The NPC problem

While writing the last article (the one about immortal player characters) a thought struck. All these games have an NPC you have to cart around, and none of them really work that well. So, instead of flying off on a tangent, I figured that we'd get ourselves another drink and do some more navel-gazing in this article.

So, about those damn NPCs. They're a great tool when telling stories. Having someone beside you that can act and be the center of drama seemed to be pretty popular there for a while. I mean, in 2013, the two "biggest" games on the market was The last of Us and Bioshock Infinite, and both games are about someone trying to cart a person around. Both games also revolve pretty much around the NPC. The npc in question is the star, you're the diligent janitor carting them around, solving all the problems while they have their moments of acting. Both games also solved the "problem" that is poor AI with the same trick: Make the NPC an immortal being who, when the shit hits the fan, will be both out of the way and in no danger what so ever. This, unfortunately kind of killed the tension in both games for me. Few things in The last of us made med giggle quite as much as when Ellie bumps into a dude who is hunting us. And the result of her waggling around in front of him is nothing at all, the guy is clearly blind and Ellie just scoots into cover like nothing happened. In Bioshock, Elizabeth knows how to stay outside of the players view, but it still feels really awkward when all these dudes who are supposed to be looking for Elizabeth just spend all their time trying to kill Booker instead of just grabbing the lady and running for it.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but to me it feels weird when you have a character who is supposed to be important and in need of your help be immortal, invisible and completely outside of all danger. I mean, Ashley in Resident Evil 4 wasn't that pleasant to babysit, but there was consequences for neglecting her. There was also great big dumpsters to stuff her into while the action started, so I guess there's that.

The last console-generation also saw their fair share of "co-op"-action games. Games like Army of two, Hunted: Demons forge and Resident Evil 5 & 6. The issue here was that whenever you played one of those games solo, your co-op buddy would be replaced with a slightly dumber AI-buddy. Again, not a pretty system. What those games did, however, was give you a bond and some agency with your partner. You had to help each other, or you wouldn't finish the game. So, by just looking at it coldly, could one say that Army of Two has more agency than Bioshock?

Dead Space 3 solved this pretty neatly by having the co-op buddy take "an alternate route" whenever you played solo. Carver still had an active part in the story, he didn't just disappear, but when you played, he always excused himself and went "somewhere else". While it wasn't elegant, this system was pretty good for solving the problem of having a co-op buddy following you around.

So, what can we do about it? The NPCs I mean. Well, outside of focusing on making better AI, I don't know. Or you could always make the character really bad, so that players would hate him/her regardless? Because like it or not, having a second character who can act and expose is pretty good for a story. But with that said, let's try to not make the immortal beings that wreck the entirety of the story they're trying to expose? Also, while we're at it, why do we have to have NPCs who are protagonists?