Non-Player Character (NPC)

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What is a Non-Player Character (NPC)?

A non-player character (NPC) is a virtual character that is designed to advance and/or enhance the storyline in a video or tabletop game. NPCs can be interactive or passive characters.

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Interactive NPCs can say scripted lines or assist the player in some way. In Minecraft, for example, interactive NPCs called “villagers” engage with players by offering trading options. Villagers can have different professions, and interactions can be based on the village’s needs in addition to the player’s actions.

In contrast, passive NPCs characters do not interact directly with the player. Their purpose is to perform some action in the background that makes the game world seem more realistic. Many characters in Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V), for example, are passive NPCs whose sole purpose is to enhance the player’s sense of immersion by populating the game’s virtual urban environment, Los Santos.

Techopedia Explains the NPC Meaning

Techopedia Explains the NPC Meaning

Non-player character definitions will also explain two ways the term NPC has been used outside video games in the last six years. The intent behind calling someone an NPC matters a great deal.

For example, if someone calls you a real NPC on Reddit, it’s probably meant as an insult. Essentially, the person is saying you have no mind of your own, you are not important, and therefore what you have to say is not important either.

If someone refers to you as a real NPC on TikTok, however, it may be meant as a compliment. That’s because on TikTok, there’s a growing trend for real people to pretend to be NPCs. In this type of viral video, content creators purposely try to create a sense of uncanny valley for fun or for profit by imitating an NPC.

Types of NPCs

Types of NPCs

In addition to interactive and passive non-playing characters, there are several standard roles that NPCs play. Each type of role serves a distinct purpose within the game world and adds a layer of depth to the game’s narrative.

Here are some common types of NPC roles:

Quest Givers
These NPCs assign quests or missions to players. They may also provide rewards.

Vendors and Merchants
These characters sell virtual goods and services to players.

Information NPCs
These characters provide background information or hints to players.

Companions or Allies
These NPCs accompany players on their journeys and assist them in combat or help them complete tasks.

Antagonists
Not all NPCs are helpful; some are adversaries that challenge players.
Background NPCs
These virtual background extras cannot interact significantly with the player, if at all.  

What is the Difference Between a Bot and an NPC?

The terms “bot” and “non-player character” both refer to entities that are not controlled by game players, but the two terms cannot be used as synonyms.

NPCs are programmed with scripts written by the game’s developer and are designed to interact with players in limited ways. NPCs may challenge players, but they cannot win the game.

In contrast, bots are used to fill in player slots and are designed to try and win the game. Bots can change the way they interact with players because they are programmed with machine learning (ML) algorithms that can adjust themselves in response to other player’s actions.

Role in GameComplexityInteractionExamples

Bot: Substitute for human players.

Non-Player Character (NPC): Supports the game’s narrative structure.

Bot: Can learn from gameplay.

Non-Player Character (NPC): Behavior is limited to specific actions.

Bot: Tries to win the game.

Non-Player Character (NPC): May or may not interact with players.

Bot: AI opponents in chess.

Non-Player Character (NPC): Most town folk in Red Dead Redemption 2

How are NPCs Used Outside of Gaming?

NPC’s meaning in the context of gaming can also be applied to other contexts. Here are some examples of how NPCs can be used in specific real-world applications:

Professional Development
Interactive and passive NPCs can be used to make virtual training environments seem more realistic.

Education
Educational software can use interactive NPC characters to guide students through learning modules and make the learning experience more engaging.

Customer Service
Chatbots and virtual assistants can use scripted NPCs to handle low-level customer inquiries.
Entertainment
NPCs can be used in interactive graphic novels and extended reality environments to enhance the immersive experience.
Therapeutic Uses
NPCs can be used in therapeutic settings to help people develop specific soft skills in a controlled environment.
Art and Exhibitions
NPCs can be used to guide visitors through art installations or museum exhibits.
Analog Games
In tabletop role-playing games (RPGs), NPCs can be represented by cards that the game master controls.

NPCs in Popular Culture

When a non-playing character is particularly engaging, humorous, or odd, it can transcend the game itself and enter broader popular culture. Here are a few ways this can happen:

NPCs can become Internet memes, especially if their spoken lines or repetitive behaviors are funny, relatable, or bizarre. Memes can spread rapidly on social media websites and discussion forums and introduce the NPC to a wider audience.

Some NPCs have gained a level of fame that has led to references in other games or media. This can be a nod to fans who will recognize the reference, thereby enhancing the intertextual play across different forms of entertainment.

For example, GLaDOS from the video game series Portal has her own meme generator, and film director Guillermo del Toro used her voice in ‘Pacific Rim.’ Her song Still Alive is so well known that it inspired a number of cover versions and parodies.

Certain NPCs have also gained fame in pop culture because they are annoying. This includes NPCs who repeatedly block player paths, are part of particularly difficult gameplay segments, or have irritating dialogue.

For example, Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has become a cultural icon because she annoys players. Her infamous repeated phrase “Hey, Listen”  has made her the subject of jokes and memes within and beyond the gaming community.

How is NPC Used on Social Media?

In addition to providing fodder for internet memes and being used as an insult that implies someone lacks critical thinking skills, non-playing characters have also inspired an NPC cosplay ecosystem on social media sites.

In the last few years, it’s become a trend for people to record themselves pretending to be non-playing characters for fun and/or profit.

NPC Cosplay

NPC cosplay requires content creators to film themselves (or someone else) dressed up as an NPC character from a video game.

During the video clip, the NPC cosplay participant may consistently repeat the same action that their NPC performed in a video game. Part of the appeal of this type of NPC cosplay is the humor that comes from pretending to be a passive background character that is usually overlooked.

NPC Video Streams

NPC cosplay videos are often posted on YouTube and other community sites for fun, but streaming NPC videos can also be used to generate revenue on TikTok.

When an NPC streamer is referred to as a real NPC, it means that their NPC stream is so good that it’s difficult for the viewer to know if the video loop’s subject is a living human being or an avatar created with artificial intelligence (AI).

NPC streamers can earn money through tips, sticker gifts, or by charging viewers a fee to perform a different action.

Most Famous NPCs

Most Famous NPCs

Besides GLaDOS and Navi, other examples of famous NPCs include:

Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2
Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 has had a big influence on shaping character-driven storytelling in games. She has been discussed in academic circles, explained on non-gaming websites, and featured in a game design documentary put out by the original game design team. 

Garrus Vakarian from Mass Effect
Garrus Vakarian from Mass Effect has become a fan favorite due to the character’s detailed story arc and the player’s ability to develop a close relationship with him throughout the series. His popularity has inspired fan-created art and fiction, as well as cosplay.

The Merchant from Resident Evil 4
The Merchant from Resident Evil 4 is known for his distinctive voice and quirky lines. This famous NPC character is very mysterious, and his image is often used in memes.
Preston Garvey from Fallout 4
Preston Garvey from Fallout 4 is another infamous NPC. His repeated lines about settlements needing help have brought him attention both within the gaming community and in online culture broadly.
Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite
Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite has been praised for the depth of her interactions, which were groundbreaking examples of AI integrations at the time of the game’s release in 2013. Elizabeth is often mentioned in discussions about female character design and the need for games to be emotionally engaging.
NPC Wojak
NPC Wojak is a cartoon line drawing with a pointy nose and a gray blank face. In 1998,  NPC Wojak posts used to spread political disinformation were banned from Twitter. The ban ended up raising people’s awareness about NPC Wojak and helped solidify the connection between NPCs and people who simply follow the actions or opinions of others.

The Bottom Line

NPCs are an essential ingredient for creating immersive and engaging game experiences. Whether they are driving the story or simply enriching a virtual world’s atmosphere, NPCs play an important role in making digital environments seem more real.

However, the success of an NPC depends heavily on its design. The most useful NPCs are helpful and engaging without disrupting the player’s immersion within the game world. Ironically, the most famous NPCs are not always the most helpful.

FAQs

What is NPC in simple terms?

What does it mean when someone calls you an NPC?

What is an example of an NPC?

What is the difference between a bot and an NPC?

What does NPCs mean on TikTok?

References

  1. Welcome to the Minecraft Official Site | Minecraft (Minecraft)
  2. Grand Theft Auto V – Rockstar Games (Rockstargames)
  3. What’s up with people insulting each other by saying they’re an “NPC”? (Reddit)
  4. Just a typical dinner with NPCs (Tiktok)
  5. They act like video game characters on TikTok. It nets $200 an hour. (Washingtonpost)
  6. Portal Glados Meme Generator – Imgflip (Imgflip)
  7. Portal – ‘Still Alive’ (Youtube)
  8. ‘Still Alive’ but it’s pop-punk?! | Portal cover feat. Todd Barriage (Youtube)
  9. Rockband Hero – Still Alive parody Jonathan Coulton (Youtube)
  10. Where the Name ”Navi” Came From (Nintendo)
  11. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Zeldadungeon)
  12. Hey listen – (Navi) – (The Legend of Zelda) (Youtube)
  13. PinkyDoll and the rise of NPC streamers on TikTok Live (Mashable)
  14. We’ll just be over here if you need us🧍‍♀️#npc (Tiktok)
  15. In latest TikTok fad, creators make big bucks off “NPC streaming” (Cbsnews)
  16. Alyx Vance (Combineoverwiki)
  17. Half-Life 2 (Half-life)
  18. Half-Life’s Alyx Vance, explained (Theverge)
  19. Half-Life: 25th Anniversary Documentary – YouTube (Youtube)
  20. Garrus Vakarian (En.wikipedia)
  21. Mass Effect Guide – IGN (Ign)
  22. Explore the Best Garrus Art | DeviantArt (Deviantart)
  23. Resident Evil 4 – Meeting The Merchant (4K 60FPS) – YouTube (Youtube)
  24. The Merchant From Resident Evil 4 Is Great (Kotaku)
  25. Preston Garvey, a realistic character in the harsh world of Fallout. (Reddit)
  26. Fallout 4: Preston is Obsessed with Saving Settlements for a Reason (Gamerant)
  27. Elizabeth (BioShock) – Wikipedia (En.wikipedia)
  28. I. Love. Elizabeth. :: BioShock Infinite General Discussions (Steamcommunity)
  29. What Is NPC, the Pro-Trump Internet’s New Favorite Insult? – The New York Times (Nytimes)
  30. Ciri – The Witcher 3 Guide – IGN (Ign)
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Margaret Rouse
Senior Editor
Margaret Rouse
Senior Editor

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.