NPC to Player

Yesterday I shared a blog post about the 5 major characters transformations my readers want to experience as we transition from 2019 to 2020, which we’ll be working on together in the new Stature deep dive course.

After extracting those original 5 transformations, I pondered whether they could be compressed a bit further. Could they be summed up as a single transformation?

Each time we compress, we lose some detail, so it’s not going to be perfect if we squish this down to a single transformation. But one answer that Rachelle and I came up with together is that the transformation is about shifting from NPC to player mode.

Let me ‘splain.

In a video game, an NPC is a non-player character, so this simply refers to a computer-controlled character in the game. Most often I associate the term with role-playing or adventure games, but other game genres may feature NPCs as well.

So you might wander across a village in a game world, and there are farmers, merchants, and townsfolk who’ve been mostly waiting around for you to show up and engage with them. You might interact with them to get information, buy weapons or supplies, or receive invitations to perform mini-quests. These characters are all computer-controlled, so no human player is directly in charge of them. They do whatever their pre-programmed algorithms direct them to do, and they respond to your actions according to their programming.

The NPC’s job is mainly to be part of the story experience for the main player (or players, if it’s a multi-player game). In more sophisticated games, the NPCs may follow daily routines, including sleeping in their beds at night and tending to their shops or fields during the day.

An NPC doesn’t get to experience the main story. They don’t get to face dragons and go on adventures. They do whatever their programming directs them to do, like serving up coffee at the local Starbucks until the real adventurer – the true player – walks in. I’m over-simplifying here a bit, but I think you get the idea.

In terms of our original five transformations, each one connects with a transition from living an NPC type of life to growing into a more empowered player role.

When you’re playing a game and wander into an NPC-rich area like a village or camp, the NPCs will often complain about something when you talk to them. They have problems they can’t solve, so they fret and worry till you solve those problems for them. Some of them may act as if they’re traumatized by their current state of affairs. They need you to rescue them, save them, help them.

Notice that difference in attitude. An NPC waits to be rescued. A hero does the rescuing. If you’re not actively rescuing yourself from your own problems, are you giving people the impression that you’re waiting to be rescued? Are you like a traumatized villager surrounded by a bunch of other traumatized villagers, all hoping that life will somehow get better with the passage of time? What if instead of wasting energy on judgment and resistance, you accepted whatever problems are showing up in your life and decided to face them head on? Imagine a village of NPCs who finally decide to go slay the dragon themselves instead of waiting for a hero to show up.

While the NPCs may spin themselves in circles fussing over their problems, you the player have to get busy solving them. Even in a game world with lots of misalignments, somehow you’re able to create your own alignment as the player. You do this by working on subgoals one by one and taking lots of action. You don’t have to be confused and internally conflicted because there’s always something interesting to work on. You just keep chipping away at one quest after another. Resisting what the game offers up is obviously a complete waste of time. You can’t possibly progress if you rail against the game’s unfairness, lameness, or ridiculousness. Real life is the same in that respect, isn’t it?

In a game world with enough flexibility (Zelda: Breath of the Wild being a good example), there are nice opportunities for self-expression as the player, opportunities that the NPCs lack. If you feel like exploring, you can wander off into new territories. If you’re feeling aggressive, you can run boldly into battle and fight, fight, fight. If you’re feeling more chill, you can talk to some NPCs, cook some food, or do some simple side quests. Different people can play the game with very different styles and still win.

When Rachelle and I have played Zelda: BOTW (which we finished twice together), our playing styles were very different, especially when it comes to attacking a group of enemies. I like to rush in like a berserker, maybe toss a bomb into the middle of the group to get everyone’s attention. Sometimes I’ll verbally taunt them (even though they can’t hear me). Then I go toe to toe with as many as I can, doing only offense and rarely defense, never using shields or dodging. I’ll frequently take out a whole group in less than a minute. Of course I may take some damage, sometimes major damage. If I die, I just try again, perhaps a little more cautiously the next time. I only go in stealthily or strategically when I really have to, especially in situations where overt aggression is heavily punished. I don’t mind dying a bunch. I’d rather die a few times and learn a little more from each assault. To me it’s just a form of probing to figure out what works. I love being in the thick of combat with lots of action, having to make fast decisions in real-time to survive. I favor this style because it’s the most fun for me.

Rachelle, on the other hand, never plays like this, even if I prod her to try it. She prefers to assess a situation strategically first. She’ll pick off enemies from a distance first, selecting her targets carefully and cautiously. She’ll optimize her armor and weapon choice to appropriately suit each battle. She plays a lot more defensively, valuing every heart. She seems to feel disappointed if she loses 2 hearts out of 20 in a battle, whereas I’d still feel victorious if I lost 18 hearts and was still standing at the end.

I feel perfectly okay walking through the game world with less than half my hearts, whereas Rachelle feels uncomfortable if her hearts aren’t nearly fully (preferably completely full). So we have different styles of play – i.e. self-expression – and yet we still enjoy the player role in our own ways. We each have our own version of what it takes to create relaxed confidence and have a chill yet fun experience. If I tried to play the game like Rachelle does, I’d be bored. And I think if she tried to play like I do, she’d feel stressed or frustrated.

The way you play the game of life will undoubtedly be uniquely your own as well. You have many options for how to express yourself. The key is to find the modes of expression that feel most aligned to you, so the game of life is fun and stimulating but not overwhelming or boring. If you live too much like an NPC, you’re probably going to feel bored or frustrated a lot because NPCs have persistent problems they can’t solve.

How does this NPC to player analogy resonate with you so far? I imagine that if you’re a gamer, you may like it more than most. But if not, that’s okay. You can focus on the original five transformations, or you can challenge yourself to come up with your own single compressed version.

Which way did you lean most often throughout 2019? Would you say that you lived primarily as an NPC? Or do you feel that you really owned this year like a true player character? Did you play scared? Or did you play fiercely? Did you have a fun and stimulating year overall, or did you spend too much time in the realm of frustration, the kingdom of worry, or the dungeon of boredom?

Rachelle and I are both eagerly looking forward to Zelda: BOTW2 by the way. Zelda: BOTW was among the most impressive games I’ve ever played. Now let’s make 2020 your most impressive year. Just try not to play it too much like Rachelle because it’s not as fun to watch. You can still fight even when you only have 3 hearts, okay!

My character may lose a few hearts when she reads this. 😉