Curiosity Killed the NPC

Will Hindmarch | 2 Feb 2010 11:53
Anti/Hero - RSS 2.0

This can happen in any game where we have the freedom to create or destroy. The flexibility of play means we can craft our own identities, but curiosity in a world without consequence - that is, most game worlds - so often makes us anti-heroes. We throw enemies into the freezing death of outer space to see what our powers can do. We kill the character we could spare to see if the story will change. We do terrible things in the name of freedom and trust that a saved game will absolve us.


A saved game isn't a clean slate, though. The progress you make in the game is informed by the actions you took and the ones you rejected. The connection between you and your character is more complicated than just button presses on a gamepad. As you get better informed, your character becomes smarter, but also bolder or more wary. The reason my pathetic Fallout character became a coward is because I saw how lucky I was to beat that huckster in the first place - my last hit point and I chose not to take that gamble again.

But I didn't forgive my character for getting the sheriff killed, nor did I absolve myself of my decision to go back and weasel out of some damage. I felt like my character was getting away from who I wanted him to be. I'd made a choice I didn't like, and it became a part of him.

When you play a character in a game, you are both actor and audience. In theory, your character only has to impress and entertain you. But which character do you choose to see? What personality do you assemble from the available saved games? Which portrait emerges in your mind after multiple play-throughs? Who is it that materializes from the choices you make over weeks of play?

For every hero we patch together in our imaginations, from our best saved games and most informed decisions, there's a tawdry misanthrope to be made out of our mistakes and failures. And sometimes our own actions leave us to choose between two anti-heroes, like the bloody gunfighter and the wary coward.

We know what our characters are really capable of because we have explored the sordid possibilities. Along the way, we see a shade of what we are capable of ourselves - and how often it falls short of heroism.

Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer and mooncalf. He writes more about games at Gameplaywright.

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