What are NPCs if not the ultimate limitation of our quaint little hobby in providing us with a real, living, breathing world? Since the era of the tabletop role-playing game, the division between player character and non-player character has been the last word in determining whether an entity inside a game world truly matters or not to the players. NPCs have been pack mules. Trap bait. Meat shields. Cannon fodder. Something to weigh down pressure plates. NPCs are the supporting cast, the props, and the scenery, all rolled into one. NPCs exist because there aren’t enough real people to play all the roles -- and some roles wouldn’t be the ones people would want to play, anyway.
Traditionally, at least.
Curiously, as computer games evolved, so have the roles played by the NPCs. It could be argued that NPCs have extended their reach with their superior programming and AI, surpassing the limited electronic worlds they inhabit to become the main attraction of the games themselves. Just take a look at Bioshock Infinite. The player spends the entire game exploring a weird and wondrous city in the skies -- a locale never before realized in such a grand manner in gaming -- and yet people will talk about Elizabeth more often than the city itself. Mass Effect fans will reminisce in exacting detail about what Garrus did and what Wrex said even as the details of the missions themselves fade away into vague recollections. Older players might recall stalwarts like Minsc and Boo, Grim Fandango’s Glottis, or the attractive and sarcastic Grace Nakimura from Gabriel Knight (who would graduate to player-character status in the sequels). Much older players out there will remember Planetfall’s Floyd and his ultimate fate. NPCs have always been a prominent and memorable aspect of computer games.
Sadly, NPC design has come to the point that in some games, the NPCs actually do all the work for you. Anyone who’s ever played through Battlefield 3’s single player campaign knows the frustration of lounging around closed doors, waiting for their NPC companions to catch up and kick the door in to unlock the next segment of gameplay.
This is far from the sophistication we all envisioned ten or twenty years ago for THE FUTURE. I don’t want to go to the other extreme and call it laziness, either. I’d rather call it misguided. Every critical action being assigned to an NPC takes that action away from the player. Who else felt bad when the dude in MOH: Warfighter pops the target you were trying to get a bead on while admonishing you for being “too slow”?
Giving power and opportunity to NPCs is all well and good, but aren’t they supposed to be there to make us look good? Aren’t they the backup singers and the second voices in our act, fated to chime in during key moments and then fade into the background?
Some of these new games make me feel like I’m the prop. Or the cameraman.
Interestingly, many, many years ago, there was a game where you played the role of an AI in a world populated -- much like the world you and I know so well -- by humans. You are an exciting and enigmatic invention, but you are also a tool and not a person. You exist as a construct to aid the lives of humans. Your name is PRISM. The game is A Mind Forever Voyaging, and in it, you play as a prop. Or indeed, a cameraman.
Your mission in the game is to live out a virtually generated future extrapolated from a social plan on the verge of implementation -- an interesting premise in spite of how much it sounds like 80s sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. You interact with two sets of characters: the real people in the real world, where you are basically software inside a high-tech building, and the virtual people in the simulated town of Rockvil, South Dakota, where you are “Perry Simm”, man about town.
The real-world people largely treat you as an intelligent dog at best, offering the customary greetings and work-related banter as they pass by your numerous consoles in the building. In Rockvil, however, you are as much (and as little) of a person as everybody else who populates the town. You have a wife, and neighbors, and a son. Each “level” takes you a decade further into the future at a time, and your task in each time period is to wander around, recording key events in the town as you experience them for the humans back home to study. There’s no real way to influence the course of events in the simulation, although there are a bunch of ways to react to them. You get to live Perry’s life in brief flashes as he progresses from young adulthood to elderly chap, and you get to see how the social engineering poised to take effect will change the world, gradually at first and then snowballing alarmingly towards the end.
The story itself (written by the legendary Steve Meretzky) is engaging and moving, but the way the idea behind it is framed as the life of a non-living entity is brilliant. Underneath the social commentary is a strange story of a being who is fated to live only the parts of its life that humans deem interesting enough, spending the rest of the time as a non-entity inside a drab science complex. We leap from scene to scene, encasing ourselves in suspended animation in between takes like the philosophical falling tree in the forest, waiting for someone to wander by and hear us fall.
We participate in a medium where the player is traditionally thrust into the spotlight and made to play the hero, but here was a game that told it like it really was: what we really play is one of those fake people on the street, or one of those cute and clever things that answer intelligently to the delight of the humans on the other side of the screen. We are a man-made construct within a man-made construct, interacting with all the other man-made constructs around us. We are an artificial being playing at life inside an artificial simulation.
We are a game playing itself.
Now, it’s 2013, and the games are playing themselves more than ever. Everytime a button prompt appears even before I decide to interact with something, I remember this. Perhaps the AI is truly taking over, marching onwards as we gasp and pant in pursuit, our frail human limitations too slow and too dumb and too obtuse to play a game as well as the NPCs could.
A Mind Forever Voyaging could have been a prototype for the NPC of the future. It plays the game for you! It shows the best bits for your entertainment! And very soon, it will walk your dog!
NPCs were a limitation, but now it seems like we’re the weak link in the picture, and they’re poised to cut us out.