Are you an NPC or the Hero?

I love video games. I'm particularly fond of open-world role-playing games that let you take a decent amount of control over the narrative. The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Pokémon, Shadow Hearts, SAO: Fatal Bullet– the list could go on. If a game lets you play creatively and doesn't restrict you to linear levels and maps, I'm probably going to enjoy it.

In addition to high replayability, one of the things that I love about games like these– and really video games as a whole– is how they let you truly embody the hero of the narrative. While the main plot points are the same for each person who plays the game, your preferences and playstyle will actively shape how the game progresses. Even in a game like Shadow Hearts where you don't have much choice over who you can play as or the order in which you can complete quests, you can still choose the members of your party and each party member's play style.

shadowhearts covenant

Shadow Hearts: Covenant may not have been hugely popular here in the United States, but it stands the test of time as one of the BEST video games– especially in terms of storytelling– of the last twenty years. If you can find a copy and a PS2, you have to try it.

As the hero of whichever game you're playing, you're always moving forward. You're enhancing your skills, completing quests, getting stronger, accumulating wealth and so on. It's a stark contrast to the non-player characters (NPCs) that inhabit the world around the hero.

Rather than acting under their own volition and drive, NPCs operate upon a scripted set of predetermined behaviors. They have strict routines, walk specific paths, and repeat the same action over and over again unless acted upon by the hero of the narrative. While heroes are active and proactive, NPCs are completely passive and reactive. Just think about those dozens upon dozens of trainers in each region of the Pokémon universe that just stand in one location, day and night, waiting for someone to walk in front of them so that they can initiate a battle.

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As we entered into 2020 and I looked back on the year prior, I realized that one of the consistent themes throughout the content we've written– and one of the consistent themes in my own life– could roughly be described as living as either an NPC or a Hero within our own narratives.

While our gut instinct may be to assume that it is obvious that we'd be the hero in our own narratives, I'd argue that that's not quite the case.

The Traits of an NPC

NPC characters, as I already mentioned, follow scripted paths and behaviors unless acted upon by an outside force. Nazeem is always going to stroll through Whiterun insulting those who don't make it to the cloud district very often unless dealt with by a rogue Dragonborn. The trainers on Nugget Bridge are always going to stand in place and wait for you to pass by while pursuing a member of Team Rocket.

If we extrapolate out from the scripted paths that NPCs follow, we can broadly describe them as having the following traits:

  • They are reactive rather than proactive.
  • They wait for someone else to handle problems.
  • They follow the routine that someone else has mapped out for them.
  • The scope of their ambitions is limited to a singularly defined role.
  • They rarely improve their station or skills. If they do, it's rarely meaningful or without the intervention of the narrative hero.

Stepping outside of video games, think about how these traits play themselves out in our own lives. Perhaps you, or someone you know, have embodied one of these traits:

  • You consistently choose to let someone "more qualified" handle issues that arise.
  • You assume somebbody else is better equipped or more appropriate to do something you want to or need to do.
  • You let others' expectations guide important life decisions rather than listening to your own intuition and curiosity.
  • You're focused on just making do rather than your personal growth.
  • You have a limit-based mindset, which punishes you for making mistakes or facing challenges, rather than a growth mindset, which encourages you to use challenges as opportunities to implement long-term solutions.
  • You believe that nothing about you makes you special or makes you stand out.

Both of these lists could go on and on. At the heart of both lists, however, is the idea that an NPC outlook restricts someone to their preset assumptions about themselves. Whether this is something that they conscientiously think about or not, many people hold either a small view or negative view of themselves. As a result, they undermine their own confidence and shut themselves off from important opportunities.

I suspect that the theory of the looking-glass self is one of the primary factors in determining whether someone sees themself as a hero or an NPC. By observing folks and coaching peers amidst a variety of hurdles and goals, I've come to learn that if someone sees themself as being lesser or as being "the other" from a primary group, either because of someone else's actions or their own interpretations of situations, they're likely to enter into a cycle of self-doubt and reaffirm their own position as an outsider.

According to the theory of the looking-glass self, the way in which someone believes that others perceive them is one of their primary means of socialization. What this means is that if someone thinks that others view him as weak and unsuccessful, that's the image that they start to project onto himself. It then creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because he believes others view him as weak and unsuccessful, he progressively embodies the traits of someone who is weak and unsuccessful.

Or, to go back to the video game metaphor, he's taught to see himself as a side character, and he loses the confidence to be a hero.

Do You Feel Like You Are an NPC?

In my opinion, we all go through phases where we don't feel heroic or perhaps like we're not even the protagonists in our own narratives. Life has a constant ebb and flow, and transient states don't define who we ultimately are.

However, for a lot of people, the tendency to feel like a scripted, stagnant side character can be quite chronic. In my own life, I compare to my struggles with depression over time. For a while, I wanted to convince myself that I didn't have a chronic medical condition and that I was just going through some rough patches. But, the symptoms were consistent and it created an ongoing, growing problem for me until I recognized that it wasn't just the ebb and flow of life, and was actually a problem that needed to be addressed.

In the same way, there have absolutely been times in my life where I felt inferior or unworthy of greatness, and it wasn't just the standard tides of being a human. The more I learned about myself, the more I realized that I was holding onto ideas about myself that limited me– I had grown comfortable in believing in my own unimportance because being unimportant meant I didn't have to challenge myself to grow and improve.

But, learning about yourself and reaching that place of growth and improvement is critical, and that's a topic I plan on exploring quite a bit in the coming weeks. I've been fascinated by this concept of NPCs vs Heroes and how it parallels so many facets of life that I'm going to be writing about it more and more.

Consider this your invitation to join the party, equip the EXP share, borrow my power armor, etc.