Updated: Feb 23, 2021
Welcome back, everyone.
Some of you will no doubt be gaming in the near future, and I expect some of you will encounter and be frustrated by a great bugbear of mine: dumb non-controllable NPCs.
Many games provide you with a companion, or even team of companions, for at least a portion of the game. More often than not these assistants are more of a hindrance than a help. If I had a penny for every time they did something dumb, that got both them and myself killed, I would now be comfortably well off.
Anyone who has experienced this first hand can tell you how infuriating this is.
Brain Dead NPCs
Video game A.I. has not progressed to any great extent over the last decade and a half. The mistakes made by A.I. NPCs back in the late 1990s are still being made by A.I. NPCs today. They still get stuck in doorways. They still blunder into minefields and fall off cliffs. They still rush headlong into fights they can't survive, forcing you to attempt to save them, which often results in your own death as well.
Lucius A.I. glitch.
See what I mean?
Video by Mintylight
This is particularly problematic if the companion is vital to the game. If they die, it might break the game completely. A ‘solution’ to this that is often favoured by developers is to make these important companions immortal. It works, but if you're aiming for immersion, it is not ideal.
There are a few examples of companion NPCs that have been done right. Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 and its episodes being one of the best. Ellie, the young girl from the Last of Us and Trico, the huge half-bird, half-mammal creature from The Last Guardian are also fine examples, however examples of this calibre are sadly few and far between.
One way to remedy the dumb NPC problem is to give the player some measure of control over them. There are a number of games that do this well, such as the Mass Effect trilogy, Freespace 2 and most MilSims.
Even simple commands such as stay here, wait over there, come to me, attack that, hide and take cover etc. can make all the difference between companions who are useful, and those who you want to shoot in the back of the head, just to get them to move out of the way.
Dammit Lydia, Move!! - Skyrim Mod Skit
Yet again modders fix something for free that paid devs left broken...
Video by AltairVids
Examples of A.I. companions done right can be found in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R sandbox mods Call of Chernobyl, Call of Misery and Last Day. In these mods, you have the option to recruit teammates if you so wish, and you may disband them at any time should they prove to be a hindrance.
Whilst part of your team you may order them to move to a specific location, follow you, or stay put where they are. What's more, you can order them to adopt specific behaviours which will influence how they react to their environment. For example, they can be instructed to move slowly but stealthily, or quickly but noisily.
You can order them to fire at will and aggressively engage any target they see, or act defensively, whereby they will fire only at enemies that fire upon the team or get too close. They can also be instructed to be completely passive and to not fire at all, useful for when stealth is essential. You can even instruct them to loot fallen NPCs to acquire new and better weapons for themselves, or order them to leave all looting to you, so that you get to keep all the spoils.
All of this can be done on-the-fly by user definable hotkeys and/or an on-screen menu. Some mods, such as Warfare, expand upon this by allowing you to control multiple squads of a faction's army, directing them as if you were a general by using the in-game digital PDA's map.
The level of fine control you can exert over your companions more than makes up for the occasional stupid mistakes the A.I.s may make when left to their own devices. The fact that having A.I. companions at all is completely optional is a liberating experience.
If only games could be this way out-of-the-box. If modders can do this for free, then perhaps professional development teams with multi-million pound / euro / dollar budgets can do likewise.
Follow my Leader
Even worse than dumb and uncontrollable A.I. companions are dumb and uncontrollable A.I. leaders. Here the A.I. takes the lead, and the player character must follow them. This exposes the player to even greater risk, as any mistake the A.I. makes will surely affect you as well. And in these scenarios, you do not have the option of sending them away or telling them to stay put. Secondly, it reduces the player's sense of agency, as the player must subordinate themselves to an A.I. NPC.
Metro 2033 is an example of a game that relies heavily on this mechanic, and in the eyes of some, the game is less enjoyable than it could have been as a result.
With luck, developers in the future will take heed of consumer feedback and grant the player greater control over their A.I. companions, and ensure they are following you and not the other way around. That’s it for this article, see you all in the next.
What are your thoughts on companion NPCs? Do you love them or loathe them? Do you have any amusing NPC related stories you would like to share? Can you think of any other games which have particularly good or bad NPC allies? If so, feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Call of Chernobyl - ModDB