What is An NPC?
NPCs, or non-playable characters, are side characters in video games. When people talk about NPCs, they normally mean characters like shopkeepers, the characters you (as your playable character) will interact with but not necessarily ever fight. While villains and killable enemies are also technically NPCs, they’re often just called villains or enemies, or sometimes mobs. NPCs come in many shades of complexity, from simple background character types with only one or two lines, to fully developed and complicated side characters who follow you throughout the entire game. NPCs are, by definition, part of a game – tabletop, electric or otherwise. You can’t have NPCs in a TV show because you can’t ‘play’ in the show, so they’re just characters. Interactable content defines the NPC. While a main character exists in every story, NPCs don’t.
Some NPCs are notably less lifelike than others, though. The lifelikeness of an NPC depends almost entirely on their scripting. For example, the video game Skyrim is famous for its town guard NPCs! The NPC guards in Skyrim never recognize you as anything but some random civilian even after you start accomplishing wild things in the game, like becoming the head of a college or essentially the mayor of their town, or slaying multiple dragons. The scripting leads to these NPCs acting completely detached from reality, just running through the motions of their programming as you run around kicking butt and taking names.
This Doesn’t Apply To Real Life
NPCs live boring lives, maybe. Many times, they live in relation to you. In some games, they only exist to serve you – to go back to Skyrim, shopkeeps will literally bankrupt themselves to buy useless junk from you, because the scripting of the game demands it. You are the main character, and the town’s economy does not factor into your gameplay because that’s not something you are concerned with. The game won’t punish you for draining their account, and it won’t give you bonuses for ethical business practices.
The main character has privileges none of the other characters do. The main character does what they want, when they want, picking good or evil, killing or sparing enemies, choosing what upgrades to buy, resolving decades-long feuds and curing blight wherever they go. In romance fictions, the main character is the love of someone’s life the second they see them; in YA books, the main character has some special trait nobody else does that allows them to break free of a tyrannical government. Even in stories grounded in reality, the main character is special because the main character is the character that you’re watching change. It’s a creation. A literary tool. The Protagonist.
Real life is not like this, of course. People are not ‘created’ the way that main characters are. Each individual has their own stories, their own histories, their own past, present, and future. To each individual person, they are their own main character – they experience their own consciousness and nobody else’s. Everyone is the main character. Therefore, nobody is the main character.
And Then Social Media Happened
Even before social media, some people wanted to be the cool guy right in the middle of everything. They want to be a main character in a book, where everything happening around them advances their story and somehow relates to them. If they wanted it obsessively, if they put looking cool before doing cool things, and they didn’t have talent or energy to back it up, they’d be pushed to snap out of it or drive people away. After all, if a friend is treating you like an accessory instead of an equal, you’d probably be hesitant to keep being friends, right?
The rise of social media encourages that narcissistic attitude and allows them to control the way strangers look at them. Most influencers are writing a dramatized story about themselves as the main character online, and the main character they’re writing does cool things like getting ice cream at midnight or running off into the ocean at sunset. Even when those folks don’t have a gigantic following, the ability to shape ‘reality’ to your own main-characterhood is addicting. They write the fiction of themselves where the world works as they demand it to.
An entire industry has popped up to support this. There are places where you spend money to take pictures within pre-made sets, so you, the main character of your social media, can write the next chapter where you’re briefly a model, or quirkily laying in a bathtub full of plastic ballpit balls. Fake private jet sets allow anyone with 50$ to pretend they’re rich and famous enough online to afford to charter one. Food that looks better than it tastes fetches a price tag worthy of the likes it’ll get.
It got slightly worse with TikTok.
An audio clip of a woman saying “You have got to make yourself the main character” circulated all over TikTok in its first year in the US, a push for people to start taking control of their own lives and do the things they see the main characters of movies doing. The thought behind the audio wasn’t bad by itself, just encouraging people to go do fun stuff and not worry so much about what strangers will think, but it was easy to misinterpret: ‘become the main character of other people’s lives too’, or ‘treat your life like a movie or video game in which you’re the main character’, or ‘do things that you don’t want to because only the main character would do that, so you have to’.
Thus, ‘main character’-ism became about becoming a viewable spectacle for others online, a magnification of everything already happening on Instagram. Dress in expensive, uncomfortable clothes, wait for thirty minutes in a line to go running down a pier so your friend can catch a 45-second video of it, do dances in extremely public places but only for your phone, etc. Become consumed by what other people think of you, whether you’re unique enough, whether you have a following or not, whether you’re trendy and chic enough to be the main character. The fictionalized version of a life overtook the importance of the real life underneath it for some because the social media machine rewarded it.
Similarly, embracing this alternate definition of ‘main character’ resulted in a bizarre sort of depersonalization with other people who are, in this framework, ‘NPCs’.
For example: sometimes people are on autopilot in public. They’ll accidentally dump their keys into the trash along with their coffee cup, they’ll just stare out the window on the subway, they’ll eat their sandwich on a park bench and then accidentally try to eat the wrapper too. We didn’t see these moments online because they’re ordinary. Most people have moments like this.
But, between the constant demands of a content machine looking for new material, and a push for everyone to become the main character, these little moments where someone is just existing in public and not actively curating other people’s vision of them are getting posted online and labeled NPC moments, because obviously main characters don’t just exist, they’re made. Anyone not acting like they were made is an afterthought to some imaginary author writing a social media influencer’s story, people sprinkled around the park or pier because it would look weird if it were empty, not because they’re simply existing in the space.
In Comparison to NPCs…?
And then this lead to a worse trend!
Filming people in public just trying to go about their day while the filmer does something bizarre to ‘prove’ that other people are NPCs is a truly weird, dehumanizing trend on TikTok that is thankfully considered pretty cringe by everyone else, even on social media.
For example, this guy, Big C the Don. The vast majority of this guy’s videos follow the same premise: https://www.tiktok.com/@bigcthedon (link leads off-site) where he’s just kind of rambling generic fantasy-genre nonsense wherever he is, usually in places where it’s clear people are ignoring him instead of ‘not hearing’ him, like elevators. Maybe the reason nobody reacts when he starts monologuing in the elevator is because they’re worried he can no longer distinguish reality and fantasy, not because they weren’t ‘programmed’ to respond or because they’re choosing not to have fun. That is a textbook psychotic break. Interacting with someone who’s having one when you aren’t trained in conflict de-escalation could end badly, especially since guns are so common in the US. Nobody wants to get shot, or hit, or screamed at until the next floor, so everyone looks away to avoid potential conflict. The formatting of the videos is weird too, if somebody did want to interact with him, he doesn’t give them an opening to do so, he just keeps talking. Other people are politely ignoring him, and as a result he’s not having to check his behavior. He is his own main character. Maybe he thinks he’s disrupting the Matrix by making the morning weird for a bunch of people instead of just screaming in an elevator, it’s hard to tell. Either way, people have interacted with it online, so he may as well have won.
Meanwhile, this other guy, SideQuestz, is at least allowing the other side to talk, and most of his videos take place outside where people can leave if they don’t like being in his bit (link leads off-site): https://www.tiktok.com/@sidequestz?lang=en . This guy crosses a line a couple of times too, but he’s aware other people aren’t reacting because he’s dressed in a cheap wizard suit in the middle of the day on a public sidewalk and not because they’re ‘not main characters’. Notably, the second guy calls the other humans in his video ‘people’ or ‘strangers’ instead of NPCs, giving them some level of personal autonomy and humanity.