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NPC III: Rant /// Keeping Company (in a reality)

These worlds are inhabited. Inhabitants may range from relatively normal people to epic boss-monster-things and terrible creatures you end up hoping to meet, no matter how dangerous their reputation or fangs make them. Sometimes the scariest creatures look no different from the humblest ones. In many ways, they are no different to real people, except that the writing is occasionally better. Meet the real NPC’s. 

Functionally, an NPC is a feedback and support mechanism. Feedback, in the sense that they can be used as organic mechanisms to enforce the players sense of existing and developing within a game world by commenting on actions and decisions they have undertaken in that world- their reaction to the character communicates a certain status within the world’s society and attitudes towards the character and their actions hitherto, giving them meaning and multiplying a personal sense of accomplishment. They help the player immerse themselves in the world by acknowledging the player and assuring them that their actions have not occurred in a vacuum: they have had a meaningful impact within this world. Absent scores, they give the player a direct way to gauge that impact and their status and progress. As a support mechanism, they accompany the player through their game journey, helping the player through difficult combat, giving first aid when needed and providing a running commentary on locations, enemies and events that occur in the journey- both a sounding board and a guide.

Some will give you things to do- in most games that involve NPC’s, a majority of your to-do list will result from interactions with NPC’s who need things done. Their third function- employer for freelance adventurers, becomes apparent only after talking to them. Most of them will require you to go somewhere, do something and pick up a reward, resulting in either pecuniary reward or knowledge (in most cases). An analogy to real life would be someone running around town, talking to every single person they meet, asking them whether they need help. While it may work, you end up doing many random things for random people- but will also end up earning your living, somehow. Some games try to cut down on this randomness by having job offers posted on a notice board, offering a means of choosing which offer you want to follow, rather than throwing them in your path at random. 

Looking beyond their function as a game mechanic, they are the people who live in this world and have been doing so long before the player came to visit. They are your friends, enemies, guides and sometimes your companions. They give you information, occupation and context for your existence in the world you are currently inhabiting when you ask (and often, even when you don’t). They reflect many of the random strangers and unseen faces you may run into in your daily life- and the hidden facets some might reveal if you invest the time. Occasionally, you will meet people you end up liking, or hating. A well-crafted NPC demands an emotional response. Most discard that crafting in favour of streamlining the plot and not getting hung up on everyone having a life story (and listening to it because it’s so interesting)*. Over time, you will find some with stories you identify with, whom you enjoy and feel a personal connection to beyond their use to unraveling a plot, or the situation you are currently stuck in- one of the side effects of long-term gaming is that you become happy to see virtual people, even if they have nothing to say. They are, mostly, simpler than real people and interacting with them involves less small talk- usually, they will tell you immediately when they like you and when they don’t, hiding behind very little subterfuge. And some (by design) are the people you hope to meet in your real life- you may fall in love. You have been warned.

As your life and character in this new world take on a shape, you develop- as a leader, lover, caretaker, friend, protector or executioner, or nemesis. Over time, communication and interaction leads to relationships with the characters in the game, which are coloured through the players’ emotions and attitudes, and the narrative intention of the games developers (though player perception may subvert these). There are characters you end up loving, platonically or carnally, characters you hate unambiguously, those you love to hate and everything in between. Emotional connections that seem as valid as the connections to the people you encounter in your real life***- neurologically, they probably are****. And every now and then, a character will get thrown your way that you would very much like to call a friend, even without the messy business of in-game romance- their conversation and company just click- sometimes to the point of verbalising emotion towards them as you play. And then you realise you are sitting in front of a screen.

Even in early games that included interactions with non-player characters, players were made aware that talking to people has consequences. The mechanism for dialogue in games has traditionally been a series of text or mood choices to choose from, and receive responses to, called a dialogue tree (, reflecting different attitudes, levels of respect and humour- directly affecting the response of the interlocutor**. These range from cooperation to adoration to a refusal to ever speak to you again, training the player to think before they communicate and manipulate- literally learning which buttons to push to elicit a certain response. Which attitude to adopt in these responses is left up to the player. Whether they wish to play a “good”, “evil” or “neutral” character is left mostly up to them, but offers, whatever the choice, a safe chance to explore their personal relationship and reaction to various manifestations of  (im-)morality- both personally, by choosing a response, and vicariously, through the eyes of the player character who will respond and be reacted to. There is an extra layer to this, but more on that later. 

Even so, players tend to react towards virtual NPC’s in similar ways they would react to real-life NPC’s. They tend to help those in need and empathise with the gamut of emotion presented to them in either game while following their own agendas. Kindness towards most animals is a common feature in virtual and real lives- as long as they are unlikely to eat you. They worry when their friends disappear from sight for extended periods, and mourn the loss of those they have grown close to. They hate to disappoint their friends and will stand with them to oppose perceived threats. They will laugh at their good jokes, tell them off when they make a bad one and get tired of them (but no less loyal) when they repeat themselves.  Occasionally they will be called upon for a personal favour and share deep personal moments in discovery and emotional reaction. Their choice of company represent moral compasses and waypoints towards a better version of themselves. Sometimes, you just want hug. Finally, it’s just more fun to go forth on a grand adventure with your people than it is to experience them all alone. When you get home, eventually, you are generally happy to see familiar faces go about their lives, though you may no longer be the person you were when you set out. But it still feels good to greet the neighbours, sit down for a chat and a drink with your friends and enjoy the quiet moments before the next storm. 

Hate is a powerful emotion that should only be directed towards those thoroughly deserving of it. It is difficult to write about them and remain fair in characterising them, because in most cases, when you end up meeting them, you risk being thoroughly disappointed- proof that meeting your nemesis is as disillusioning as meeting your heroes. One of my favourite villains of all times is SHODAN- she accompanies your journey through both System Shock games, guiding the player, mocking them, often comparing them to an insect and displaying signs of megalomania grande, narcisism brought on by her relative omnipotence and supreme intelligence in the game world. Her fragmented, polycacophonic voice has haunted many a player, even after the end of the game. On her own, she is a good reason to return to the game, bringing out (in me, at least) the desire to stand up to her challenge time after time and face her and the creations she has wrought. My fear of her, which over the course of a game evolves into a respectful hatered, is one of the main motivations to play the game through to its end. Stumbling through corridors with her distorted laughter ringing in my ears. Achieving the impossible, only for her to tell me that it is meaningless. She plays against me, in ways few other antagonists have. I imagine my final confrontation with her to be the full measure of all I have learnt throughout the game- a test of skill, will and ability. That I feel let down every time that confrontation is over has little to do with its relative ease- I spent days building her up in my head, turning her into something fearsome, the ultimate and final challenge in a world she has tricked me into shaping.

SHODAN quotes from System Shock 2 (Terri Brosius)

A “good” antagonist is someone you respect enough to want to build yourself up to be able to measure up to them, someone that motivates you to improve as they manage to outwit you time and time again throughout the course of your game journey, taking you to the brink of your abilities and forcing you to overcome obstacles and your own limitations and then overcome them again. If NPC’s provide context for your actions, the antagonist provides you with motivation to embark on your journey- you want to put an end to their plans. Unlike most characters in a story, they are always present in the narrative in some way- you see the effects of their actions on the world, interact with them at various points in the game- a number of narrative devices are employed to keep them on the players’ mind, should they fall into the lacuna of current events. Even if, as with SHODAN, you end up disappointed because they are not all you hoped they would be, they should elicit the necessary emotion and motivation to work through the game towards that encounter. 

Games such as X-COM are interesting cases for study when it comes to bonding with NPC’s. The player, assuming the role of the “Commander”, also assumes direct responsibility for the actions of their squad by guiding them through dangerous missions to liberate an alien-infested earth. They are in charge of research, recruitment, training, deployment, tactical strategy on the battlefield, and overall global strategy. XCom is famous for being almost impossible to beat at higher difficulty levels, for making every shot count and frequent reloads should things go wrong- it is an exercise in constructive masochism, elation as you beat a level that seemed unbeatable, until it becomes an exercise in masochism once more. And every soldier the player leads into battle has a name, a history and emotes on the field- even though the player never interacts with them outside of management, they tend to develop a relationship with a representation that is, if reduced to its very basic, a container for a bunch of statistics. In theory, a bunch of robots could perform the same task as these fleshy pixels? You are given that option in the game, and yet, from what I can tell, very few players opt to send out a squad made up of Sparks (Robots), opting in stead to stick with the human soldiers and their shortcomings- which goes against both logic and a desire to preserve human life. The reason- from my experience- is that, in spite of everything, I care more about a squad of humans than I do about a squad of robots. It means more to me to see a team I’ve trained and carefully put together survive and succeed than to watch a bunch of robots mow their bloody way through the invaders. Not only does this make me, as a player, care more about the characters I am interacting with- they are putting their virtual lives on the line for our common cause- but it also makes me consider possible outcomes more carefully and possibly play better than otherwise. Over time, if they survive long enough, every squad member gain have their own nickname, individual list of achievements and a shared history of missions and successes. If they do end up dead, due to my mistakes in planning and strategy, or pure chance. I mourn their deaths, and will occasionally reload if someone has died, not wanting this particular character to exit the playing field just yet. Total failure is painful in this game- the “everyone dies” scenario of failing a mission, or indeed the entire game, is deeply personal. This personal stake, created mainly through attachment to your squads and the responsibility attached to wanting to keep every one of them alive is a level of emotional immersion many games aspire to. 

All of this said: The greatest difference between a relationship with a human being and a character preloaded with an AI package (we’re still talking about glorified Tamagochi with the suicidal tendency to follow me around) is that the latter will behave much more predictably, except when scripted to do otherwise. I have yet to run across AI in my gaming that, once their behaviour pattern is established, really surprises me by diverging from that pattern in a significant and unexpected way. This is not to say that the abilities of these companions have not expanded greatly as time and technology have progressed, but they remain bound to the limits of their narrative function in the game******. Their reliable simplicity can be refreshing, but most of them are not very good at parties- unless they’re designed to be. Real people do have one great advantage than most NPC’s: they, for the most part, are far more forgiving and are more entertaining to look at.

This part ends here- next, we explore the centre of the universe. 

En lieu of a game, have 10 minutes of The Game Theorists talking about the hidden life of Portals Companion Cube- one of gamings most beloved NPC's to date.

<< Part 2: To create a Reality

*I have yet to run into the game that makes everyone my avatar runs into interesting. This is not a bad thing. Most of the time, I’m very caught up doing my own stuff, so beyond polite hello’s and goodbyes, we never really interact. Though if they asked, we might have some interesting stories to tell. Probably vice-versa, as well, but most dialogue trees tend to get exhausted after the first couple of conversations. One game that attempted to have everyone you met have something to say about everything was Daggerfall. It was confusing. 
** Early games, especially those before the mouse became an essential accessoire to computing, used a text parser to process the players choices. This did not expand your dialogue options greatly. As with more modern, speech-based virtual assistants, going outside the keywords the programme can process resulted in occasionally hilarious interactions with no discernible effect on the game world. Some attempts have been made to develop this interface- Event0 is one example ( in more recent games, however.
*** An interesting side-note is the reaction of players to animals, such as dogs. Sande Chen, one of the writers on the original “Witcher”, details some reactions to the death and killing of perceived “innocent creatures” within the world ( I can confirm these from my own experience, not only in the Witcher. That aside, the blog is well worth a read. 
**** In researching this, I came across many articles detailing addiction, neurological changes over time. I did not find anything pertaining to how we form relationships with characters. This particular asterisk is an assumption. 
***** There are a few companions that did feel very real in their world- Elisabeth from Bioshock Infinite (2013), Inigo(2014) and Vilja(2012), both Skyrim mods, come to mind. I never played the Mass Effects or Last Guardians of this world, so I can’t comment on those. Alyx from Half-Life 2 was fun.


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