What is a non-player character (NPC)?
Whether in sports games, first-person shooters or sandbox games like Minecraft and popular Minecraft alternatives, NPCs can be found in a wide variety of games. These types of characters are not controlled by a player and can often be seen in the background. Some of them can even interact with players.
What does NPC mean?¶
The abbreviation NPC stands for ‘non-player character’ and refers to a character that can’t be controlled by someone playing the game. While the term NPC originally comes from pen-and-paper games, it’s now also used outside of gaming contexts.
If you get into a game with a large community base, you’ll quickly find that there are numerous codes, ciphers and texting abbreviations, like NPC, which may at first be difficult to understand. Take a little bit of time to familiarise yourself with the most common terms so you can better communicate with others.
What defines an NPC?¶
NPCs are game characters that you as a player cannot control. Instead, their actions are directed by software and are often a reaction to the behaviour of playable characters.
In role-playing games, NPCs are important for two reasons. First, they help to advance the actual plot. They do this by interacting with players, providing useful tips and sending the main character on new missions. Secondly, NPCs add atmosphere. They bring the game to life, making it significantly more exciting.
NPCs can also exist without interacting with the main character. In some games, you can even discover little messages, secrets or special features (referred to as Easter eggs) by looking more closely at the background characters. In large open-world scenarios, this lets you dive even deeper into that world while you carry out the game’s main mission. In some games, NPCs take up arms and support the main character in their adventures. In other instances, they must be rescued for the plot to progress. Aside from such moments, they tend not to exert much influence over the course of the game.
What is the difference between NPCs and bots?¶
NPCs don’t have the same characteristics as bots, making a comparison between them somewhat difficult. While non-player characters are part of the plot and often interact with the main character, bots take on the role of a human player. Bots are especially common in multiplayer games and have all the same abilities as human players.
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What role do NPCs have in analogue games?¶
NPCs were already around before modern computers and video games came on the scene. In classic pen-and-paper role-playing games, they were and still are invented by a game master, sometimes equipped with a fictional background story or certain abilities. These characters can massively influence the game’s events depending on how things progress. NPCs have similar functions in both analogue and virtual environments.
How are NPCs used outside of gaming?¶
Although NPCs roots are in gaming, they’re also important in other settings. In computer simulations, virtual agents are used who have characteristics, abilities and actions that closely mirror those of NPCs in games. The characters are assigned certain behaviours, which they then exhibit within the simulation. The more realistic the actions of the virtual agents, the more accurately conclusions can be drawn about human behaviour. This is particularly important when investigating crowd behaviour and helps, for example, to prevent possible catastrophes or to better prepare for such events should they occur.
NPCs in popular culture¶
NPCs have long since ceased to be just game characters. Let’s take a look at the broader role that non-player characters play in popular culture:
The adventure game series Monkey Island is famous for its NPCs. The first game was released in 1990 and quickly gained a huge following. The series, which is known for its funny, absurd and unique wordplay now has six instalments. In the game, the player controls the pirate protagonist Guybrush Threepwood who wins all his battles not through violence but through words. But the word battles wouldn’t be possible without the NPCs, who are there to counter every absurd insult.
In 2021, the American action-comedy Free Guy answered the question of what would happen if an NPC were to suddenly develop consciousness. In the film, Guy, played by Ryan Reynolds, goes about his daily routine, which consists, among other things, of repetitive robberies at his workplace in a bank. However, when he falls in love, he begins to see himself and his surroundings with new eyes. The film was a financial success and received numerous nominations and awards.
In 2018, 4chan and Reddit users began using the term NPC to discredit (politically) dissenting individuals, specifically liberals and other people who identify with left-wing politics. In this context, NPC is used to imply that a person is incapable of forming their own opinions. In addition to conservative media, ultra-right circles also soon took up this new meaning of NPC. Its use became more widely known through the meme NPC Wojak, which is now also used in many other contexts.