Non-player characters are the town idiots

I will freely admit that I love people-watching. There are few better things to do of a Saturday morning than sitting in the front window of a café and musing over the lives of the strangers that walk by. Look at that lady’s hat! That man’s tiny dog! Why is that child holding a revolver? Ahhh, simple joys. But the mundanities of real-life people pale in comparison to the unpredictable nutters you find in games.

You can shoot a guy in the head in Skyrim and, as long as he doesn’t see you, he’ll turn back to his work and mumble, “Must be my imagination,” despite the foot-long arrow quivering in his skull. Dying Light’s zombies will struggle with clambering over scenery when you’re not in view, falling clumsily over obstacles and floundering on top of road barriers like forlorn ragdolls. This is what NPCs do when you’re not looking, apparently, and it’s just a bit sad.

Technically, NPCs behaving like this does make the game look a bit shoddy. It’s immersion-breaking, unless you genuinely have friends that struggle to open doors, who you often find talking to themselves in a dark corner of your house. But I’d miss them if they were gone. Who really wants a world without a Lego Gandalf that periodically explodes, or the pedestrians from LA Noire who react to the slightest nudge by rolling around on the floor like they’re about to file a lucrative accident claim against you?

Not me, that’s who. Right now, I don’t care that games feel like games a lot of the time. Who hasn’t chortled over the discovery of a hyper-aggressive firefighter in GTA V? Firstly, because it makes for such good, unexpected entertainment, and secondly – more cynically – because it makes for a great tweet. You’ll get at least five retweets on that, for sure. Oh, sure, we can make everything all hyper-realistic until the hyper-realistic cows come home, but games have those little quirks that make us love them despite their flaws, like the sweet but dim child that likes to lick the wallpaper.

Maybe there’s some secret intelligence that they have and we don’t. Maybe the fact that they’re walking into that wall is just their way of expressing the futility of your quest. “Why save the world?” they say. “It’s just as pointless as my constant refusal to find a door. You’d be better off joining me.” Perhaps Assassin’s Creed Unity’s rudely cutscene-interrupting NPCs can’t think of a better way to support the revolution than talking over Napoleon. Or maybe I’m just trying to see something human in a bunch of dodgy code.

But that’s what we all do. It’s why we see faces in toast and omens in tea leaves. We’re constantly looking for something to look back at us from the void so we don’t have to confront the fact that life is lonely, confusing and unpredictable. Is it better to see these dorky idiot NPCs as clumsy and silly but ultimately still people, or should we just detach ourselves from it all and realise we’re just playing games alone in the living room at 4am in our pants?

But it’s easy to be deep when you’re talking about the concept of the gradual acceptance and improvement of artificial intelligence. It’s harder to take all this philosophical nonsense seriously when you’re attempting to romance your new wife in Fable II but you can’t seal the deal because an old lady has wandered into the bedroom and can’t get out again. These NPCs aren’t like real humans, after all. They’re more like slightly brain-damaged puppies – they might pee on the floor at inopportune moments and generally behave a little erratically, but we’re kind of fond of them anyway, or else we’d already have drowned them in the bathtub.

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