The Secret Lives of NPCs – Red Dead Redemption

Much has been said of the developer's perennial quest to create an immersive world--the cliched "living, breathing world".  Of course, one item on that agenda includes the NPCs that populate said world, and presumably are doing the living and breathing.  In this series, I take time out of playing a game to follow around a single NPC, observing the actions of that character for a single in-game day.  The character is chosen randomly from those that populate the environment but do not directly tie into the quest or narrative experience.   The idea is to see how well crafted the illusion is.  Does it hold up under scrutiny?

I direct John Marston into Armadillo in the dead of night, hitching up his horse just outside the saloon.  As John approaches the saloon, a man in a bow tie, vest, and bowler cap ambles out of it.  I decide he will be the next target of my creepy stalking.

Bob the Bowtie Butcher

I want to make it clear, I have no idea what this character's name is.  He isn't one of the guys that regularly loses money at the poker table, nor is he a character that I've engaged in any of the other mini games.  However, I'm a sucker for alliteration, so he's now going to be known as Bob.

  • 1:30 AM - Observation of the subject begins as Bob first steps out of the saloon.  He walks onto the main thoroughfare and sort of watches as two swaying drinkers talk to one another.  He doesn't engage them, but he does scratch himself.  After that, he heads onto the porch of the saloon, and leans against the railing.  He remains here for some time.
  • 4 AM - Bob stops leaning on the rail, and says something about an Elly McGregor (?) to no one in particular.  I didn't catch exactly what he said.  After this outburst, he moves back into the Saloon, and leans against the wall looking out a window (at basically the same scenery he was looking at from the railing of the balcony).
  • 5ish AM - Bob heads back outside, sits on the stool on the porch for a few minutes before returning to leaning on the railing.  The stool was directly between the window and the railing, or thereabouts.
  • 630 AM - Bob leaves the area of the saloon, heading to the upstairs balcony above Armadillo's gunsmith.  He repeatedly plays an animation that I can't quite identify from my position on the ground. He could have been coughing, shouting, spitting, playing a harmonica, or shadow boxing.  After this, he wanders over to the door up there and knocks on it a few times.  He gets no response, so he casually leans against that railing, as a change of pace from leaning against the one on the saloon's porch.
  • 7 AM - Bob asks the question that's been on everyone's mind, "When we gonna stop talking, and start drinking?"  He hasn't done much talking, and doesn't seem inclined to actually start drinking either.
  • 7:15 AM - Bob crosses the street to the little "produce" stand next to the general store.  Apparently he works here.  He starts butchering chickens.  This is how he got his nick name above.   I was actually pretty surprised (pleasantly) to be given the impression that he might have some sort of schedule (reinforced over the course of the day), but his attire seems a bit odd for a butcher.  I'm not positive that this is really his job, and think that perhaps a random NPC in town takes it each day?  I'd have expected to see one of the apron wearing guys over here.

    That table looks like it hasn't been cleaned.  Ever.

  • 9:15 AM - Bob takes a break from butchering chickens to steal an Apple from work, which he eats on the spot.  He discards the remnants, which seem to actually be physically simulated and roll around the environment.
  • 9:25 AM - Bob goes back to work.  I immediately get kind of grossed out thing about his lack of sanitary butchery practices.  No handwashing between raw chickens and eating the apple?  Yikes!  Also, that table doesn't look like it's been washed, ever.  Also, he seems to have a barrel of raw unbutchered chickens, a barrel of chicken feet/heads, and a barrel of raw butchered chickens.  One of the many moments that I'm glad video games don't have smellovision technology.
  • Noonish maybe - He is still butchering, but I've decided to crunch some numbers.  I time a single chicken, and it takes approximately 5 in-game minutes.  So 24ish chickens before his apple break, and maybe 33 more or so since.  Those barrels are like Mary Poppins' bag.
  • 5 PM - Approximately 60 chickens later (total, approximately 117), Bob takes another apple break.  He goes right back to work afterwards.  I briefly consider the possibility that NPCs in Red Dead Redemption have needs to satisfy, but ultimately don't think so.
  • 6 PM - After essentially an 11 hour day of nonstop work (and approximately 127 butchered chickens), Bob heads over the saloon, to lean against the rail at his favorite spot.
  • 7:30 PM - Bob heads inside to the saloon window, wanders around inside a bit after that, then returns to leaning.  Maybe 25 in-game minutes.
  • Midnight - Bob exclaims (to me?) "You look like you got run over by a wagon!"  He heads back inside to look out the window at the spot he just left.
  • 12:40 PM - Bob sits on a stool inside the saloon, against the wall opposite the bar, facing inward.  This lasts just a few minutes.
  • 1 AM - Bob heads back outside to lean.  He remains there until the 24 hour observation period is over.

On the positive side of things from observing Bob, his working a job and his eating were both boons to realism.  When I had passed through Armadillo and other settlements previously and seen NPCs working, I had just assumed that they spawned into that position, and would remain there until I went far enough away that they despawned.  Seeing someone start and quit their job was nice.  Additionally, while Bob was a bit boring during his off period, I did see a number of other NPCs do relatively interesting things.  Some of the folks drinking at the bar got stumble-around-and-fall-down drunk (awesome animations on that, by the way).  Some other NPCs seemed to start and stop conversations with each other.  A deputy (non-story) taunted a drunk at one point in the night.

On the other hand, he never slept all day, and he worked like a robot.  And quite frankly, for a guy who spent nearly every non-working hour at the bar, he didn't really do much.  Perhaps he's haunted by his lost love, who he last saw from the porch of the saloon.  We'll go with that.

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2 Responses to “The Secret Lives of NPCs – Red Dead Redemption”

  1. Bentley Says:

    It definitely makes you wonder why things like sleeping and work schedules aren't implemented. Technically it doesn't seem that challenging:

    NPC spawns, checks the time, If it's after 9am, go to a set job, after an hour or two, take a break, come back in a half hour, and so on throughout the day until after 5pm and then chooses from a set of personality defined leisure activities.

    Maybe that's harder than it seems to implement? Maybe developers don't feel like the time it would take to code this behavior is well-spent since non-story NPCs are largely ignored?

    I definitely undertand studios wanted to save time and money by skimping on NPC behavioral minutia, but why not outsource these trivial programming jobs to students who'll work for cheap or for free? Who among us with the skills wouldn't mind contributing a free NPC behavior or two to a triple A game for the credit and for the fun of it?

    I think that even if a player doesn't stalk an NPC for 24 hrs, players would still get a dramatic benefit from entering a world with realistically behaving NPCs. Even if the NPCs were largely unobserved, I think the realism would come across on an unconscious level, and would lead to a deeper sense of immersion and satisfaction.

  2. Platypotamus » Blog Archive » In Praise of the Greet Button Says:

    [...] you've probably gathered from previous posts, I've been playing a fair bit of Red Dead Redemption lately.  Similarly, as you may have [...]