Why We Game - NPCs

In this edition, FBT tries to blend in with the locals

It’s the turn of my favourite Non-Playable Characters; mysterious bystanders, interferers and layabouts. NPC’s inhabit the world, give it depth and vibrancy; those digital extras make it seem real. Or, surreal. Repeat the same actions, give nonsensical responses, do random things, walk into the water or off buildings, over-react to nothing and act indifferent to the most insane events. Just like real people. This is for all those who didn’t get to be in a cutscene. At least, weren’t supposed to be in a cutscene.

If there’s one word to describe Saints Row 3 it would be absurd. The whole thing is mad, but having half of the NPCs as mascots in fancy dress suggests anything goes. Which is exactly the tone SR3 is going for. Kicking someone off a moped is one thing, but when they’re wearing a beer bottle outfit it doesn’t seem so bad. Same goes for assaulting them in the streets. There’s nothing better than performing a wrestling move on a man dressed as a Hot Dog. Spotting them in twos riding together or just hanging about, they don’t have much to do or say, but it’s like an open-world circus - again, exactly the mood SR3 is going for; it encourages you to behave like a loon - and dress like one. The key thing is everyone takes themselves completely seriously; fighting a Mexican wrestler or passing someone dressed in a tiger onesie is just a day in the life of Steelport.

Half-Life’s hundreds of four scientists and the Barneys are always a welcome sight as you struggle through the ruins of Black Mesa. Refusing to go any further, offering suggestions on what happened, letting out that shriek when a headcrab appears, they’re the only company Gordon has during his escape, and you do get a little pang of guilt when you’re forced to leave them behind. Somehow they provoke a protective sense in you, remind you of what you’re fighting for. Even if it’s unlikely any actually survive …

You know, you look like you need a monkey. No One Lives Forever is a master-class in NPCs. Easily half the time I spend in NOLF is taken up by listening to the NPCs chatter. There’s the infamous monkey salesman, the people in the club or the space station nightclub, it’s the only game where I steer towards NPCs instead of around them.

I Don't Want A Monkey

They just give the game this sense that you’re actually playing an episode of The Avengers. While technically enemies, the nameless henchmen are also worthy of NPC status. From the fez-wearing baddies in Morocco who are upset at getting shot at to the guys discussing mother in-laws or alcoholism, every time you spot henchmen you go into Stealth mode - not to sneak past, but to catch some choice bit of nattering. In fact, I nearly died during the rocket launch sequence because instead of looking for a way out, I stopped and listened to the scientists bickering.

While almost all of the NPCs in Bioshock also qualify as enemies, it’s a testament that they’re characters as much as bullet-catchers; when they’re not attacking you for adam, Splicers are lost in reverie, remembering the good old times - or think they’re still in them. Their haunting monologues about past lives paints a picture of pre-war Rapture, and it sounded beautiful. The Splicers are one of the few enemies that I can feel pity for - while I’m setting swarms of bees on them of course.

“I was in the war!” Some NPCs you can interact with, others you shoot. Carmageddon’s you run over. You know it’s wrong but rather than being sick or twisted, Carma is demented and the NPC’s behaviour just makes it fun … their arm-waving, flapping and panicking, the old man with the sick trying to get out the way, the splat and spinning body-parts when you do connect … and it’s not just humans it’s cows too (‘Moo-hugggh’). The best thing is your driver, Max D or Die Anna are in the corner of the screen giggling along with you. Carma is a prime example of a game that’s made by the NCP’s; it’s a Demolition Derby without them bouncing off your bonnet; I salute their sacrifice. It shouldn’t be this much fun running people over.

FC3 had its fair share of NCPs - the Rakyat warriors told you ‘this was a beautiful place once, and will be again’ almost as often as a Skyrim adventurer took an arrow to the knee, but the real FC standouts are the nerd scientists in Far Cry Blood Dragon. They spend all their time in gunfights screaming and complaining (‘I’m too smart to die!’) and when things are peaceful they mull about, contemplating science and taking the piss out of Far Cry 3 – “I really thought there’d be hot island women here, the kind with tribal tattoos and a White Saviour complex”. It’s not what you expect from grunt NPCs but then the entire game is like that – it’s game play is FC3 but its characters make it special.

Shooters in the Doom era had little in the way of peaceful NPCs - we had Duke’s strippers of course, but that was about it. Blake Stone, the long-forgotten pre-Doom shooter actually had pre-Half-Life scientists who would help Blake out; if they weren’t actually bad guys, and that was advanced for the time. They always stayed with me – partly because of the hero worship (“You’re Blake Stone!”) but mostly because they added a tiny element of realism to the era.

“Stop! You’ve violated the law!” Damnit. Oblivion's people of Cyrodiil might be my favourite NPCs of all time. They’re all corrupt for starters, no one’s above a bribe, and they change moods in an instant, going from “you saved my life” to “get out before I call the guards!”. But they’re great fun to be around. Stopping to talk to each other; ‘have you heard?!’ / ’Goodbye’, the way they all sleep together, yell “someone’s been murdered!’ then walk all over the body, they’re just that little bit odd and off-centre. It’s largely down to the fairly basic AI but it somehow created an eccentric, fun group of folks to live with. Compared to the dour, boring lot that inhabit Skyrim, the NPCs of Oblivion make it a joy to walk around and bring the world to life.

The NPCs of GTA Vice City didn’t really do a great deal. Except look great; the roller-skaters, the midriff tops and ‘Relax’ tee-shirts let you know what decade you were in, they set the tone and brought Vice City alive just as much as the music and neon. But GTA San Andreas really nailed it, and I’m not just talking about the hookers (still have a spot-spot for the blonde in thigh-highs though ...) – the folks wandering around San Andreas brought the place to life. Dangerous drivers (and fliers), drug peddlers, gang-members and regular members of society, they behaved semi-convincingly, chilling on doorsteps, talking a walk, gathering around events or running screaming, it felt all the more real for them being there. Okay so the paramedics killed more people than they saved and the cops were a little trigger happy, but it still felt like a real world.

I love NPCs. Except when they get in the way, block doors or report you to the guards. They make a game world seem real, no matter how robotic or neurotic their behaviours. They can be random, ridiculous or rage-inducing but the world would be an empty place without them.

I can’t list my favourite NPCs without one special mention – Morrowind’s Tarhiel. All you hear is ‘ahgggggggggg - thump’ then find his body, discovering he’d invented a spell that launched him into the sky – but he forgot to invent a landing spell. It happens early on, and although it’s just a random (hilarious) moment, it sets the tone for the entire game - judging by this, anything might happen here - and that’s the essence of an NPC.