September 11, 2023

What is an NPC and Why It Matters for Your Video Game's Storytelling

The term "NPC" has taken on a life of its own.

You may have heard it thrown around as an insult to describe someone who appears to lack independent thought, or even as a Gen Z TikTok phenomenon where individuals mimic the scripted behavior of these in-game entities.

But what exactly is an NPC?

Standing for "Non-Player Character," NPCs are characters in a video game that are not controlled by the player but rather by the game's software.

They serve as a critical element in video game development, contributing to a game's depth, storyline, and overall immersive experience.

In this blog post, we will delve deeper into the world of NPCs in video games, the role they play, and the advancements in technology that have allowed for more engaging video game characters.

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What is an NPC?: Origin of the Term

The concept of a non-player character isn't new; it has its roots in traditional tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, where the Dungeon Master controls all characters not handled by the players.

At their most basic, they may serve as static signposts, giving you directions or offering a single line of dialogue.

On the other end of the spectrum, advanced NPCs are governed by complex algorithms and artificial intelligence.

These NPCs sometimes can have backstories, dialogue options, and even moral dilemmas, strong opinions, and something very similar to independent thought, making them an essential feature in today's immersive gaming experiences.

Types of NPCs

In any game you're likely to encounter different NPCs, each serving a specific role to enrich the gameplay experience.

Here are some common types of non playable characters with examples for each:

Quest NPCs

Quest NPCs are the characters who provide objectives or missions for the main character. They are crucial in driving the game's narrative and often offer rewards such as items, currency, or experience points.

In Hollow Knight, characters like Hornet give quests that guide the player through the intricate underworld.

Vendor NPCs

Vendor NPCs are those you can interact with to buy or sell items. They're essential for players who need to stock up on equipment, health potions, or other supplies.

In Stardew Valley, characters like Pierre run the General Store, where you can purchase seeds, tools, and various other items to help you on your farming journey.

Background NPCs

Background NPCs may not interact with the player characters directly, but they add life and atmosphere to the game world. They can be seen going about their daily routines, making the environment feel more realistic and lived in.

For example, in the game Oxenfree, you can observe non-interactive characters in the background that add to the game's eerie ambiance.

Enemy NPCs

Enemy NPCs serve as antagonists, challenging the player's skills and often standing in the way of objectives.

In the roguelike Dead Cells, various types of enemy NPCs with different attack patterns make each run a unique challenge.

Friendly NPCs

These are characters who assist the player by providing useful information, aiding in combat, or even joining the player on their journey.

In Celeste, the character Theo serves as a friendly NPC who helps you navigate through the difficult terrain and offers emotional support in the storyline.

How to Create an Effective NPC

Effective NPCs should have a clear purpose, and their design should reflect that purpose while still leaving room for player discovery and interaction. Will they be a quest-giver, a vendor, or perhaps an enemy?

Once you've determined this, you can focus on attributes like appearance, dialogue, and the NPC behavior that align with this role.

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Elevating NPC Dialogue Through AI

Dialogue is crucial, it’s what makes or breaks an NPC's believability.

And to create complex, engaging dialogue, you’ll need to consider factors such as the NPC's background, motivations, and relationship to the player. Since this can be complicated, especially for starting indie game developers, relying on Artificial Intelligence is a great way of automating interactions.

Rosebud AI Gamemaker can help you venture beyond the basics, ranging from simple pathfinding algorithms to complex decision-making based on player actions.

Remember that a balanced level of complexity not only makes a more engaging NPC but also adds replay value to your game.

Why Your NPCs Matter

From the crafting of intricate dialogue to the implementation of advanced AI behavior, each step you take in NPC development adds another layer to the universe you're building.

NPCs can serve as the heart and soul of your game, turning what could be a mundane interactive experience into an epic, narrative-driven adventure.

Sometimes a good game is not just about quests or combat; it's about creating a world that feels like real life: complex and engaging for your players.