase ad infinitum. Establishing a rapport with the lead characters (or implying some familiarity, as if they’ve met before) is much more interesting than simple exposition.
Diversity is also important to the True Supporting Characters for another reason – it helps players tell them apart, which is crucial if your game has a large cast. I had a memorable experience with this years ago while working on Master of the Wind. During a portion of the game where several new characters are introduced, I realized at one point that I had three important characters who were all blonde women. I’m not sure exactly why it turned out that way, but they had all appeared in too many scenes to easily change their appearance. I saw how easily players might get confused and from then on, I put more effort into making sure the supporting cast members were more distinct from one another. Good writing goes a long way towards helping people remember the characters, but visual diversity all but assures it.
So why is all this important? Well, it isn’t just for character development or expanding lore, although those are worthwhile goals. The most compelling thing about a cast of supporting characters and NPCs is that each of them is a piece of a larger world, sharing the game’s setting with you. In a game where you find yourself saving the world, these people represent what you are trying to save. One of the game tropes that always gets me is when a cutscene checks in with important NPCs right before a final boss fight. It reminds the player just what is at stake before that fight and really ups the emotional ante. It takes a village to make that happen.