Caring for Polygons: NPC Bonding and Attachment
The post-apocalyptic Wasteland is a uncaring place. After leaving Vault 101, the Lone Wanderer is just that: alone in an unfamiliar and hostile environment. There is little friendship or love, especially that elusive, unconditional variety. In these desolate wastes, dogs are truly (wo)man’s best friend.
I was in an abandoned scrapyard when I first encountered Dogmeat, that lovable German Shepherd from Fallout 3. Immediately, he wriggled his way into my heart. As an animal lover, I’ve had pets my entire life, so it came as no surprise that I would adopt this virtual canine as a companion. But the bond I formed with Dogmeat, just how attached I felt to him, surprised me.
Just look at that face!
I love Dogmeat as much as I love my real life pets. I would do anything to protect him, even if that means reloading a previous save game from two hours ago because he died at the hands of some super-mutant brute. Eventually, I just started leaving him at my house in Megaton, rather than risk losing him. I’m not the only one, either. “We never expected that Dogmeat would become such a popular character,” says Fallout designer Chris Taylor, “I always intended that the various NPCs that joined up with the player would come to a violent end. I was shocked when I heard of all the work people went through to keep Dogmeat alive…”
However, when a stray fireball accidentally killed Lydia, my stalwart companion from Skyrim, I didn’t care a whit: I didn’t reload, I didn’t even hesitate. I stripped Lydia of her armor and weapons and left her to rot in whatever draugr-infested dungeon she died in. I didn’t feel attached to Lydia, although she was my housecarl, and as such sworn to carry my burdens. I would have killed her purposely, or sacrificed her to Boethiah, had she repeated her obnoxious “I am your sword and your shield” line one more time.
Sure, she’s pretty, but she’s got dead eyes.
Dogmeat tops the list of NPCs I’ve grown attached to, but there are notable others. When I played Morrowind for the first time, I developed an odd, self-imposed restriction: I only did business with one trader, Ra’Virr, the Khajiit located in Balmora. At first I assumed this was because he, unlike most of the traders in the game, would purchase my skooma and moon sugar, no questions asked, but I suspect our bond went deeper than that.
NPCs are vital to the experience of any game. They are not “real” in the literal sense, for they amount to nothing more than lines of code. Yet we develop very real feelings for them. Like other artificially intelligent companions, NPCs are “relational artifacts.” They are insentient: they cannot reciprocate our feelings, yet we form an attachment to them anyway. An NPC’s “ability to inspire relationships is not based on its intelligence or consciousness, but on the capacity to push certain ‘Darwinian’ buttons…that cause people to respond as though they were in a relationship” (Turkle, 2006).
Yet this makes me wonder: why do we become so attached to some NPCs (Dogmeat, J’zargo, etc.) but not others (Lydia, or the countless other followers whose deaths went un-mourned)? We may be psychologically “programmed” to care more about dogs (and other non-humanoid NPCs) in games because we feel that they can be more adequately represented. Human behavior is incredibly complex; comparatively, animal behavior is easier to simulate. We develop a deeper bond because we feel that they are more “realistic” than their human NPC counterparts, and thus we have a greater empathy for and drive to protect them.
Ultimately, it has to do with the Uncanny Valley. It is easiest to conceptualize this theory graphically. The x-axis represents the extent to which the relational artifact resembles a real human, whereas the y-axis is a measure of how positively or negatively we respond to it.
Human NPCs fall into the Uncanny Valley, whereas non-human NPCs escape it.
In 1970, robotics expert Dr. Masahiro Mori discovered something strange: the more his robots looked and acted like humans, the more favorably people responded to them—but only up to a certain point. As the robots approached an almost exact human likeness, the positive response quickly became negative. Although “human-like” in appearance and actions, real people found them disquieting and creepy: there was something strangely wrong about these near-human robots, and this sense of uncanniness prompted individuals to respond with fear and revulsion. The same principle holds true for NPCs. Non-human NPCs, such as Dogmeat or J’zargo, exist at the peak just before the dip. In fact, all Khajiit and Argonians, the so-called “beast” races in The Elder Scrolls series, manage to escape the Uncanny Valley due to their non-human characteristics. They are human-like enough that we are able to develop empathy for them, but not so human-like as to become uncanny.
Human NPCs, on the other hand, although they may look nearly photorealistic, often fall down into the depths of the Uncanny Valley. Their glazed-over, unblinking eyes look dead, almost zombie-like, their faces frozen in a blank expression. Many of the human NPCs in Fallout and The Elder Scrolls repeat the same dialogue over and over again: this is jarring, not to mention thoroughly annoying, and ruins one’s suspension of disbelief and immersion. Moreover, this destroys any chance that the player will empathize with and form an attachment to these NPCs.
I’ll take Dogmeat over Lydia any day. But while playing Fallout 3, I am struck by a disturbing thought. As I roam the wastes with my beloved pet dog, in real life my cat is sitting next to me. Purring, he nudges his head against my hand, desperately trying to get my attention. I continue playing. Have I chosen a virtual pet over the living, breathing creature at my side? Or, as Turkle (2006) puts it, “The question here is not whether children will love their robotic pets more than their real-life pets or even their parents, but rather, what will ‘loving’ come to mean?”