I met Karen years ago under trying circumstances. My grandfather had died and left me his farm, a dirt patch outside a tiny village. I didn’t know anyone there, or how to farm. Karen worked as a waitress at the local inn and spent her leisure time plotting an escape to some unspecified big city. She was mostly brusque, often drunk and registered annoyance at my every approach. We married within a month.
Karen exists inside a late-90s video game called “Harvest Moon 64,” which I was obsessed with in middle school. She is a nonplayer character, or NPC — a member of gaming’s subordinate caste. NPCs work as scripted bumpers, providing order to the virtual worlds that player-protagonists pinball around. They minister to a player’s every need, dispensing information, laying down cover fire, guiding us to self-discovery through our bouts of amnesia (a common affliction in games). Role-playing titles routinely offer up NPCs as romantic interests: “Harvest Moon 64” featured four additional bachelorettes, each a key to new quests and subplots. But I only had eyes for Karen, whose begrudging affection and insistence on a life beyond Flowerbud Village flipped a switch deep within my sixth-grade psyche.
Is it weird to harbor fond memories of a pile of code? I’ve encountered thousands of NPCs in my digital travels, and it’s not a stretch to say that I have deeper feelings for some of them than for ex-lovers or certain cousins. Their peculiar charm defies the conventions of good fiction, where side characters are supposed to dip in and out of the narrative stream with grace and economy. Roger Sterling fills a glass, lights a smoke, drops a quip and ends the scene. NPCs, on the other hand, linger — sometimes embarrassingly, standing motionless while you read a menu or go for a pee. They tend to repeat themselves under persistent questioning. In many cases you can shoot one at point-blank range with ammunition meant for supermutants and only elicit a meek, “Hey, watch it!”
NPCs in contemporary games, whose budgets rival Hollywood blockbusters, are flashier than Karen ever was. Today’s sidekicks deliver meaty speeches through finely rendered teeth. Even the most peripheral NPCs in the “Grand Theft Auto” series — that sorry lot, the victims of innumerable crimes — can pantomime agency, lighting up a cigarette without your permission. But in the end, NPCs are not ersatz people, brimming with spontaneous possibility. They are authored and confined. They stay tethered to their circumstances.
That’s how I like them. My NPCs are sleeper cells in the box below my TV, ready to activate a friendship on my command. My farm needs tending, my lord needs saving, my species is once again imperiled, and I know whom to call. Their fixture is a feature, not a bug. I depend on their availability. Which is fine, because they’re not real. NPCs don’t derive their credibility by simulating new life; they are a product of existing ones. They are pieces of software written and animated by real people trying to communicate with you and care for you through their creation, and so they flicker with the humanity of their developers. (Yes, even the aliens and the Eldritch.) Every NPC is a hand extended, pulling 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, you end up laboring on their behalf. You retrieve their priceless heirlooms on “fetch quests.” You shield their rag-doll bodies during “escort missions.” And you’re happy to do it — or at least willing. That’s the paradox of good single-player gaming. Though you are the main character, the NPCs take center stage. Their needs provide direction. Not surprisingly, I’ve always gravitated toward them in times of aimlessness: long, empty afternoons, or after a breakup or a layoff. When I’m jonesing for a quick hit of purpose, there’s Karen, asking me to help pick the grapes in her vineyard. There’s Wrex, asking me to help him cure the widespread infertility among his people owing to the long-ago deployment of a biological weapon called the genophage. Together we’ll accomplish something, and then I get to walk away.
A few years ago I moved to Singapore as a trailing spouse with no job, no commitments and a dermatologic aversion to the island’s blistering heat. While my wife worked unseemly hours, I stuffed myself with delivery and tried to identify the VPN software most conducive to self-abuse. On my 30th birthday, I hopped a train to one of Singapore’s many malls to pick up a copy of “Red Dead Redemption 2,” that year’s most anticipated title.
“RDR2” is what’s known as “open world,” a genre of game that allows players to roam around freely as opposed to restricting them to discrete zones or levels. In this game’s version of the American West, players hunt, fish, skin animals and shoot waves upon waves of nonnarrative enemies. In between, they can interact with more than 1,000 NPCs, a dozen of whom figure intimately into the story. Those NPCs taught me how to rob banks and track bears. They got drunk with me and died in front of me. And we played poker.
Real life eventually usurped my thumbs. I found work and made friends. I applied the right topical creams. My merry gang of outlaws wasn’t possessive. I still carved out time for poker, regularly blasting my way to a ramshackle saloon to engage with a group of NPCs primed for my presence. It’s comforting to know that even now they are sitting at their table, waiting to deal me in.
Mac Schwerin is a copywriter and freelance journalist based in New York City.