There is a disturbing trend I’ve noticed with open world games over the past decade or so. No, it’s not that most of them are mostly hollow shells with nothing but the same repetitive things to do, especially in the case of Ubisoft games. No, it’s not that there are waaaay too fucking many of them. No, it’s not that only one of them is The Witcher 3 and that’s a problem because EVERY game should be The Witcher 3. These are all issues, yes, but not the one I had in mind when I started writing this in my bed at 12:35 at night while listening to a “1 Hour of Medieval Instrumental Music” on YouTube because I am the world’s most hopeless dork.
The issue at hand is one of NPCs. I wanna be fair, it isn’t a problem with the NPCs themselves. I have no obsessive vendetta against the generic people walking through the open world, minding their own business. It’s not THEIR fault they look like one of five different NPC models or that they occasionally merge with a horse to create a hellspawn creature that would make Dr. Moreau’s nightmares have nightmares.
It’s actually beef I have with the developers of open world games and how smug they are when it comes to their NPCs. More specifically: NPC schedules. What the hell am I talking about? Allow me to elaborate.
Just last week the games industry had their biggest event of the year, the annual E3 which allows game publishers and developers to get on a big stage and talk about all the announcements that leaked in the weeks coming up to the show, like what new version of Skyrim that Bethesda Game Studios will release this year. It’s big, flashy and a bit self serving, but whatever, it’s dumb fun and we get to see cool new shit. Ubisoft is one of the bigger companies that gets its own press conference, so they’re able to waste an hour of our time by having a panda dance with Noob Saibot clones (you had to be there). BUT Ubisoft did manage to squeeze in SOME game news, and that was the reveal of Assassin’s Creed Origins.
I could go into detail about Origins, but that could be saved for another blog post that I may write in the next 1-18 months (depending on how busy I am with watching YouTube videos about board games). What I am going to discuss is Ubisoft’s pride in the revelation that in Origins, you are going to be able to explore a MASSIVE Ancient Egypt, complete with NPCs with their own unique schedules. That’s right, NPCs have their very own schedules that they follow to a god damn T! You can literally follow around a dude allll day and watch him as he goes about his business, doing things like walking and fixing a boat and eating. Just hand it Game of the Year, am I right???
Wrong. And that’s what I’m here to rant about. Developers…I know that you’re surfing the internet, feverishly googling to find your way to someone like me, a 27 year old guy whose only experience with any sort of programming was an 11th grade HTML class where I made a web page that listed my favorite cereals, so that you can get my opinion on your game design. So here’s my opinion: don’t brag that your NPCs have schedules because no one gives a rat’s fuck.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Giving NPC schedules and bragging about it can be traced all the way back to the fourth Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion. Bethesda was proud to announce that every NPC in the game had a schedule, a set series of duties and chores that the NPC would follow with rigid execution. At least, until you killed the character, stripped them of their clothes, and drowned them under a shower of their own books, if you’re anything like me. But while they’re alive and fully clothed? They’re out there living a full fledged life, like they’re god damned people!
It seemed neat. Until I realized that it did nothing to inform the gameplay, except when you got a quest that revolved around following a person on their schedule. Then it did inform the gamplay, but in a very bad, terrible, awful, not good way.
You see, in Oblivion, before the Elder Scrolls became a glorified fetch quest marathon in Skyrim, there were quests that actually had plot lines and interesting characters. Some of these quests, though, involved you stalking characters around town, often trying to catch them doing something illicit in between their mundane, every day tasks.
You know what this involved? Watching someone hoe for six in game hours.
I admit, there was definitely a certain charm to following people around and watching them live their virtual little lives, but it wore thin when I was actually FORCED to do it. It’s not like these guys live exciting lives. It’d be one thing if my quest objective was, “Stalk Keith Richards and Caligula on their way to a party” but it was “Stalk this random peasant whose most exciting part of their day is whether they take a green apple or red apple for dinner.”
It was at this point that I came to realize…what was the point? Who gives a shit if they have schedules? Does it really make the world feel that much more alive that John Shitface III goes to the same baker every morning? I’m trying to save the world from a literal demigod, and you have the gall to think I’m going to be awed that your NPCs get into bed at the same time? Hey Bethesda. I experience more glitches in one hour of one of your games than in the entirety of three other games combined. Maybe spend more time making sure your code isn’t stitched together by moldy pieces of Big League Chew than trying to make sure that Ivana Cockguzzle hoes the same patch of dirt every Thursday at noon.
Ubisoft, don’t think I’m done with you. Just because Bethesda is my prime example of this “Our NPCs have schedules and it’s great!” dogshit, doesn’t mean that you get off the hook. You’re pulling the same stunt with a game series that is just as notorious for glitches. I just recently started playing Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and while I’m enjoying it immensely (a topic that may be saved for a blog post as well), it’s got some technical issues. I am not exaggerating when I say that I came across a visual glitch that forced me to restart the game within the FIRST FIVE MINUTES. And it wasn’t the first glitch I encountered, as it was later followed by my character stepping from a horse and carriage into an endless void, as well as a cutscene that featured an invisible person. Need I remind you, I am playing this game a year and a half after it launched, meaning there should have been plenty of time for patches to prevent this nonsense from happening. And let’s never forget Unity and its own mess of glitches, that produced some truly Lovecraftian horrors.
Ubisoft, I said it to Bethesda so I’ll say it to you, and I KNOW you two companies are listening to me, don’t act like you’re not. I seriously couldn’t care less that your Egyptian villagers are going to have day to day chores if your game crashes on me, if people vanish mid cutscene or if, even worse, your game isn’t even fucking fun. Don’t strut around, waving your dick around like a helicopter blade as you describe with relish that some random guy you can follow around will act out a daily schedule because that’s not what I’m playing games for. Nobody wants to play a game to watch virtual people do menial tasks. We play games to escape menial tasks, not watch someone else do them. We want to stab people in the throat with our hidden blade and climb monuments and do the same repetitive side mission over and over again. Actually, you can not do that last one, please, that is getting a tad old.
I know this is an odd thing to complain about because it really has no bearing on the actual gameplay, with the exception of those shitty quests I mentioned ealier. It’s more the fact that developers brag about this thing, like it’s a check mark on the back of the game box that is going to cause copies to fly off shelves. NPC schedules are pointless, and if it’s taking precious resources and memory away from the actual game? Well, then, to steal a line from Shakespeare, that’s just straight up bird poop.