I’m going to put my hands up and straight up confess that I am obsessed with people. I honestly find people utterly amazing. Often, on a weekend, I’ll go grab a coffee and sit by myself just watching people pass by. Now, that sounds a little creepy, but in my defence I was advised by both my former drama teacher and creative writing teacher that as an actor and writer I need to watch people and observe how they behave. Mrs. Turndike, I haven’t let you down.

People are amazing. What I particularly love is how everyone has their own little joys. Some people (myself included) are totally brainwashed by animals and spend all their time with their pets. Other people are obsessed with their looks. Still others with their jobs. We all have that something special, that one little thing we care about more than anything. And that, I think, is one reason why people are so fascinating, because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Another thing that makes people so fascinating is the way in which they respond to different situations. Tell a rude joke and one person will laugh, another slap you. Individual mannerisms and behaviours like that have long been a fascination to me.

Just today, for instance, I was suddenly terribly curious to know what would happen if a man got shot in the head with an arrow from point blank range.  How would they react? What would happen?

I decided to satisfy my curiosity. I purchased a bow and arrow, aimed it squarely at a guy’s head, and fired. Nothing happened. Literally, nothing. The arrow sailed right through the man’s head and stuck in the wall behind him.

I should probably specify that this happened in Skyrim. The man was a non player character (NPC). I fired that arrow and he straight up didn’t give a damn about it. He actually scratched his head and said that he must have imagined it. Seriously. The arrow is sticking directly out of his forehead and he says he must have imagined it.

Skyrim NPCs are the most peace loving people around. You shoot them in the head. They want to talk about it. 

What’s up with that?

Well I’ll tell you what’s up with that. What’s up with that is that games developers are seemingly unaware of how important NPCs are to a game. Even the best developers like Bethesda, and the almighty Skyrim, don’t do NPCs justice.

Non player characters are the people who inhabit the game world. I know you know that already, but just think about it for a moment. Non player characters are the people who inhabit Skyrim and other game worlds. And we, as the player, visit their world on a little adventure.

That’s like visiting a foreign country on an adventure only to find that all the people there are so zombified that they don’t even care if you shot them in the head with an arrow. They don’t care so much that after your attempted murder they immediately return to their work. Think about that. Wouldn’t you wonder just what the hell was wrong with the place? You’d probably begin to wonder whether this foreign country was a real place at all. You’d probably think you were dreaming.

And so it is with games. Game worlds are brought to life by their non player characters, and for my money most developers need to respect that fact a little more than they do.

There’s an intangible magic to non player characters. Somehow, at least in my mind, there’s the sense that these NPCs are the real life people inhabiting a game’s world, because they’re the ones who’ll never leave, they’re your lifers, they represent the pseudo-reality of the game. And if we can’t believe in the NPCs, we’ll surely never believe in the game’s world. That’s why, even though I absolutely love Skyrim, I’m still very much aware that it’s just a game.

It is worth mentioning that some developers have actually created pretty awesome NPCs.  GTA5 has some seriously interesting things going on with its NPCs, and L.A Noire’s non player characters overreact so badly to the slightest attack that you’d swear they were playing for the Italian football team. Those are two examples of games that create interesting NPCs.  But they’re in the minority.

How many times have you been playing a game when something catastrophic is about to happen and the NPCs just stand there chatting? The world is about to blow up and everyone is going to die but the NPCs just stand there going about their chores. It completely kills any believability in the fiction.

I mean really, how are you supposed to give a damn that a world is going to blow up, when all life on that world is completely brain dead, dull, and lifeless? You might as well just let the place get blown sky-high.

And that’s why, in my opinion, If a game can’t have believable NPCs, it probably shouldn’t have any NPCs at all. It’s not like the Skyrim NPC that yawned after I shot in the head was actually adding anything meaningful to Skyrim. So why not just ditch him? At least that way those unbelievable characters aren’t destroying the sense of immersion with their non-f**k-giving attitude.

Developers need to ditch non player characters altogether. Make non-player people instead, people who actually respond, believably, to the events unfolding. Or ditch them altogether. Because saving a world inhabited by cardboard characters just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Categories: gaming

Paul Harrison

Paul M Harrison is an entertainment journalist, novelist, and blogger, and a specialist in the theory of storytelling. Paul Harrison can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter or Facebook.


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