A non-player character (NPC) is anyone you encounter in a game who is not a player themselves. They are controlled by the game, whether a human game/dungeon master or a computer simulation.
Player characters (PCs), the in-game characters controlled by the players, are notoriously abusive to NPCs. Since the universe exists and moves forward for the purpose of pleasing the player characters, any development of the NPCs is secondary. At best, they are a justification for why the PCs must do a particular action in the universe, and at worst they are the result of a game designer trying to force their aspirational writing on the players.
There are oodles of anecdotes in tabletop role-playing games where the players have been jerks to NPCs. There are superlative video examples of cases in videogames where players abuse NPCs. I don’t mean direct, violent tortuous physical abuse – though that is part of many games, causing discomfort of anyone looking over the gamer’s shoulder. When players are being jerks to NPCs, I’m talking about interacting with them in such a way that undermines their existence. That dismisses them as valid people. In a way, this is much worse than direct violence.
It’s all well and good, and frankly expected, if you’re a highwayman character, to sneak into a shop in the middle of the night and kill the shopowner and his family and rob the shop for all it’s worth. This is not abuse at all – this is faithfully realistic medieval fantasy simulation. However, being a jerk to an NPC is when you discover (thanks to other online jerks) that if you put a bucket on their head, they won’t take it off by themselves, and you can rob their shop in complete safety since they will not see you putting the entire contents of the shop in your pockets. When you remove the pot again, they will be courteous and not infer that you stole from them, and go on with their merry, but very serious, little NPC lives, significantly poorer.
Tabletop role-players have, in particular, been referred to as sociopathic kleptomaniacs. A game location will be populated with serious NPCs with quaint lives of their own. The NPCs’ day might be as simple as really wanting an apple, while their deeper desires might be wanting to appear more mature in their patriarch’s eyes, so they have a chance of inheriting the family fortune and thus appear more desirable in the eyes of the lord’s daugher in the neighbouring city. However, players are trained to look for game structure. They want a QUEST, a hero’s journey. Show up in any market (I live near Chinatown, so this is personally feasible) and starting talking to people. No one will casually spout convenient quests – unless by quest you mean purchasing these fantastic items! But seriously, game designers, and I’m lumping in Dungeon Masters with them, by necessity make a quests appear obvious. There is a tension between a nice, well-written environment and a bullet-point, quest environment. Players feel a sence of (pyrrhic) accomplishment if they’ve cut through the writing to find the underlying quest. The faster they check checkboxes, the more game they’re playing. But, playing through a well-written environment in a game while looking for The Quest is about as damaging as reading a book and knowing you’re going to have to get Three Key Themes out of it for an essay.
In a recent trip to Sydney, I checked out Sydney Interactive Theatre. It was advertised as an “interactive adventure” where your quest is to connect some guy and some lady who were in hiding, etc. The group of people who took in the experience with me numbered six. A man in a fedora and 1930s-era clothing gave us a hint we were instructed to remember: “The Naked Lady in the Portrait Sees All”. I got a sense that the others in my group hadn’t played many video games or had experience with tabletop roleplaying. I was the youngest, and everyone else was in their 30s or 40s, so this was not too unusual. The “quest” was spread over about 3 hours. The structure of each section was as follows: we got hints to meet someone (an actor!) in a specific place and they would require us to complete a challenge before sending us to another specific place, with another actor. In one case, we had to beat the character in a ring toss game. In another, we had to “negotiate” to get a hostage’s release. Since the plot was linear, we had to beat these challenges before moving on, but there was no way we would fail a challenge – we would simply try it until we won, or the NPC lowered the difficulty enough for us to pass. One NPC we encountered was a homeless man in a park, who was obviously very into his role, acting-wise. However, like the player jerks we are, we just kept pestering him for the next hint on our quest. We had gotten the hang of things at this point, and knew that the only purpose of these NPCs was to give us hints, so we saw them as little more than people with checkboxes for faces.
The session was broken up so that hints led us into pubs a couple times, with pre-ordered food and drinks. I don’t want to be mean about it, but it looks like this is where most of the ticket price went to.
Most interactions with NPCs were very obvious and straightforward – we approached them, knowing from a distance that they were part of the game, and our interaction ending after we’d gotten the information we knew that we needed out of them. My favourite NPC interactions were vaguer. For the first 15 minutes, we had an NPC follow us from a distance. The session started in a city centre, and his 1930s-era get-up clearly stood out. In another case, we were on a way to check out a hotel room containing evidence and someone with a map asked us for directions. All of us innocently assumed this was a tourist, but they quickly got us to duck down an alley and led us to safety. I really enjoyed these interactions, as their mild intrusions out of the fourth wall made us stop looking at the NPCs as sources of quests, and made our reactions more genuine. At the last location, which was yet another pub, there was a table full of Caucasian dudes dressed like Middle Eastern princes. We serruptitiously asked if they were “part of the game” and they responded with confusion. Despite the awkwardness of this interaction, this is the kind of reality-bending gameplay that I want!
I, like, am aware that I’m a pretty demanding audience member. When talking to the other people in the session, I found out that Amazing Race-like weekend sessions are pretty popular in Sydney for those with spare money and time. It might be fair to call these scavenger hunts rather than theatrical experiences. In fact, I suspect where Sydney Interactive Theatre positions itself on the market itself as something like “You’ve heard about all these scavenger hunts, right? Well, we’re one of those, but with actors!”
The game ended with a negotation and a hostage situation scene with a gun. There was no physical altercation with the players, but the players just had to distract the gun-bearer so he could get over-powered by another NPC. By this time, we’re so confident in our inevitable success that there was no real threat, and the villian was an impotent moustache-twiddler. The players repeatedly shouted out possible solutions until we hit the right one.
Knowing that you’re the centre of the universe makes you think that you’re immortal and success is inevitable, and removes the sense of risk. In the terminology of TV Tropes, this is referred to as Plot Armor (BEWARE: it is even easier to get lost in TV Tropes than it is in Wikipedia). This is played out very well in Bill Murray’s The Man Who Knew Too Little. In this film, Murray’s character’s brother buys an “interactive theatre experience” for his idiot brother to get him out of his house. Due to one of those too-awesome-to-be-true mix-ups, Murray’s character ends up in an actual cold war east-versus-west spy plot, his absurd confidence (he thinks it’s all theatre) and luck bafflingly the agents and assassins sent after him. He is oblivious to the reality of his situation throughout, even after he acquires and shoots a gun (“Wow! That was LOUD!”). Despite his absurd behaviour, Murray’s character is a good player – even though he thinks that it’s all a game, he never treats any of the supposed NPCs he encounters as simply the source of the next quest. He plays along well.
Despite most of us treating NPCs poorly, they are in a state where they cannot react adversely or point out the strangeness of our behaviour. NPCs cannot acknowledge players’ aggressively purpose-driven behaviour as that would break their thin shell of a character. Any actually intelligent NPC, when encountering a PC, would begin to question if they were in a game or a simulation. For NPCs to do that ruins the game, and so they are stuck coming off as unsettlingly dead. Max Payne realizes that he’s in a videogame, but I don’t think many other game characters do, player characters or not. None of the characters Bill Murray’s character interacts with realize that he isn’t a spy. One notable exception is the holodeck simulation of Moriarty in Star Trek: The Next Generation, who is smart enough to recognize the absurdity of his environment, and deduces he must be a virtual character. I felt bad for the actors during the Sydney Interactive Theatre Session – it would be hard to hold on to the shreds of your characterization when the players obviously so desperately and impatiently want something out of you.
I know that Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) may fit into the category of having live human beings as NPCs. That scene has…intrigued me but I’ve never participated in it. Every time I find out about a group and catch a bit of their writing it just seems so cliche-ridden. A good way to describe the kind of badness I see is “trope abuse” – everything you’d expect is there, you can geuss what the villian or the ending will be, and everything is so melodramatic, as if every plot moment is the most important moment ever. I don’t think LARPers have the same good behaviour that is beaten into theatrical improvisors, where no one individual is the centre of the story, but we all touch and build the shared story.
If you’re into this kind of thing and live near Toronto, keep an eye on Single Thread Theatre Company. They have done some of my favourite interactive theatre pieces. Certainly not “scavenger hunts with actors”, but “theatre where you are part of the show”. Their recently interactive piece was set in American-occupied Toronto during the war of 1812. Audience members (lets call them players) were set loose in a park dressed up as a neighbourhood of Toronto. Some players were drafted to join a militia for the Americans, and some were set loose to discover little threads of plot. I got to interrogate a guy by splashing a whole bucket of water on his face. Look ma! Real Water-Based Interactive Theatre! The threads tied together in a confrontation between the Americans and Canadian rebels. The only awkward reality-breaking moment between NPCs and PCs was where a “player” stole a gun off of the American general actor and “shot” him. The NPCs awkwardly justified this as the gun being “unloaded”, but the damage to magic circle of reality had been done.
I want to close by saying that theatre does not have to be interactive. There’s a sense that making theatre interactive caters to the audience member that is a bit of a jerk, who wants to be sociopathic to the members of the cast and watch them dance to react to their adjusting reality. If art is communicating a message, can’t the audience member sit down and listen? But interaction doesn’t have to be about the players bending the NPCs to their will – the best interactive games put us in the shoes of having to make a difficult decision. Do I kill this otherwise innocent man because he is the only witness to a crime I had to commit for the greater good? Should I join the American invaders’ militia because it has the best guarantee of income in this city? That’s the good shit, and I want more of it.
NOTES on The Man Who Knew Too Little:
Bill Murray’s character is a natural Yes-And-er:
Femme Fatale: “What are you? CIA? Mafia?”
Bill Murray: “…both…”
Bill Murray: “Ah, I conveniently found a mallet outside [the door I had to knock down], but I’m going to swap for this one [a pistol on the ground].”