I met Karen years ago under difficult circumstances. My grandfather had died and bequeathed his farm to me, a piece of land outside a small village. I didn’t know anyone there, or how to cultivate. Karen worked as a waitress at the local inn and spent her free time planning an escape to an unspecified big city. She was mostly brusque, often drunk, and got angry at every approach. We got married in a month.
Karen exists in a late ’90s video game called “Harvest Moon 64”, which I was obsessed with in middle school. She is a non-player character, or NPC – a member of the game’s subordinate caste. NPCs function as scripted bumpers, providing order to the virtual worlds around which the player-protagonists revolve. They cater to a player’s every need, dispensing information, setting fire to cover, guiding us towards self-discovery through our bouts of amnesia (a common affliction in games). RPG titles routinely feature NPCs as romantic interests: “Harvest Moon 64” featured four additional singles, each key to new quests and subplots. But I only had eyes for Karen, whose grudging affection and insistence on a life beyond Flowerbud Village flipped a switch deep in my sixth-grade psyche.
Is it weird to have fond memories of a bunch of code? I’ve met thousands of NPCs on my digital journeys, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I have deeper feelings for some of them than for former lovers or certain cousins. Their particular charm defies the conventions of good fiction, where secondary characters are meant to flow in and out of the narrative flow with grace and economy. Roger Sterling fills a glass, lights a smoke, lets out a joke and ends the scene. NPCs, on the other hand, linger – sometimes embarrassingly, standing still while you read a menu or go pee. They tend to repeat themselves under persistent questions. In many cases, you can fire one at close range with ammo intended for supermutants and only elicit a soft “Hey, look at it!”
NPCs in contemporary games, whose budgets rival Hollywood blockbusters, are flashier than Karen ever was. Today’s acolytes deliver meaty speeches through finely rendered teeth. Even the most peripheral NPCs of the “Grand Theft Auto” series – that sorry lot, the victims of countless crimes – can mimic the agency by lighting a cigarette without your permission. But in the end, NPCs aren’t ersatz people, brimming with spontaneous possibilities. They are written and confined. They remain attached to their situation.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve always turned to NPCs in times of disarray: long, empty afternoons, or after a breakup or layoff.
That’s how I like them. My NPCs are sleeper cells in the box under my TV, ready to activate a friendship at my command. My farm needs tending, my lord needs saving, my species is in peril again, and I know who to call. Their fixture is a feature, not a bug. I depend on their availability. Which is good, because they’re not real. NPCs don’t gain credibility by faking a new life; they are the product of those that already exist. They are software written and powered by real people trying to communicate with you and care for you through their creation, and so they sparkle with the humanity of their developers. (Yes, even aliens and the Eldritch.) Each NPC is an outstretched hand, drawing you into the stakes of their world, ready to join you on your journey through it. They exist to make you, the player, the hero of the story.
The oddity is that you end up working on their behalf. You recover their priceless heirlooms during “recovery quests”. You protect their rag doll bodies during “escort missions”. And you’re happy to do it – or at least willing. This is the paradox of good solo play. Although you are the main character, the NPCs take center stage. Their needs direct. Unsurprisingly, I’ve always gravitated toward them in aimless moments: long, empty afternoons, or after a breakup or layoff. When I’m looking for a quick goal, there’s Karen asking me to help pick the grapes from her vineyard. There’s Wrex, who asks me to help him cure the infertility prevalent among his people due to the deployment long ago of a bio-weapon called the genophage. Together we’ll accomplish something, and then I’m leaving.
A few years ago, I moved to Singapore as an unemployed, non-committal spouse with a dermatological aversion to the scorching heat of the island. While my wife worked inappropriate hours, I stuffed myself with delivery and tried to identify the VPN software most conducive to self-abuse. On my 30th birthday, I hopped on a train to one of Singapore’s many malls to pick up a copy of “Red Dead Redemption 2”, the most anticipated title of that year.
“RDR2” is the so-called “open world”, a game genre that allows players to move freely instead of being restricted to discrete areas or levels. In the American West version of this game, players hunt, fish, skin animals, and shoot waves at waves of non-narrative enemies. In between, they can interact with over 1,000 NPCs, a dozen of whom feature intimately in the story. These NPCs taught me how to rob banks and hunt bears. They got drunk with me and died in front of me. And we played poker.
Real life has finally usurped my thumbs. I found work and made friends. I applied the right topical creams. My merry band of outlaws weren’t possessive. I’ve always made time for poker, regularly heading into a run-down saloon to chat with a group of NPCs prepared for my presence. It’s comforting to know that right now they’re sitting at their table, waiting to distribute me.
Mac Schwerin is a New York-based freelance writer and journalist.