It took a while, but Fallout 76 finally added AI-controlled human characters to the mix this week with the Wastelanders expansion. They're everywhere now—living in previously empty houses, scavenging for loot, wandering the wilderness, and hunkering down in large settlements.
It's a big improvement—having fake people in a world somehow makes the world feel more real than when there's just real people in it. Probably because real players aren't always the best conversationalists, while NPCs are always down for a little chat.
Which leads use to our question this week. Which game has the best NPCs? We're not talking about major characters or quest-givers, necessarily. Think less about Garrus from Mass Effect and more about the randos you see filling the world as you make your way through it. Half-Life's nerdy scientists? GTA 5's rude cityfolk? Bannerlord's weird, leering villagers? Which are your favorites?
Our answers are below, along with some from the PC Gamer Forums. Plus, a very special guest chimes in.
Andy Chalk: Dishonored's distinct visual style gave us some of the best-looking NPCs I've ever seen: Some thick and brutish, others thin and weaselly, and nearly all slightly, strangely disproportionate in one way or another, with bizarrely massive hands or sharp teeth and beady eyes. They're not so physically far out as to be distracting or grotesque—in the context of the games, I actually think there's a very natural look to all of it—but the oddly imperfect faces and bodies really accentuate the ugliness, and the beauty, of Dunwall and Karnaca.
And on top of how great they look (and sound), you can sense their innermost secrets through the magical powers of the Heart—"She tells them it's whale meat. But it's not."—which adds tremendously to Dishonored's sense of place.
Wes Fenlon: Dwarf Fortress is a colony management game, so technically, all of your dwarves are NPCs. You don't embody them or control them directly. And even if they're just little ASCII symbols or tiny sprites wandering around, they have some of the richest personalities you'll ever encounter in a game. You can look at every dwarf in the game to see a procedurally generated description of their personality, their feelings, their hopes and dreams. It's just text, but it frequently manages to be profound, or funny, or anyway more interesting than the characters in most videogames. Dwarf Fortress is amazing!
Adoring Fan: By Azura, by Azura, by Azura, it's a grand question! I can't believe I get to answer the PCG Q&A question this week! Me, answering this question! Wow!
Golly, Oblivion's NPCs are the best! I just want to follow them and watch them and worship the ground they walk on! Sometimes they don't want me to follow them, even though I won't get in the way. Aw, gee! And then I have to hang around the Arena grounds, wishing I could shine someone's boots or give them a backrub!
Did I answer the question right? I'll just wait here while you decide! Or, over there! No, here? Right here? All right then, whatever you say!
Dave James: Okay, I may be biased as a complete FM-obsessive, but I've never felt such an emotional bond or attachment to the NPCs of any other game than those who make up the squad in my current long-term career. Seeing a young lad come through the youth system, nurturing them through their early, faltering steps of first team action can be a wonderful experience, building a relationship as strong as... your next job. What can I say, Football is a fickle game. But I still feel genuine pride at their first call up to represent their country, and an almost tangible desire to protect my young proteges when they get a major injury, or even come out to their peers and the public at large. Sports Interactive creates a new world every year, packed with more NPCs than any other, and they never fail to find a place in my heart.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Chris Livingston: Like Adoring Fan up there, I like Oblivion's NPCs because they had little routines you could observe—some travel to other cities to visit friends, some cheat on their spouses, one is a secret skooma addict. They may not be terribly deep but there's often a little bit more life to them than you see at first glance.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has a lot of that and it's great fun just following random NPCs around to see what they do. You can watch people go to work and then return home at night. One might appear to be a generic citizen but is secretly a murderer. I rescued an abduction victim and she didn't just ride off in some random direction afterward, she went to her actual home. If someone gets shot and killed in a town, someone else will eventually show up to carry the body off. There's not enough room to give every character a full life, but there's just enough detail to make them feel alive.
King of Dragon Pass
Jody Macgregor: King of Dragon Pass is one of those "bad decision management sims" where you tell people what to do, then they resent you for it. You're chief of a fantasy tribe with a council of advisors called the ring, who are supposed to help you arrive at the wisest and best outcomes. They rarely agree on anything, and all have biases. This one is a follower of the trickster god and can't be trusted, this one is obsessed with the harvest and thinks labour spent on anything but crop yield is a waste, this one hates beastfolk and thinks you should drive the duck-people off their land, and so on.
You can reorganize the ring at any time, figuring out which members of your clan are the most helpful and building a superteam. But then the decisions you're adjudicating—what to do with a white calf that might be an omen, who to side with in a marriage dispute—start to involve the ring. Inganna's advice on matters relating to battle had been invaluable, and I'd ended a bunch of feuds. Then a neighbor clan showed up saying four of their thane's sons had been murdered by one of my people. I asked Inganna for advice, and instead she confessed. She thought we'd grown weak, and was trying to start a war to make us strong again.
I had to outlaw her. Away from her clan's protection, our neighbors killed her and declared the matter dealt with. Still, at least I hadn't started a war with the duck-people. Turns out they're the most powerful enemies you can make in Dragon Pass.
From the Forums
Zloth: If my memory was perfect, I'm pretty sure I would pick Planescape: Torment. But it ain't so I'll give it to Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. Jack, the streetwise guy who (probably) helps you out so much, Jeanette and her crazy twist, Beckett, Heather - your pet ghoul, Chunk, oh, and there's a stop sign I that still has a beating coming. BioWare has some companions that will easily show up any one of V:tM:B's but, when you total up the greatness of all the characters in the game, I think V:tM:B wins.
Krud: It's hard for me to quantify "best", especially since each game would have different needs where NPC's are concerned. I've often been happy with the NPC's in various BioWare titles, from the Mass Effect trilogy to Dragon Age (yes, even DA2), but even long before that, with Knights Of The Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. In terms of NPC's I really cared about, I was surprised at how much I cared about some of the NPC's in Life Is Strange. (Also the prequel, Before The Storm.)
Oussebon: I'll put in an early bid for Witcher 3's generic NPCs, especially for the impact in Novigrad - literally fleshing out the city. It must be one of the trickiest choices to make in creating a new game world. Do you do a Skyrim and have almost every NPC (beyond guards) be a named character with their own life, even where you have little interaction with them? But the price is that you have to limit the scale of the city and its population as a result. Every city's beggar - token in their uniqueness - just reminds you of an entire, missing, underclass.
Do you do a Far Cry where 2s or 3s of nameless NPCs, whose raison d'etre is to dive under your truck, pop the heck up out of nowhere? And gleefully they dive, because their AI tells them to run around like headless lobsters when a car appears?! (I'm playing Far Cry New Darwin Award currently)
Witcher 3 nails it. The choice to use generic NPCs lets CD Projekt Red build and populate a huge, huge city - and make it feel alive. Think with disdain, if you must, of Novigrad and its flocks of NPCs called Strumpet, and the recycled faces. But then think of Novigrad without them or their cohorts. It would just be empty, soulless stone - as PCG has previously noted I think.
The NPCs are also a crucial background. They're the little people, the cattle who simply don't matter to the characters who shape the story - whether white-knight Geralt or someone like Orianna. Plus it's refreshing not everyone instinctively knows you can be the demi-god hero who can fix all their problems. It's not that Unnamed Strumpet #714f/c doesn't have problems (I expect), she just doesn't take you to be her personal Odd Job Protagonist.
The presence of generically-named NPCs that you can interact with (e.g. Blacksmith, Merchant) helps blur what could otherwise be a too-harsh contrast between named (Get Your Quest Here!) NPCs and the nameless sheep, too. It's also contextual. Wolfenstein Youngblood's Paris felt conspicuous for the total absence of civilians, but it worked for gameplay. As for Geralt knowing who to talk to and who not to bother with, he has Witcher Senses and is very worldly-wise so if he just knows who to talk to, fine.