I wonder about NPCs sometimes, you know. Take the ones in the Zelda series for example. Most of them stand around like idiots, just waiting for a green-clothed boy to approach them and start chatting away. Then, these silent statues grow animated, spewing forth every mundane detail of their lives, loves, hopes and dreams. Then, when the boy speaks to them again, they usually say the same thing. Maybe they were Octorocs in past lives, and now they’re condemned to a Sisyphean punishment of repetition, speaking the same words, standing in the same place, cycling through the same canned animations, then doing it all again when the game’s replayed. Or maybe they’re just two-dimensional NPCs, placed there by the developer solely to flesh out a location, or provide a certain hint or clue as to something in the game. I think this option is more likely.
What if they weren’t, though? What if NPCs were able to be created as more than just scripted automatons, operating under set parameters, never changing? The Sims is an approximation of this, perhaps, with characters simulating life, but even then they’re constrained by basic needs and behaviour tropes. We’re nowhere near the stage where AI is even slightly lifelike, in terms of approaching sentience. If NPCs could beg for their lives – genuinely beg, and you knew the AI was believing it felt fear – what then? But if you cast aside the morality of the situation for just one moment, think what could be done. Specifically in regards to the human concept of vengeance.
Something that games like GTA allow is the killing of police officers. They are The Enemy, usually. And other than more police coming after you during that specific rampage, there are generally no repercussions from this. Once you escape that little blue circle of their reach, they’ve forgotten about you. You’re nothing to them. More character models will spawn, replacing the fallen officers, and the force goes on as normal.
What if they remembered you? What if that one cop who you narrowly evaded, what if he saw your face? And it was etched in his mind forever. Every contour, every pixel of your visage was burned into his brain. He watched you gun down his colleagues, his partner. He narrowly avoided death at your hands. Maybe he even took a bullet in the line of duty. And he remembers. God, he remembers you. You can change your clothes, your hairstyle, you can grow a beard, you can spray your car, but that cop will never forget those eyes that stared him down. He’ll go back to the precinct, and with the help of an artist, have a sketch drawn up. Your face will be everywhere. You can’t get plastic surgery. There isn’t a doctor in the city that’ll touch you. You killed at least 40 cops, after all. You’re too hot.
You don’t know any of this, though. It’s just a video game. You escaped the blue circle. Your wanted level has disappeared. Everything is fine, right? You’re on the way to a titty bar to watch vacuous character models dancing in a state of undress.
You see a cop on the radar. It’s okay, you don’t have your guns out. You brush against him, marvelling at the animation as the cop stumbles to one side, rights himself, speaks a line of generic dialogue.
Then he freezes. He stares at you for a second. He recognises you, but you don’t recognise him. All the NPCs look the same, don’t they? But you’re different. You’re unique. You’re the player character. And this cop watched as you slaughtered his friends in cold blood, for fun, for an achievement, because another character told you to. The cop remembers you. Slowly, he draws his gun. For a moment you’re shocked; you had no idea you were breaking the law, you were just going for a stroll.
“You…” the cop whispers. “You’re f*cking dead.”
He fires a shot, then retreats to cover. You’re confused. Maybe you check the manual, looking for a clue as to what you did wrong. You unpause the game. The cop’s moved now. He’s circling around, radioing for backup. Your wanted level shoots up. Three stars, four stars, five stars.
“I’ve got him pinned down,” the cop says. “I’m taking the scumbag to Hell.”
You haven’t heard that line of dialogue before. It’s a new one. The cop fires again. You dive into an alley, clipping through a dumpster. You cycle through your weapons and pull out a handgun.
From nearby, you hear a cough. Another cop? No, a tramp. He’s sitting in on the floor, a half-empty can of beer at his feet.
“Don’t do it, son,” he says calmly, sensing the desperation in your eyes. If you die, after all, the last checkpoint was half an hour ago. “Just run. Get out of here. Leave the city. Go, tonight.”
You turn to the tramp, crosshair trained on him. It turns green. A friendly. You think about pulling the trigger, but something stops you. Instead, you retreat down the alley and disappear.
Back at your safe house, all is well. You watch a bit of TV. A breaking news report interrupts the cycle of the same cartoons you’ve watched for days. On it, they show your face. Someone on the street got a picture on their cellphone. Everyone knows who you are now. Every shop owner, every dancer, every pedestrian, every cop and criminal in the city. Your face, their world.
You save your game regardless. Too much progress to lose. It won’t affect the main storyline anyway, right? Right?
Your six hour sleep cycle ends and you wake up. It’s the middle of the night. Outside, you hear sirens. They pass. You breathe a sigh of relief. Then you hear a noise, in the other room. The creaking of floorboards. Grabbing your baseball bat, you head through into the living room. A figure stands there. He has a gun on you, pointed at your head. Nothing you can do.
“Turn on the light,” the figure says. It’s a male, can’t be older than early twenties. You do as he says. In front of you stands a young man, a character model you’ve seen on the streets a thousand times. His clothes are unremarkable. His face, generic. Why is he here, in your apartment?
“I doubt you remember me,” he says. You shake your head. The man continues. “Three weeks ago, I was walking down thirty ninth and fifth with my fiancée. You were chasing a gang of bikers. You ran a red light, you hit my girl. She died in the hospital. It took me a while to track you down. Your car was stolen, the plates useless. But I know people who know people, people who saw you, could describe you. I tracked you down, and now we’re here.”
You think about switching weapons, but the man’s trigger finger looks itchy. Won’t be time. Just let him talk.
“She was all I had,” he says. “And you took her away from me. Now I have nothing.”
You can’t even react as the man pulls the trigger. The bullet enters the model that acts as your skull within the game space. A red decal appears on the back wall. You slump to the ground, the screen turning black.
Achievement unlocked: ’10G Vengeance Mine – Allow an NPC to seek retribution.’
Game Over: Continue – Yes/No
Sometimes realism is nothing to strive for.