NPC Stasis: Frozen in Time, or Man on a Mission?
NPC Stasis:Frozen in Time, or Man on a Mission?
NPC Stasis:Frozen in Time, or Man on a Mission?

Perhaps because I'm a writer, I spend a lot of time looking at the average passer-by and wondering what little elements shape their life. Perhaps they're on the way to the store to pick up pickles and ice cream for an expecting mother, or perhaps walking home from the funeral of a loved one. There are a lot of little coincidences that make up the day-to-day life of any single person, and trying to understand the scope of even just five individual's plans at any given instant is boggling for a single mind to comprehend.

Transpose this scenario into a city, where an average block can hold hundreds of people, each with their own agendas, lives, plans, ideas, goals, ambitions, and destinations. The sheer scope of basic thoughts is enough to crumble even the most intricate of thinkers.

Yet, I can't help but imagine as I'm playing a game, about the lowly NPC. Oftentimes little more than set pieces or background noise to fill in the blank space of a zone or map, the NPC is still an individual. I would think that the reason they are so often understated is because of the sheer scope of programming that would go into making an NPC even have a possible three different scenarios that they want to pursue. A real world with progressive time reflected in a game has so many possibilities even trying to mimic the lowest form of it boggles.

But despite the scope of it, I would still like to imagine a world that functioned completely independent of the player. In that sense, games like ArmA II, the Fallout series, and Majora's Mask have done more than exquisitely. It's a game that will have NPCs doing their own thing, even if the player does nothing but sits in town counting the blades of grass. Each character has their day and their life to attend to. No matter the narrative medium, everything and everyone will be doing their own thing even if the narrator/player isn't.

Granted, for apocalyptic scenarios, "their own thing" often involves running away from the guy with the chainsaw or ducking for cover when the guns come out. However, left to their own devices, it would amaze me to see a character get sick one day, and duck into the pharmacy the next. Maybe even see a character passing out flyers one day, and other characters going to his house the next week for the block party. It's these sorts of things that will really bring games full circle. Not games that will play themselves, but games that are playing, even when the players aren't playing along.

Shenmue gets close, but isn't quite there.
Shenmue gets close, but isn't quite there.

Shenmue II is one of the titles that almost gets it right. No matter your progress in the game, you can wake up early in the morning and follow an NPC throughout his day. An old man going to the park to feed the birds, and is there from about 9 AM until 11 AM on Fridays. He'll go to cafes, visit shops and browse, or see his friends who own antique shops. It's a very slow day, but it's interesting to see him follow his own day, even if you're wasting your time by following him around. Although it's not the most exhilarating experience gaming has to offer, it's very exciting from a technical standpoint. Depending on the NPC you find, they may even sacrifice a part of their day to walk the protagonist to where he needs to go.

Each NPC has their own inclanation for roadside games, and working part-time for one-such roadside game may draw an NPC aside to play. Depending on the NPCs that walk by. One day, say Tuesday, you may have a slow day as all the bikers and busy-bodies happen down the road. On Wednesday, you may get swamped by customers all day. And this isn't randomly generated, it's entirely dependent on the populous at large.

This world, a living breathing one, is a fantastic accomplishment. It's also practically invisible unless you're looking for it. It is a fantastic touch, though. Like tendo82 suggests in his recent article, it's an amazing accomplishment to write home about, even though it has nothing to do with the standard criteria for a good or great game.

Even though it's not something just anyone looks for, it's still partially expected out of a video game. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, Prototype, and other titles get away with faking it. Randomly generated pedestrians who all walk or drive around give the illusion of going places, and it's good enough for the average eye. Even with my own obsession, when getting into the missions and goals, I notice they're there, but I don't stop to think. As such, they do their job, and they do it well.

However, when they aren't even faked, they start to become punchlines rather than part of the story. NPCs in the jRPG genre are particularly notorious for this. The beginning of the game, a small village's pub is occupied by an old man nursing his ale over his missing wife. Later on in the game, an entire continent is destroyed, an evil empire takes over, and the entire village except for the pub can be burned down. Yet inside the pub, the same old man will be nursing his ale. Nine days out of ten, he'll probably even say the same thing.

Aspirations for grandeur, from a "casual" game.
Aspirations for grandeur, from a "casual" game.

Even titles like The Sims have a lot to learn about the day-to-day lives about NPCs, even when the game is all about the day-to-day goings-on. Something it could learn from, oddly enough, Animal Crossing. Despite it's cutesy graphics, simple idea, and "casual" question of playability, Animal Crossing got the idea of setting theoretically perfect. It's a world that holds events, stages concerts, has festivals, and proceeds completely without the player. Without turning the game on, NPCs are sending letters, changing wardrobe, and counting the days you've been hiding out in your house.

As weird as this is going to sound, it is my hope that more games have the blind ambition that Animal Cross simultaneously has and represents. I would like to see more game worlds that are more about the world rather than the game. I hope that I can waste hundreds, if not thousands, of hours following NPCs around doing whatever it is they do. I positively love seeing how game worlds have grown and expanded over the years. With some luck, they'll start becoming worlds of their own.

It is my hope that I will eventually be able to play in a game, rather than simply playing the game.

I definetly agree that more games should do this sort of thing. Grand Theft Auto 4 may be one of the "faker" games, but it does it very well, and that's one of my favorite parts of the game. The city feels amazingly alive, and I was thrilled the first time I saw a pedestrian pull his car into a driveway and park it in the garage.

Rockstar definetly seems to understand the value of creating a living world. It sounds like they're really focusing on it in Red Dead Redemption, and I'm excited for it. But I'm not really sure if it's going to be a very good fake live world or the real thing.

Nice article newk. I agree with what you said about how its really only something you notice when you're looking. I would love to see it implimented well in more games where it counts. RPGs and Sandbox for example are great for this. But because its only noticed by a slim majority of gamers i doubt companies will bother including detailed lives.

Nuke! You're back! I missed you and your wonderful articles.

That was always something that fascinated me about the world of Animal Crossing. Granted, only seventeen or so critters get that special "I have my own life!" treatment, but regardless. It's a fascinating concept, and if it was used in RPGs more often could open up near-infinite replay value.

Imagine a city where every NPC you see has a life, has goals, has encounters with other people that you can only see once. Imagine following one young woman for a few days, seeing her go to the grocery store, get berated by her boyfriend for not cleaning the house one day, etc.

I actually think that Majora's Mask pulled this off better than anyone else. There wasn't a single 'blank' NPC; every character had a life and a story. Sure, some were more interesting than others (For example, the story of Kafei and Anju that leads to you getting the Couple's Mask) is far more interesting than the story of the Bomb Lady getting robbed. But that's not the point; more than ten years ago, we had a game that managed to fit that gaming revolution in 64-bits.

So why can't we do it today?

I don't think you wonder about people's lives because you're a writer. I think certain minds just do. I know I do that with animals. Less with people, but occasionally. Its one of those things that those of wandering minds often do. I don't know if your mind strays as frequently as mine, but I find creatively inclined people have a tendency to do such.

I like this article. Well... I like a lot of articles. But I love the idea of a game where NPCs feel like something more that some sprites in setting. Where I get the idea that I'm part of a world. I got a small glimpse of this even in Mass Effect in the Citadel, where you would see small gatherings of people making small talk. Now they don't really do anything other than that, but you get the impression that you aren't the only thing happening in the game. This is issue even in writing. Some writers cannot make a setting in which you feel that anything is going on beyond the main character's life. This was, I found, a problem in Rowling's writing and is a common problem I've faced with a lot of writing. Its a definite problem I had when I was trying to write for a while.

I believe Oblivion did it really well. Or at least that's the first time I really noticed it. But you mentioned Fallout 3 which i didn't feel people had all too much to do, but that might have been because there wasn't much of a civilization to do anything in.
And I do wonder (And I'm a writer the same way someone who plays random crap on the guitar on the street is a musician) what the NPC are doing. Especially when I stab someone. "Gee I wonder if he/she had somewhere important to do?"

I would like to see this implemented more. Great article, it is obvious you know what you are talking about.

Excellent articule hun.

You just spurred a thought. What if they implemented this sort of "Worldly happenings" into one of the much criticised "Moral Choice" game.

The main problem with these "moral choices" is that they are neither Moral, it's a "choice" to achieve an end - whether it's getting more experience or resource. You personally suffer no consequence of either action as there's no repercussions.

Now take a living, breathing world. If you take someone out of it, or change their life in anyway, you'll see a tangible change int he environment - whether it's people heading to the person's funeral, or the police starting investigations, or even a child walking up to you and saying "You killed my father" and running off. You suffer REAL consequences upon the actions you take as there is a context for those actions to be made in.

Now here is a man who is capable of reading my mind and divining my true desires.
Excellent article.

Way of the Samurai.

There, said it.

True, there are still "fake" citizens sprinkled among the real ones. But most of the characters are important to the story. Kill any of them and you'll notice a marked change in the story arc, or maybe just the game world.

For example, there's a purple-robed man who wanders around the area. He gives you advice, sells you secrets and is generally helpful. You can decide to kill him and take his (unique!) sword. If you do so, you will obviously never see him again until you beat the game and start a new one. Many times I leave him alive simply because I enjoy seeing him around.

I've always had a secret desire to be an NPC. XD

You know, aren't ghosts kinda like NPCs? I mean, they're mentally trapped in a particular time frame, always yearning for one particular what-not...

pantsoffdanceoff:
I believe Oblivion did it really well. Or at least that's the first time I really noticed it. But you mentioned Fallout 3 which i didn't feel people had all too much to do, but that might have been because there wasn't much of a civilization to do anything in.
And I do wonder (And I'm a writer the same way someone who plays random crap on the guitar on the street is a musician) what the NPC are doing. Especially when I stab someone. "Gee I wonder if he/she had somewhere important to do?"

Like stealth games, when you kill a guard just think what could have happened to make them end up in such a shit hole in the first place.

Fantastic article that brought up some interesting points. I always just videogames off the hook for stuff like that, but they definetly should start implenting these virtual people and step away from the backdrop.

This deserves a bump.

You obviously haven't played one of the Lunar games. While barely any of it has anything to do with the storyline, each NPC in the typically populous towns has a lot of dialogue. While it's all the kind of zany stuff people had come to expect from Working Designs, it very much added to the world, even if it was the kind of fantasy world everyone has seen a hundred times.

And I think it's just people with a curious mind who have those thoughts (I have occasionally and would never call myself a writer). Although doubtlessly that kind of thinking can be useful for a writer, especially in fiction.

Good article, although it spent quite a lot of the time setting the scene of other game's worlds. While it's done very eloquently, I still found it getting a bit unfocused after the third paragraph. A few oddities I'm surprised the OP didn't catch: inclanation? oftentimes? 'more than exquisitely' sounded a little strange when I read it too, given the myriad alternative adverbs.

I have to say, is a world that can carry on without the player really necessary? I watched The Truman Show the other day, and wouldn't a similar illusion suffice for a game? A GTA game where you can wait outside a person's house until they leave, then burgle them seems a bit too much. Although it would fit in with my personal ideal of sandboxes, where actions have significance beyond invoking some strong force or only affecting a karma meter. For example, you stab a man in the street, and his wife hires a hitman or private detective who you have to deal with, although truly going into the consequences of actions in a game like GTA would make it an even more disturbed experience than it already is. And of course, sales would probably plummet.

Flying-Emu:
So why can't we do it today?

I think in the end, it's about payoff. Games like the GTA series can get away with faking it because it's not completely necessary. Nine gaming days out of ten, you'll just be storming by the NPCs (or running them over) without ever giving their day a passing glance. We do the same thing in real life, so it's not at all strange for us to do so in fiction either. Yet, they have just enough to seem like they're doing something. "Fake" NPCs are like extras in movies. So long as they're close enough, even though we have the ability to know better, we don't actually mind. They do their job.

Games like Shenmue really do it well, by being meticulous despite being superfluous. The NPCs could be randomly generated, doing one of ten possible paths while having been generated in the zone. Instead, walking around from one corner to the next, you can follow the same NPC. They have a routine, they have personality, it's pretty awe-inspiring. It is, however, absolutely useless to the main story. Unlike in Harvest Moon where your treatment of the villagers affects your outcome, you can jostle every NPC in Shenmue, help none, with no ill-effects.

So, I'm not surprised more games don't do it. It's not that they can't, it's just that they have no reason to. Even on my own RPG project, my NPCs are set pieces. Even though I understand, I'm not going to spew out lines and lines and more lines of code just to have a single NPC have even three or four possible paths or daily schedules. Majora's Mask managed to significantly reduce it's work-load by only have three days to deal with and limiting the size of the game to a smaller area. In an RPG, programming every NPC with nothing more than two possible days would increase the amount of coding in the entire game by about 30%, which in my case, would mean about another three months of pure NPC fiddling. (That's also assuming the code works the first time. And it won't.)

It's a neat theory, but does tax the developers a lot more. Now take into account Shenmue II has a Metacritic score of 80, while GTA IV has a 98. It is neat, but you aren't doing yourself any favors if most of the extra cost and effort goes practically unnoticed.

pigeon_of_doom:
You obviously haven't played one of the Lunar games. While barely any of it has anything to do with the storyline, each NPC in the typically populous towns has a lot of dialogue. While it's all the kind of zany stuff people had come to expect from Working Designs, it very much added to the world, even if it was the kind of fantasy world everyone has seen a hundred times.

I'll admit, with some shame, that I've only really played Lunar: Silver Star Story's remake for the Playstation, and the NPCs were a lot more dialog-varied. It's games like these and Grandia: Extreme's that I was letting off the hook on the one day out of ten. Towns changed and shaped as the world progressed. (Shout out to Breath of Fire, which had a town destroyed in the first thirty minutes of the game. By about mid-game, the town had been rebuilt.) However, being the minority, I didn't really mention them. It's not to say it hasn't be done. Just not to a remarkable degree.

Oh, for the days where a game could be as immersive as a crowd at a metal gig where everyone has a story about "that time with that band..."

I must say though, this is somewhat contrary to something you've said before about gay characters in games being unnecessary. If you're going to have NPCs who have this kind of individual depth, even if it's just a few of them, the question of having gay characters becomes somewhat different.

There are constraints on this. Prototype sees a lot of aimlessly walking NPCs who function as (for me) cannon fodder. If the kind of complex thought that you're suggesting went into that, how would characters react to people they know being wiped out by a psychotic, giggling player on a power-trip? Would they have emotional responses programmed in this eventuality? Would the dead character re-spawn in everything but name, location and affiliation to start again with the same system?

Of course the major issue here is that most developers simply don't have the time to do this. They're pressed by publishers as it is. Just look to the interview with Crowshaw in the last issue to find their views on the production schedule and cost constraints. Perhaps an attitude shift is in order to take it away from a profit thing and into the realm of a fine artwork with every detail attended to.

I am surprised no one has mentioned the Hitman games or at leas Hitman: Bloodmoney. That game is one where I really do get the feeling that the NPC's actually have lives that they are trying to live. Granted, you are generally there to end them, but still it was the first game where it was truly obvious to me. Also I think that it deserves extra merit for making you realize that this is the case, because it is practicly impossible to do anything, or kill anyone in that game if you aren't familiar with their agendas.

 

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