Thoughts on Enemies just Standing Around


One element of most games that rarely really have a great in-game explanation is the enemies standing between you and the level’s objective.  Sometimes they’re wandering around, sometimes they’re just standing around, but they’re usually just sort of—there, waiting to be dispatched by the player.

That’s the main issue, too—they’re there for the player, not the character.  They’re an obstacle for the player to overcome, or for the player to sift through as they look for a key or some similar.  They’re an element of the game that drives home the fact it is a game, which strains disbelief.

Though this has been a part of video games nearly as long as they’ve been around, one of the first games I really noticed this in was Spider-Man for the PlayStation, Dreamcast, and so on.  The first level has enemies inexplicably wandering around on rooftops—no real reason for it, and even if there was it wouldn’t explain why they’re on some of the ones they’re on.  They’re just—there.

How it can help shake immersion is the very notion that they’re there.  They exist as nothing but obstacles for the player—again, not the character—to overcome.

Now, some games try and get around that reaction, usually by making their N.P.C.s sentries, security guards, that sort of thing.  Sometimes it even works.  Other times, though—when you’re sneaking into a village, and the only people you find are armed and wandering on set paths, it does raise the question of what the heck everyone else is doing.  If everyone in the village is wandering around keeping watch—who’s doing the gathering and cooking of food?  Who’s doing the countless other things that keep a community going?

If some of the villagers aren’t accounted for, where are they?  It’s especially noticeable when there’s a big fight in the middle of the village or town and no one comes running but more “guards”.

It’s not really a bad thing to have N.P.C.s, whether as guards or just there.  In games with some kind of leveling system, players need the random mooks to slog through so they can get their experience.  If a player gets a new combat move, they’ll surely want to try it out as soon as possible.

It just tends to draw the attention when one realizes that the N.P.C.s in question aren’t doing anything.  As mentioned before, it’s especially noticeable when they’re in an odd place to begin with—the roof of a skyscraper, some out-of-the-way bit of a mountain pass that no one would want to be anywhere near, wandering the halls in a predictable pattern—that’s not immersive.  That’s not something that really makes sense.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a great alternative that doesn’t take processing power away from things like level design, artificial intelligence scripting, and so on.  To really get enemies to be something more than merely obstacles to the player—or at least, be less obvious about it—that would take processing power that would have to come from elsewhere.  It would be all too likely to end up with a smaller—in every sense—game for it.

That’s not really a great trade-off, but there isn’t really a better idea just yet.  Hopefully there is, so our games can evolve further and become the interesting and really immersive storytelling medium it’s heading toward.

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