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NPCs

Quickhacking Cyberpunk 2077: ACAB

I spent the early part of my first full day in Night City punching cops in the face. In my defence, it was the direct result of me trying to be a good person; I found a woman being assaulted in the corridor outside my apartment, so I shot the guy in the head. The woman thanked me, then started screaming because I had a gun out, and that’s what NPCs do when you have a gun out. Anyway, somehow my frankly heroic action alerted the cops, and when I went out onto the landing two of them started shooting at me. Naturally I punched them until they were unconscious, which takes 3-4 punches, in case you’re curious.

More cops came, more punching. Suddenly I realised exactly how easy it is to bottleneck the police and keep beating them until they pass out. Uh oh.

Eventually they stopped, I’m not sure why. Perhaps they just ran out of police, or they realised it wasn’t worth it to lose thirteen police officers to a mad redhead in the slums. A few minutes later, when I accidentally used a poison gas grenade on a food stall vendor, I discovered something horrible and sinister about why the police kept coming until they stopped coming: they don’t actually exist. Rather than walking in from some pre-approved outside location or being dropped off by cybercar, they spawn in from nowhere, pre-filled with sound and fury signifying fascism. Four armed officers and two NCPD drones manifested from the inside of a pile of boxes. In a more metafictional environment this would almost be a clever interpretation of the relationship between the police and civilians, cops representing an omnipotent force that watches your every move and isn’t beholden to the rules normal people are forced to follow. Like physics. Here it’s more of a shortcut to avoid coding in a more complicated solution to getting the police to harass you. Still, the end result of this—and the fact that apparently LOOKING at cops for too long makes them angry enough to shoot you in the head—is a fear of the police that I’m far too jaded to experience in a more realistically-coded setting. These officers are moody, unpredictable, chaotically violent and duty bound to cause harm. I’m going to do my best to stay away from them.

The inconsequential, unnamed NPCs in general have a similar transient quality. Like Schrodinger’s Citizens, they only have form when you look straight at them. When I ran from that merchant I poisoned, he fled his stall while suppressing the urge to vomit; when I backed up, his stall was already being looked after by a brand new procedurally generated gentleman. NPCs are swiftly removed and replaced as you walk around, which is, I’m sure, a technical boon, but is also a big kick in the nuts for my sense of immersion. Nobody you meet matters, even by the standards of a video game nobody, because they’ll be wiped and reformed anew before you can say Creepy Watson. Again, this would be a pretty cool setup for a story about reality being a simulation, and the world of Night City even has its own virtual reality system, but in our reality it’s just a curious quirk of the code.

Since we’re moaning about NPCs, it really bugs me that Cyberpunk 2077 keeps up the grand sci-fi tradition of portraying poor people as hunched, miserable losers, huddled in their garbage slums and trying not to be too oppressed today, thanks. Most folks in this first area (inside the Judge Dredd-style apartment block) mope around like someone took a big shit in their cereal, or sit outside literally begging. It may come as a surprise to developers that low income folks, even in a dystopia, are perfectly capable of having a normal, happy day.

On a more positive note, I did run into a loud man spouting conspiracy theories in the street, and not only could I engage him in a bit of conversation, but after a minute or so some California-accented tourists came to get a selfie with him. There are brief moments where the world of Cyberpunk 2077 feels very alive, and they’re very appreciated.

V goes to the Ripperdoc—one of Cyberpunk’s cyberdoctors—and gets some new eyes, a new hand. We get dragged into a big new job that will set us up FOR LIFE. It definitely won’t go horribly wrong. For one half of the planning process we need to go visit the woman who requested the heist. I kind of like that we have to wait until night time because it’s a bar. She gives us a briefing in a room with a very naked hologram and then we get our first taste of a BRAINDANCE, which is a fancy way to say “virtual reality tape recording.” These sections allow you to walk or float through a recorded event and pick up little details that give you necessary information. In this case, we get to case the top floor of a fancy hotel so we can get around the security later. It’s fancy and I like it. Reminds me of the memory breaking bits from Remember Me. Remember that game? Probably not. It was fine.

I’m getting distracted because there’s a LOT going on in Cyberpunk now. These sequences really bring into sharp relief how linear the prologue was; V can chat to various NPCs, decide in what order to do things, go off to check out a few side missions rather than advancing the story. It feels more like the game it wants to be now. A corpo woman named Meredith wants to help me get a thing for the thing we have to do as long as I let her upload a virus to the gang who currently have the thing. I speak corpo back to her with a special dialogue choice and she gets angry and drives off. It feels good to have a little control, and to see the shape of my V emerging. Now all I have to do is head to this gang hideout and get a machine from them as efficiently as possible.

Okay, I can explain. See, Jackie didn’t want to sit down and I wasn’t paying attention to my responses so… anyway we had to kill them all.

They seemed like they wanted to rip us off anyway, and now we have the thing! But I had to destroy a lot of lives to get there. It turns out that my V is a big fan of swords and shotguns, and specifically the pleasing effect of switching between them while running around like the world’s clumsiest ninja. Didn’t need to sit down afterwards. Particularly liked that the end of this section gave me the option to sneak around the boss to escape, then it gave me the option to not brutally murder him after I refused the first option. Anyway he’s dead.

Before the big damn heist section, I was contacted a few times by a cop with an eyepatch who wanted me to do cop stuff. In Cyberpunk 2077 you can trip over crimes in progress (assaults, robberies, people not filling in their tax returns correctly) and intervene to gain a reward and the respect of the police force. No thank you. The woman on the phone will also send you bounty jobs, the first of which is to literally kill or otherwise neutralise a “good” cop who wants to expose corruption in the force. I cannot for the life of me figure out if this is supposed to be irony, or satire, or completely straight-faced villainy. Suffice it to say, I’ve been deliberately ignoring any possible way to assist the police. It’s perhaps unintentional, but refusing to do anything they want me to do actually instills a weird sense of pride, as if V was shouting FUCK THE POLICE from her car window.

Act one snowballs pretty quickly towards this big job, which requires a lot of hacking and sneaking and includes a bunch of enormous plot reveals I’m not going into here. It was a lot of fun and the writing here is pretty solid. I may have even felt some emotions. Also the robot cab driver is a good example of how to do fun AI characters so take note every other game that isn’t Fallout New Vegas.

It does get a little prologue here for a while, in the sense that it throws a big plot reveal at you every 30 seconds for what felt like an hour. This explodes, that character dies, this character dies, this person was really this other thing, betrayal, emotions, you get dumped somewhere terrible, you come back out, a car chase, another explosion, a crash, a blackout, a montage of being incapacitated, more talking. It’s all good, mind you, but there’s a long time when you’re just watching interesting things happen to a character you’re supposed to be controlling. There appears to be a struggle the narrative designers had with working out how to tell the story and allow any sort of player choice at the same time. It makes me think of the Hades approach, where every story tidbit is isolated and fed to the player while they go about their actual gaming business. Here, the story sometimes feels arbitrarily walled off from the flow of the open world, actively working against the pillars it’s built around.

Somewhere in this maelstrom of CONTENT, the actual title card comes up, now we’ve been playing for hours. Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077, I guess.

SPEED ROUND: Don’t Threaten Me With A Mixed Time

  • RIght at the start of this act you find out that there’s a fight club in the city. Why is there always a fight club?
  • All the advertising and posters in Night City still feel like they come from a different game with much stupider writing.
  • I came across a minor accident scene where one guy had rear-ended another and they were on their phone trying to sort it out, and that felt pleasingly authentic.
  • There was an unexpected instant death moment in the plot maelstrom and I am here to tell developers DO NOT.
  • Don’t put musical instruments in your video game if you won’t let me play them.
  • I still don’t know why you’d bother going non-lethal in this game, nobody has explained it to me.

After what seemed like a very lengthy prologue, we finally get into what Night City is actually about: accidentally causing huge amounts of violence and telling the cops to get in the sea. I may have missed the point, or maybe the game isn’t making any points. Next I hope to get more involved in the sidequests of Cyberpunk 2077 and put even more points into sword powers.

Getting to know the human animals of Animal Crossing

There’s an ugly frog living in my partner’s village. His name is Frobert, and he hasn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but she hates him a lot. It’s not been so long since Animal Crossing: New Horizons released, and already a lot of her playtime has been dedicated to making sure Frobert has the worst possible time on her island paradise. Hitting him with nets, refusing to speak to him for days, even reporting him to Resident Services for foul language and inappropriate clothing choices. Frobert has a weird face that makes everyone uncomfortable, and he has to go. Not long after the island settled, a mouse named Chaddar moved in; he is very literally made of cheese. His home is furnished with nothing but toilets and a hot tub. He brings nothing but further hate to the shores of the village.

Something about Animal Crossing villagers provokes strong emotional reactions in players. Superficially, they’re just strange looking anthropomorphic animals who spout limited variations of the same phrases as you walk back and forth breeding rare flowers; NPCs like any other, except perhaps even less than that, given that they don’t even have a particular informational purpose. But they are beloved, reviled, talked about as if they had real personalities, nurtured and punished in equal measure. People form genuine friendships with these bobbleheaded weirdos, some of them lasting decades, and work to predict—or even shape—their thoughts. Every morning I go and talk to Phoebe, the mean girl ostrich who lives near the beach, and every morning I’m hopeful this won’t be one of those times where she makes a passive aggressive comment about my shirt. Yes, Phoebe, that’s right, it’s a normal jumper, again. Oh, you think it’s impressive how well I can pull of basic styles? I should give you tips on how to look so basic?!

Why are Animal Crossing animals so interesting? Because they’re boring.

Boring in a very deliberate, very calculated way. Boring the way that your friends and family are, the way that all humans are boring. Villagers are written to be almost painfully normal, eschewing the standard video game writing style of packing non-player characters with as much quirky uniqueness as possible. Where the biographical information for the average NPC might be “traveled the world and searched for mysterious artifacts before returning to the search for his lost brother,” villagers tend to be summarised with something more like “enjoys lifting weights and fishing in the rain.”

The key to writing Animal Crossing villagers is keeping them mundane and, in a traditional video game sense, useless. Sometimes a villager will give you information about an upcoming event or something happening elsewhere in town, sometimes they give you gifts or ask you to do them a favour, but most of the time they will simply talk to you about their day. A cat wants you to know they don’t like the other cat villager, the local elephant got a new shirt and she thinks it’s absolutely delightful, a monkey you don’t like very much keeps talking about the way bugs whisper to him while he sleeps. None of this is actionable information, nor does it push forward the state of your village, but it makes them relatable. Crucially, it also avoids reducing the villagers to tools or markers on an objective board; without the distractions of guaranteed extrinsic reward, the intrinsic value of experiencing their personalities and interactions can take on greater importance.

Take my friend Ken, for example. Ken is a chicken who likes to wear karate gear, he enjoys crafting things at his crafting bench at weird hours and he is excited about absolutely everything, he knows a lot of foreign words but not what they mean or the language they came from. Ken told me that because I was talking to him so much that day I must have paid for “Ken Unlimited” and he assured me that it was silly to care why eggs came out of rocks because magic is just like that sometimes. Ken is a fantastic, well-rounded individual who brightens my day, and he has never contributed anything of any tangible value to the mechanical experience of playing Animal Crossing. It’s because Ken isn’t just a chicken, he’s a human chicken, with very human thoughts.

Player experience of these villagers is also impacted by the passage of time. Animal Crossing very purposely doles out animal dialogue sparingly; each chat with a villager will be a handful of lines at most, and sometimes they will just tell you it’s a nice day. Speaking to the same villager repeatedly without a break will frustrate them to the point where they refuse to interact. The only way to reliably experience more of what a given NPC has to offer in Animal Crossing is to just live in the village and chat to them regularly, the same way you might learn about a neighbour or new friend. This also lets Animal Crossing simulate some of the anxiety and disappointment of a first impression, as maybe that villager who seemed cool when you met them is actually kind of terrible in the long run and never puts away the mayonnaise even though you’ve asked several times isn’t that right, RICHARD?

The aforementioned Phoebe, whose days on my island are numbered, introduced herself as a perky and cool adventure woman, and in the coming weeks has revealed her actual personality to be more like the evil female protagonist from a high school comedy. In Animal Crossing, as in life, sometimes you have to live with your mistakes.

Animal Crossing games are built on the idea of time—night and day cycles, weather, seasonal events, store opening hours—but in a broader sense, all games operate based on timescales. The fact that it takes actual, real-world time to interact with video games and make progress inside them separates the medium from other forms of entertainment. While it takes time to read a book or watch a film, the chronological journey rarely factors in. Animal Crossing villagers present an idea that really should be carried on through other games: that the experience of interacting with an NPC doesn’t have to just be about the information they can give to a player, that it can be structured so the time spent with the character is a meaningful tool in telling their story in and of itself.

You can see this displayed in other games, in different forms. Dragon Age shoulders you with party members that slowly warm up and reveal more of themselves as the game progresses. Part of this is mechanical, allowing the player to feel rewarded for improving their relationships; but part of it is also the satisfaction of the relationship itself, a decent mirror for getting to know someone in real life. Someone who spills their whole life story on a first or second meeting hasn’t given you any reason to care about what’s spilling out. In Left 4 Dead, characters randomly chat amongst themselves, revealing bits and pieces about their backstories and personalities that only form a full picture once you’ve spent enough time with the game. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is linear and action-focused, but presents the audience with two characters whose relationship only makes sense and contains meaning because it developed over the course of everything else the player was doing.

Animal Crossing villagers endure because of their relatable mundanity. They’re nothing special, which makes them just the kind of special that works inside a video game. By keeping chats short and grounded, the game forces you to meet them as people, rather than entertainment. Any given session of Animal Crossing is peppered with moments where you seek out a villager to talk to, just to see what they might say. Knowing it won’t be important, and wanting to engage regardless.

There’s a lesson in this for game developers across any genre attempting to tell a story. We hear all the time that games should avoid trying to ape films or other entertainment mediums, without much talk about what that might mean. One way creators can seek to improve their storytelling—and, by extension, their games as a whole—is to embrace this idea that what makes an engaging character in the long term isn’t how many strange personality quirks they have, or how tragic their backstory is, or even how much they matter. It comes down to their value to the player over time, rather than their position as part of a story, and how keen a player is to invest that time.

When I switch on my copy of Animal Crossing later today, Jakey—an excitable bird—will most likely be reading books to my flowers. It doesn’t matter why, that’s just something I know about him. I hope he has a good time.