Creative Hiatus – Sweet NPCs That Stand the Test of Time

Your good buddy Spyder has done it again. I wouldn’t really say that I have once more fallen off of the wagon into a drug-induced stupor of epic proportions. I’d instead say that I kicked open a door, jumped a fence and flipped off my rehab counselor as I ran headlong back into the sweet arms of my smack habit.

While tripping balls in someone’s living room (do I even know anyone in Elko, Nevada?) I have decided to do a list post of really sweet NPCs. List posts are easy and take very little time, and since the wireless server I have connected to in this strange house is entitled “ByGunNutz4GunNutz” I should probably send this in and then keep moving. Also, I’m out of the sweet stuff I need to truly live, so I’m gonna have to run soon to get a fix. Otherwise the puking and the shaking will start again. These are in no particular order, because I can’t really think clearly enough to rank things right now. BUT I FEEL SO GOOD.

HK-47 (Knights Of The Old Republic)

“Translation: He requires proof of good faith. We must make a contribution to his people that shows we are not a threat. Shall I blast him now, master?”
-HK-47, helping with the Sand People problem

Homicidal sidekicks rock. Homicidal robot sidekicks are maybe the best thing ever. Knights of the Old Republic is a pretty good game before you find the assassin droid known as HK-47, but it turns into a classic after his arrival.

Even the most sinless of Jedi main characters find themselves darkly considering taking the literal killing machine with them on missions just to see how he reacts to the walls of dialogue that are thrown your way. His constant desire to see you slaughter every single person you meet is like an irresistible Siren’s call to the dark side. Why negotiate and stay good when you can hack apart everyone in your path and gain the ability to shoot lightning in the process? Why even climb that staircase if you aren’t willing to push the baby at the top down it? Why even have a lightsaber if you aren’t willing to stab people in the back with it? These are the things that HK-47 makes you ponder while at the same time insulting your frail human body and the pointlessness of your existence.

HK-47 may be the only decently written NPC on the Dark Side of the storyline in KOTOR but he more than makes up for the rest. He is NPC lightning in a bottle.

Ecuador/Colombia/Panama (Hearts Of Iron 2)

“URGENT NOTICE: Sir, reports show that ECUADOR has DECLARED WAR on COLOMBIA. The international community will not tolerate this!”
-Warning message box

Hearts of Iron 2 is perhaps the most ambitious strategic war simulation ever created. It is a game that knows who the defense minister of Tibet was during World War II and can prove it with pictures. It allows players to play through World War II and beyond as any nation on earth. It covers an entire globe of potential conflicts, often doing a very good job of matching the reality of World War II, and other times surprising you with its ability to show a timeline that diverges greatly from actual history.

Nobody exemplifies this latter trait better than Ecuador, Paraguay and Panama. On most playthroughs, South America is a quiet land of peace surrounded by the storms of conflict. But every now and them, these three little countries throw everything into question.

When the message of war breaking out between the three tiny banana republics flashes on the screen, it always surprises. Most often, and for good reasons, a player’s attention will be on Europe and Asia. The sudden declaration of war between these tiny, isolated neighbors is befuddling. What drove them to war? What exactly are they looking to gain? Did you miss warning signs that could have let you know beforehand of the imminent pointless war in South America?

You’ll never really know what caused the friction that escalated to slaughter but it is endlessly entertaining to watch three little countries fight one little war against the landscape of horrendous worldwide slaughter elsewhere. These three countries’ war is always smaller in scale than a single side battle between Russia and Germany, but it just seems so special to them. As the player, you find yourself taking one of two roles: You either watch it with the detached interest of an anthropologist, or you inexplicably root for one side or the other.

Harold (Fallout 1, Fallout 2, Fallout 3)

“Jealous? His name’s Herbert. I talk to him when I get lonely. Heh heh just kiddin’, his name’s Bob!”
-Harold, explaining that it is indeed a tree growing out of his head

Poor Harold. He starts the Fallout series as a strange Ghoul with a twig growing out of his head. This extra mutation makes him extra weird in a weird world full of weirdness. In Fallout 2, his twig is sick but he looks even more tree-like, and it becomes apparent that Harold isn’t really a Ghoul at all. In both games, he is an engaging and lighthearted diversion worth visiting.

In Fallout 3, Harold becomes something else: the most interesting and compelling moral conundrum in the game. He has changed dramatically, and that change presents the main character with a lot of choices. None of those choices are easy, none of them are necessarily good and none of them will make everyone happy.

Harold is, in my opinion, the best example of what Bethesda got right with Fallout 3. They understood the material they were given, and they knew how to make it work within their own vision of Post-Apocalyptia. Not everything about the direction that they took Fallout 3 is perfect, but Harold is.

Harold is a shining example of the old phrase “When life hands you a lemon tree growing out of the top of your skull, make an orchard in the middle of the harsh and forbidding wastelands of a destroyed America.” It is a lesson we can all take to heart, I think.

The Twins (Final Fantasy IV)

*screams in silent agony, encased forever in stone*
-Palam, the wussier half of the duo

When you first meet the twins, you can’t help but stare. You aren’t sure why you are so infatuated with them, but you are. You would like to touch them, if you could, but you can’t. You kind of get a little annoyed at how much you think about those two metaphors for breasts I just overused to the point of unfunny.

Yes, you otaku nerds will argue all day about how awesome Edge is, but you are wrong. In the case of ninjas, the internet is wrong. The Twins are better. Yes, they are annoying before their big scene. Yes, they are kind of useless most of the time. No, they don’t do cool things like Edge or the host of other useful sidekicks that litter the Final Fantasy series. No, they don’t change powers just by changing outfits like the cancerous marketing growth of a game that shall not be mentioned.

The Twins are better than everyone else because they create an emotional impact that resonates out of the game and into real life. As the main character in Final Fantasy IV, you undergo a change from badass to wimpy paladin, and along the way you mess up big time. You stupidly stumble into a trap with no seeming way to escape, an action that you never would have taken if you were still a civilian-killing monster like you were at the beginning. No way to escape, that is, except a method that involves the twins sacrificing themselves to stop stone walls from crushing you and everyone you love. They cheerily give themselves up without hesitation, taking a moment to make sure you know exactly how dire the consequences of their chosen course of action will be.

If you don’t tear up a little, you are an inhuman monster.

SHODAN (System Shock, System Shock 2)

“Look at you, hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors.”
-SHODAN, just trying to help clear things up

Oh, SHODAN. SHODAN helps. SHODAN hurts. SHODAN is perhaps the greatest villain in game history, but she is also much more. She is a master manipulator, an apathetic god of machines, an inhuman monster. She is arrogant and cocky because she has every right to be. When she informs you that she is better than you she is not bragging. She IS better than you. When she points out that you need her help and she needs your help you actually believe her. She doesn’t feel forced upon you by the rules of a game created by someone else, she feels forced upon you by the amazingly written game script that spends hours and hours making you feel small and trapped. You actually know that you do need her no matter how little she can be trusted. For a large chunk of System Shock 2, she is the best sidekick a modified super-soldier can have.

SHODAN is not a cheap love interest. She is not a damsel in distress. She is not reliant upon you to change a lightbulb. SHODAN is, in her own weird AI-gone-insane way, the most powerful female figure ever to grace a video game. It may speak volumes about the state of games when the only way to portray a competent woman is to give a sexless AI a female voice.

SHODAN is even more amazing because for much of System Shock and System Shock 2, she does not exist in physical form. She is omnipresent within the cyberpunk world around you, manipulating machines and technology to either help you or hamper you. When she tries to kill you, it is in ways that keep her entirely safe from your reprisals. Defeating SHODAN feels like an epic accomplishment, not due to complex button-mashing combos or almost impossible difficulty, but because the story has done such a great job of showing just what she is capable of compared to you. You are nothing compared to her, but you overcome that little fact on your way to victory. The endings of both games prove that your monumental victories are fleeting and tiny, for SHODAN is forever.

Terrified Civilian (X-Com)

-Dying Terrified Civilian

The soldiers of X-Com have gotten cocky in their war against the alien menace. Their tactics are refined to a knife’s edge, their equipment is state of the art, and their foes are weaklings.

And then on a normal mission on a normal day, something unexpected happens. Private Iwata turns that corner in the alleyway, and what he sees changes everything. In front of him stands a terrified civilian, just trying to escape the horrors of war against the alien threat. At the far end of the alley stands a new type of alien with razor sharp claws. It is a Chryssalid, and if it gets to that civilian it will kill her and turn her into another Chryssalid.

Private Iwata has a choice. He can try to kill the far away Chryssalid in an attempt to save the civilian’s life. If he fails, he’ll have to fight two of the monsters, and he will die. Not only that, but when he dies he’ll become one of them, too. Everyone else who is living will have three of the beasts to fight, and three is too many.

Or he can kill the civilian and then worry about the one fast-moving killing machine. When it comes to difficult decisions and hard moral choices, Bioshock has nothing on this. There are very real and tangible benefits for doing the wrong thing and those benefits greatly outweigh the benefits of doing the right thing.

Terrified civilians in one fell moment become potential weapons for the enemy. And not just weakling weapons that can be ignored but close-combat monsters that fly across the map and slaughter soldiers with one hit. Every map becomes a battle between doing the hard, right thing and killing everything that moves in an attempt to stem the tide of things with sharp claws. The civilians never say anything outside of pitiful screams when they die, but their constant running and hiding makes the pixels seem very human within the chaos of the tactical battle raging around them.

Genghis Khan (Civilization I-IV)

“Mmmmm… Baby blood is the best kind of blood to drink from my skull chalice while sitting upon my throne of bone!”
-Genghis Khan, while trading technology with me

Every single player of the Civilization series says the same prayer when they boot up a new game: “Please don’t let me start next to the Mongolians. Please don’t let me start next to the Mongolians.”

Genghis Khan is aggression incarnate. He cares not about culture nor technology. He smiles at you and shakes your hand while moving all of his troops up to the border. He views even the most insignificant slight as reason for all-out war. He eats cities for breakfast and craps ruin and suffering.

By merely being on the same continent as Genghis Khan you are forced to focus heavily on military. He is aggressive in the BC era, aggressive in the AD era and aggressive in the modern age. He will nuke you if he gets the chance. He will trade resources with you just to lure you into a false sense of security so that his conquest is easier. He attacks without mercy and without regret. Peace is weakness, war is strength.

And if he starts in an area with horses, he leaves you with just one option if you actually want to have fun: Restart. Yes, you can fight him. Yes, you will probably win. But his desire for combat is so great that your victory is Pyrrhic as your illiterate, technologically inferior people stand no chance against those who were lucky enough to not have Genghis as their neighbor. You have to focus so exclusively on military matters that you are hosed in the other areas. Thanks, Genghis. Thanks a lot.

Pinned-down German Rifle Team (Close Combat series)

“Nein! Das blut!”
-Random German infantryman as he tries to crawl away from certain death

Maybe there are better tactical simulators than the Close Combat series. Maybe there are better World War II games than the Close Combat series. But there is no game, and I mean no game, that has better sound than the Close Combat series. Awful graphics are totally irrelevant as soon as the ‘start’ button is hit on a level. All hell sonically breaks loose. Gunfire, screaming, crying, death noises, explosions, tank engines and orders all flood from your speakers and into your mind. They mix together but somehow stay separate, an audio history of the awfulness of war. And in a game filled with unpleasant sounds there is nothing more pathetic or more unnerving than the sound of a broken German infantry squad.

Whether they are trapped inside of a wooden building while being shelled by mortars, trapped in the middle of an open field under withering machine gun fire or trapped in their own trenches trying to crawl away from a tank, terrified Germans sound disturbing. Players find themselves trying to wipe the broken squad out as quickly as possible just so that the people will shut up. What they are saying may be in a foreign language, but their emotional cries transcend any and all language barriers. Who knew that hardcore Nazis could be such sniveling cowards? And who knew that such a strange game element could do so much to immerse a player into the experience?

Duncan Burke (Mechwarrior 4)

“I look forward to killing you, you perfect whiny crybaby.”
-Duncan Burke, being awesome

Ian Steiner, the main character of Mechwarrior 4, is a whiny crybaby pansy. He hugs puppies and kisses rainbows and shoots starbeams of love from his eyes. He wouldn’t dare litter, has never jaywalked in his entire life. He is, in short, unbearable and unlikable. In an amazing twist it turns out that his sister may somehow be actually more unlikable than Ian. On my playthrough of Mechwarrior 4 I found myself relieved to find out that my failure meant Ian died. I almost couldn’t bring myself to play the mission where Ian saves his sister. Both Ian and his sister are so clean and shiny that you just want to go do bad things to offset their fictional existence.

Imagine Luke Skywalker turned up to eleven and you have Ian Steiner. Imagine Mother Theresa always being around and never shutting up and you have Ian Steiner. Imagine every overly religious goody-goody you have ever met rolled into one player character and you have Ian Steiner. Ian Steiner isn’t just unlikable; he is the most unlikable person ever and he isn’t even real. Nobody could ever like him, but the game tries so hard to establish his popularity and universal adoration. Ian Steiner takes all attempts at immersion in Mechwarrior 4 and ruins them with his perfect whiny crybaby nature.

And then things get worse. It turns out that not everyone in the Mechwarrior universe is a perfect whiny crybaby, just Ian and his sister. There is a badass out there and his name is Duncan Burke. He murdered your uncle (probably because he was a perfect whiny crybaby, too) and he is trying to murder you. The only way to stop him is to murder him instead, but why kill the only awesome person you’ve ever met? To succeed is to doom entire planets to your perfect whiny crybaby rule. To fail is to ensure than Duncan’s awesomeness continues into the future.

The fight with Duncan is still, to this day, the only boss fight I have ever thrown on purpose because of the clear and obvious fact that my guy isn’t supposed to win. Killing Duncan so that a whiny crybaby can live is a crime far worse than murder. Duncan Burke would be a throwaway villain in any other game, but in Mechwarrior 4 he is the only worthwhile inhabitant of the entire universe. Defeating him seems so wrong.

And finally… crap, I just heard something move upstairs! Ummm… Well… It’s probably time to go anyways.

Until my insatiable lust for hard drugs gets me killed in some stranger’s living room,

Spyder Mayhem

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15 years ago

MINSC!!! and Boo. …Better then all the other NPC’s of all other games put together. Hello!?… Space hamsters and righteousness…

15 years ago

id appreciate it if you wrote a few more articles that are this entertaining before overdosing.

15 years ago

A few more suggestions for consideration:

Argo from Shadow of the Colossus – Long-suffering, supporting, and doesn’t have to say a word

The princess from Ico – It’s a real feat of balance in a game to make me take care of a character without it feeling like a burden.

Floyd from Planetfall – The first NPC reported to make gamers cry, what is essentially a child sacrificing himself so that you can live. When he asks you to sing his favorite song to him as he lays dying, it’s a seriously moving experience.

The companion cube from Portal – It’s recent, but come on, you know you didn’t want to kill it!

The Bentusi from Homeworld – when I saw the benevolently detached godlike wanderers terrified in cataclysm, it was one of the more effective moments in gaming at driving home how terrible an enemy really is.

15 years ago

I’d completely forgotten how hilarious HK-47 was, thanks for reminding me!

Although I must say my personal favourite NPC has to be the merchant from Resident Evil 4. It’s never really explained why he’s there, or what his intentions are, yet you rely on him completely but you’re also completely free to kill him if you so desire.

15 years ago

Michelle’s response is the true answer. Whenever I play Resident Evil 5 and go to manage my items, I say “what are ya buyin’?” to myself. Worse yet, I got the idea from some other people who do the same thing.

15 years ago

i played the fallout 3 sidequest with harold over the weekend (oasis was a bitch to find so i didnt play it initially). this is by far the sidequest that deals most effectively in “grays” and presents you with a real moral dilemma. your choice could have had more consequences, but i will admit i spent quite a while standing in front of [where you have to make the choice] weighing my options.