When I first started playing Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord, I had no idea how I'd win the medieval rat race, especially with every single NPC sporting a medusa-ass poker face.
How I was supposed to know if my services pleased m'lord if m'lord looks like a sentient Ambien pill? But a few hours in, I stopped worrying about Bannerlord's petrified, slack-jawed NPCs and let the simulation help me figure them out. I actually find them pretty endearing now, freaky little canvases for my imagination.
To be clear, Bannerlord's NPC faces are horrific.
We get painted marbles flitting around behind a hairy, dressed-up piece of driftwood. Lips slightly parted like these guys just got out of wisdom teeth removal surgery, biting down on cotton swabs, just standing there swaying like telephone poles in heavy wind. Every human in this game has the same empty stare and open mouth. It's like their faces are feeling every emotion at once, suspended in a paralytic liminal state. They look like muppets with human skin.
VIDEO: Bannerlord NPCs stare at you for 2 minutes + lofi hip hop, also on YouTube.
There's next to no facial animation here—I cheered the first time a guy furrowed his brow at me—but it's forgivable. Bannerlord is an RPG sandbox that demands players give as much as they take. Stare into the dead eyes of its infinite stream of lords and bandits and traders, lacquer on a little imagination, and suddenly Lord McTavish with the stringy beard becomes my mortal enemy. It's not because anyone at TaleWorlds Entertainment wrote him as a villain or designed the guy to look like one.
I hate Lord McTavish because he's a noble and my character hates nobles. I robbed a couple of his caravans and killed every witness. I'm a cruel bandit with no allegiances except to my men, a ragtag bunch of low-lifers dedicated to eating well, living free, and harassing rich folks.
This is my first time with a Mount & Blade game, so it took me a minute to realize that Bannerlord's cardboard NPCs are just cheap action figures I'm meant to waggle around in the most elaborate game of medieval pretend ever conceived. For Bannerlord to stay truly open ended, every NPC has to come off as somewhat neutral, and the more stiff and silent a face, the easier it is to imprint my bad head canon onto it anyway.
A couple improvements wouldn't hurt, of course. Those mouths could try to mime speech. Eye contact doesn't need to be preserved so fervently. NPCs don't need the same posture and ever-so-slight idling animation. Overall, the less uncanny horror each person evokes the better.
But I don't care if a game with this kind of ambition, one that simulates the economy and ongoing wars of dozens of medieval societies has Half-Life 2's bespoke facial animations or not. As long as Bannerlord tees me up to find my own stories, I'm good.
I'm starting to remember the faces of the people I've wronged, new friends, budding rivalries. And they're fully fledged characters to me. Even if they are glassy-eyed mannequins, I remember them for who they are, not what they look like.