It was a quiet Saturday evening, and since you had no plans, you decided to spend it with a good book on the sofa and a little classical music on the radio. You had just settled in when you heard a knock on the front door. It was your friend Stan. You hadn’t seen him in a while, so it was nice to have him drop by without notice. You invited him in, and he obliged.
Oddly, Stan started scanning the foyer, taking it all in like he had never seen it before. He seemed to take particular notice of all the things there — the ficus tree, the impressionist painting on the wall, the coat closet. That seemed a little strange to you, but the feeling soon passed. You invited him into the kitchen for something to drink.
When you reached the kitchen, you noticed Stan had not followed. You looked back and saw him still in the foyer. He took a moment to view the nice painting, and then, quite unexpectedly, he lifted the painting to look at the blank wall underneath. After replacing it, he then went to the closet and opened the door, scanning the coats and shoes you kept there. He spent a moment rummaging inside, and then quietly closed the door. Then, oddly, he began poking at the soil and dead leaves at the base of the ficus tree, almost expecting to find something there. When he finished, he took a minute to check all of his pockets, but all he seemed to have were his keys. Finally, he scanned the room once more, almost as if he temporarily forgot where he was. He spotted you waiting in the kitchen, so he apologized and joined you there.
Once in the kitchen, he did that odd scanning thing again, looking all around at everything. It was like he had never been in any kitchen before, much less yours. You went to the refrigerator to get him a glass of iced tea, and as you started pouring it, you noticed Stan out of the corner of your eye fingering the can opener you had left on the counter top. He quietly slipped it into his pocket.
“Did you need a can opener, Stan?” you delicately asked, quite certain you had never borrowed one from him at some point in the past.
“Yes, thanks, I hope that’s okay,” he said. As you reached to hand him his glass, you noticed he had already started opening some of the cabinets and drawers, leaving each one open as he went to the next.
“Is there something you’re looking for?” you asked, now a bit concerned at his actions.
“Nothing specific,” he said. “Don’t mind me.”
He opened the drawer by the kitchen phone and found the set of keys you keep there that unlock the door to the garage. Again, he quietly slipped them into his pocket, even as you watched him do it.
“Stan, those are my keys.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll return them,” he responded. “What do they unlock, by the way?”
“I don’t think–“
“That’s okay, I’ll figure it out later.” He turned back to the phone, and saw your address book sitting next to it. He started flipping through the pages, curiously interested at the names and numbers inside. Maybe he thought you weren’t looking his way, but again you watched as he slipped the address book into his coat pocket.
“Stan, what gives?” you asked. “I need that book.”
“I told you, don’t worry. You’ll get it back eventually. Good tea, by the way.”
He sat down at the kitchen table, so you warily followed and sat on the opposite side. Then, unexpectedly, Stan proceeded to grill you with a long series of questions about a wide variety of topics, one after the other. It was almost as if he was checking off a list as he went. The strangest part about it was that most of the questions were about things you thought he already should have known. It was like he was interviewing you for something, like a journalist might. When he finished you realized that you never had the chance to ask him anything yourself.
After the last question, Stan quickly stood up, thanked you for the drink, and walked back to the front door. After one last scan of the foyer and another check of his pockets, he walked out. Just like that, he left, with you still sitting at the kitchen table. And strangely (or perhaps not anymore, at least), he never bothered to close the door behind him.
I suspect that, to a certain degree, this is what life might be like if you were an NPC in an interactive fiction game, and your friend was the player character. We as players exhibit some odd behavior in games. We’re absentminded kleptomaniac journalists. I imagine our reaction in real life to a typical player character like this would be something like the astonishment portrayed above, and yet in most games the NPCs rarely respond in an appropriate way to our actions or behaviors, and just sit there blindly accepting it all.
As the Writers Cabal Blog has asked, what kind of NPCs do we want? How about NPCs that realize what we’ve done? NPCs who have moods and motivations that can shift based on how we interact with them, and as a result have a significant impact on our subsequent approach? NPCs that don’t just act like errand dispensers or information booths?
It takes a lot of work and skill to create characters with personality, depth, and motivations of their own. Maybe not even a lot of work and skill, but an incredible amount of work and skill. But isn’t that true for everything worthwhile?
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