In most games, excluding those based on Player vs Player mechanics (e.g., MMO shooters, fighting games), we encounter various characters scattered throughout the world.

These characters, generally known as NPCs, can interact with our hero, offer quests, or be our enemies.

What exactly are NPCs? What does this abbreviation mean? And what is their role in games? We’ll answer these and other questions in the article below!

The Role of NPCs

The acronym NPC stands for Non-Player Character or Non-Playable Character – in essence, a character that we do not control and cannot embody. Interestingly, the concept of these characters is neither new nor directly related to video games. NPCs can also be found in pen-and-paper RPGs – in this case, the Game Master is responsible for their creation. Depending on the scenario or idea being played out, the Game Master may simply describe them or directly embody them, interacting with the player.

As mentioned earlier, NPC characters can be both our in-game enemies and prey, as well as traders or significant story characters offering quests. NPCs also include our followers and companions, characters we may need to defend or escort to a certain place. They also can be seemingly insignificant bystanders – in short, all the people, animals, and creatures we encounter in the game, unless they are another player character in an MMO or multiplayer mode.

In Massively Multiplayer Online games, independent characters are often not even created, as gameplay then relies on interactions between players.

Therefore, NPCs provide background, serving as additional “cast” in games. With some, we can, and sometimes must, interact (friendly or hostile), while others simply fill the space of the game world. Some may directly assign us tasks, while others may offer only a single line of dialogue or say nothing at all, while still others are worth listening to and observing. Many creators frequently hide quests that we can only find if we listen carefully and do what some seemingly insignificant character says.

NPC Interaction and Gameplay Dynamics

Why are NPCs in games at all? How do interactions with them change the perception and dynamics of the game? Well… imagine a single-player adventure, RPG, or action game with stunning graphics, a vast and beautifully designed world, in which…

  • there are no hostile mobs, and therefore no battles,
  • there are no characters to talk to in order to learn the world’s lore,
  • there are no characters who can assign you a task,
  • there are no traders and shops,
  • the visited locations are completely empty, and the characters you might see are hidden behind an invisible wall because they are merely part of the environmental design.

Of course, such a game would have the right to exist and could be interesting in the initial phase of gameplay – the convention of solitary exploration of an extensive world sounds intriguing. However, you would probably agree that after a while, it could become boring. Lack of challenges, battles, opportunities to interact with characters, i.e., all those elements that build the world and give it uniqueness… Without these elements, it certainly wouldn’t be an action or RPG game, at best, it would be a simulator of walking and exploring an EMPTY world.

The conclusion is simple. NPCs are an element that builds the world of games and fills it. They give it “life” and make it a bit unpredictable. Thanks to them, various challenges await our character, both physical and intellectual (the need to conduct a conversation in the right way), and as a result, games are captivating, fascinating, and engaging.

The Evolution of NPC Complexity

Independent characters have been a part of video games almost from the very beginning. However, initially, they mainly consisted of hostile mobs or neutral elements filling worlds of games. Important story characters with whom we could interact would “speak” short monologues, which were not voiced but only displayed on the game screen.

Hostile NPCs also had rather limited capabilities, limited field of view, and usually moved according to a specific, repeatable pattern. An example here could be the first game in the Metal Gear series, in which enemy units could not, for instance, turn their heads or react actively to the player’s actions. With the evolution of games, independent characters began to gain much greater abilities, which posed greater challenges to players.

Currently, in many games, NPCs are based on highly developed AI, which allows them to analyze our actions and behaviors, making their actions increasingly difficult to predict. This adds more thrill to games. An example here is the game Alien: Isolation, in which the titular Alien is powered by well-developed AI, analyzing our movements and reactions. It’s almost impossible to predict what awaits us from the game’s enemy.

Furthermore, in terms of dialogue options, there has been a huge change and progress. Independent characters are now not only fully voiced but often have several dialogue options, developing into so-called dialogue trees – the course and outcome of the conversation depend on the player’s response. NPCs also actively react to our actions and behaviors, adding realism to games – for example, an NPC who is bumped into during our character’s run loses balance, jumps back, shouts “watch out!” etc.; an NPC who disapproves of our actions may make an unfavorable comment, and so on.

Conclusion: The Importance of NPCs in Gaming

As you can see, NPCs, even those that merely serve as background for the story and do not engage in any interactions with our character, are an important element of modern games. They give life and realism to games, allowing us to constantly face various challenges and enjoy the element of unpredictability.

Excluding genres and types of games focused solely on player-to-player interactions, NPCs are an integral part of contemporary gaming!