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What’s Wrong with NPCs?—One of Numerous Questions Austin Walker Nails Perfectly

In most video games most of the time, non-player characters are the meat in the player character’s power fantasy sandwich. It might taste great and satisfyingly fire up the player’s neural tastebuds, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with it: what should be virtual human beings are pure objects instead, designed for a comprehensive toolbox for emotional and cognitive manipulation. “Good” NPCs suffer horrible fates to provide the player character anger and motivation, “bad” NPCs suffer horrible fates to provide the player character entertainment and moral exemption.

Of course, this is not at all native to video games. It’s rampant in every other media, including literature—from lowly entertainment thrillers the like of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, skillfully dissected by Wayne C. Booth in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, to the lofty heights of highbrow prose.

To quote myself:

When Sindbad tells the tale of his next-to-last voyage to his guests in Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, the narrator paraphrases Sindbad’s exposition in a rather revealing way: “He makes it to shore, as always, this time with a handful of others, whose next job in his story is to die and leave him the sole survivor. (11)” A treatment which confirms the old adage that it is always a good thing to be the protagonist in one’s story—a motif Barth also plays on in the embedded “Story of Jaydā the Jewel of Cairo” or in his second novel The End of the Road. Barth, all things considered, does not seem particularly perturbed by casting aside his supporting cast in general and his cast­aways in particular, an assumption supported by his opinions on the sub­ject articulated in his essay “A Body of Words” from Further Fridays[.]

Killing off or otherwise utilizing purely fictional characters for the sake of the story or the sake of one’s argument might, after all, not be a completely innocent endeavor.

How we handle NPCs in games is at the core of Austin Walker’s terrific post “Real Human Beings: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs and the New NPC” at Paste magazine. But it’s much deeper than that. Walker’s post touches on how a “new generation” of NPCs as a promising possible remedy exacerbates the problem instead through mainstream story patterns; on the seemingly ineradicable use of binary oppositions which still tailor stories to be experienced from the “natural” default perspective of the White Western Male; and on the absurd, disheartening lopsidedness of the player character’s agency arsenal:

I can’t touch anyone.

This has been bugging me since I started playing Watch Dogs. When I see the man playing trumpet at the park, I can’t tip him. When I hear that someone’s father has cancer, I can’t transfer money into their account—though I can drain their already meager savings further.

And now, these crying people, I can’t hug them. Not that I should—not that Aiden Pearce should be in this space at all. But I am, and I want to hug them. I want that so much more than the ability to do harm, but it’s all I can do.

But what about educational games? Surely, these must be different! After all, NPCs in educational games are rarely designed to be killed but to be talked to, to be helped out, to be cooperated with. Yet, I would argue that most educational games suffer from the exact same problem—when virtual people are means to an end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s an admirable end or a reprehensible end. As long as these virtual people’s only function is to provide students with a learning environment and behavioral incentives, educational games are only superficially different from Shadow of Mordor or Watch Dogs.

Surely, though, the “cultural” perspective is vastly improved in educational games? Well, we’ve come a long way, but—no, not necessarily. Case in point: The Radix Endeavor, a STEM MMO in development from MIT’s Education Arcade and Filament Games, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The players enter the land, or island, of “Ysola” and become part of an underground movement to secretly conduct scientific research, which is forbidden, to free Ysola from the tyranny of the “evil Obfuscati.”

Predictably, this premise is labeled strong storytelling:

The key to making a game engaging to students is a strong narrative. “What’s important is to take that engaging narrative and that incentive system and put some stakes into the world to keep it feeling like an engaging environment and a place that students really want to be,” said Susannah Gordon-Messer, education content manager for MIT’s Education Arcade. In Radix, the player’s task is to help citizens of a fictional earth-like world gain knowledge about math and science, a privilege denied by the land’s rulers.

You can certainly see where this is going.

And indeed, while the player characters might or might not be native inhabitants of Ysola (the descriptions aren’t too clear on this point), it’s easy to figure out from above’s marketing shtick and—unmistakably, no prior deconstruction experience required—from the Radix Trailer voice-over descriptions such as “interact with Ysola natives and see how you can help them on their quest to knowledge” (00:28), “make use of every resource to help the natives better understand their world” (01:04), or “You are not alone on this endeavor! Join with many other players to help Ysola natives!” (01:40) that the game stumbles flailingly into the familiar trap of a cultural perspective where nobody understands and solves the problems of an exotic people better than the Western visitors.

To wind it up, a tentative forecast from Austin Walker’s post—you should go and read it now in full—of how NPCs could be designed instead:

In a recent episode of the podcast Three Moves Ahead, guest Chris Remo opines about how Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express communicated the lives of its NPCs, who went about their own schedules, had their own conversations, and paid little attention to the player’s motivations. He says that the game gave “glimpses of other people’s interior lives without regard for how they may relate to the player’s.”

This is a beautiful thing that we often forget that games can do.