I started my video game journey in earnest with Pokemon back when I was a wee demon living in suburbia. Pokemon is well-known for its clueless NPCs and how invasive you can be in their lives. Now, let’s back up: an NPC is a non-playable character in a video game. Typically they hang out in the background and only provide things to move the plot along or are just random extras. Sometimes they’re given really fun lines but for the most part they are meant to let you continue on in your own quest for fame and in-game self-importance.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has changed that for me in a way that I currently find unsettling and interesting. Animal Crossing is a game in which you (player and character) live on a land or island with villagers that are your neighbors and you help them out with mundane tasks and interact with them on a daily basis creating strange parasocial relationships with fictional characters. As stated, I started my journey with RPGs with Pokémon and for the most part the NPCs in any given region are pretty linear with their motivations and movements. Sure, they can walk around and move around but they rarely seem to exist outside of you. The houses don’t feel lived in, the parks don’t feel full, they are ghosts that fill a landscape for you: the hero of a Nietzschean wet dream. You walk into a house and rummage around the trash for goods and talk to someone, sometimes but for the most part, the unmoving digital eyes care little for your activities or actions. It’s perfectly normal within Pokémon to walk into someone’s home, steal their shit and leave.
Animal Crossing is not Pokemon and I didn’t think that fact would unnerve me until I tried to leave Rocco’s house without saying anything. I had entered in the hopes of giving him a gift to build clout, I mean because he deserved it for doing nothing, and when I found him working away at his workstation, I left without acknowledging him. I was shocked to see how he reacted to that. Of course he would react and not kindly but with confusion. I entered his home and said nothing; that’s deranged and rude. But Rocco was confused and that gave me pause for the first time in my decades of playing video games. NPCs are watching me. I never worried about that until recently. I never cared about how I dressed in-game or how I behaved but now playing Animal Crossing I feel like I have eyes on me all the time. Characters’ eyes follow me when I run around; when I enter their homes and greet them they are often interrupted from a previous task. When I don’t see them, they are disappointed and when I talk to them too much, they comment on that.
They have lives outside of me: something I rarely have had to think about for an NPC. I am part of their world, not a part of mine like most traditional narrative structure in games.My villagers are neighbors, on par and equal to me. While I am the main character, I am in many ways in service to them. I have to weed and water and pick up rocks and fill the museum and catch bugs and fish and keep the entire economy running by selling to a gaggle of capitalist tanuki.
It created along with it a strange short of shame to me that I rarely feel in video games: most games allow players to be shameless with their dress and actions. You are the ubermensch of this world and it bends to your will. So what if I break into someone’s house in Legend of Zelda. But in Animal Crossing the characters have a life outside of you. They leave their homes, they sleep, they fish, they do things where you don’t matter; where I don’t matter. I am as much an NPC to them as they are to me. They are people creatures who truthfully would probably be fine without me sans “missing” my character and things getting full of weed because someone has to do the damn work around here.
I’m a vain person, which is hilarious considering how low my self-esteem is. I’m image conscious even in games. I had this concern while playing Animal Crossing when Clyde, a horse I do not like, showed up on my island. I was told by friends that hitting him with my net and generally being a damn menace would encourage the horse to leave. I was fine with that, I’m used to being a sociopath in games and decided that I wanted to appropriate his land for my Japanese-themed garden on the island and proceeded to hunt the horse down mercilessly and hit him with my net repeatedly. I was then shocked to see the horse show visible frustration and sadness and when I spoke to him he said that his feelings were hurt and it was my fault.
This is a video game. This horse isn’t real. But I broke down over that. I hurt the horse’s feelings and hurt him. And while of course that makes sense because don’t hit random people with nets, for god’s sake, I was shocked that my actions had consequences. In video games, I am a lawless sociopath doing as I wish but here I did something that caused a reaction and one that was not positive. I was emotionally crushed in that moment (thanks, trauma) and I have left the horse alone for now to continue to mar my land with his existence but too afraid now to harm him.
An NPC’s gaze can be powerful, more so than I ever assumed before. Now, I am paranoid, anxious and scared with so many virtual eyes on me. It has affected how I dress, act and move in-game and now has me wondering if I’ll ever view NPCs the way I used to again.