NPCs: The Unsung Heroes of the Modern City

Rahul Singireddy
14 min readFeb 2, 2023

NPC, standing for non-playable character, is a common term in video games to describe characters other than the player. However, this acronym can also be applied to describe the many shallow relationships in our life we develop living in an urban environment, like the barista at your local coffee shop. Far from being insignificant, these NPC relationships add to our feeling of belonging in a unique way, giving us an irreplaceable sense of community in the increasingly fragmented modern city.

Examples of NPC Twitter accounts made by 4chan users (Source: NYT)

Farewell parties at work are just like any other party. You invite a lot of people, some of the people you’re counting on come, some don’t, and then there’s the whole lot of randos that actually make the party a party. After an hour of idle chatter of a loosely connected 4 or 5 people, where there is only so much time you can practice the techniques of Never Split the Difference to build tactical empathy, you begin to treasure the masses. These are the cavalry. Randos win wars.

I had been working at Delivery Hero, a food delivery company in Berlin, for the past two and a half years. On my last day in the office, I went to a park next door to say my goodbyes as my coworkers slowly congregated. We talked about the good ol’ days — there’s no easier conversation than nostalgia. My coworkers gave me a farewell gift, a day pass for a spa in Berlin called Vabali. I was surprised at how sad I felt given that I had been waiting to leave. I wasn’t going to miss the close relationships I had made, as they would largely continue. But the more shallow relationships, people I liked but didn’t know as well, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing much of again. These relationships were confined to a place, and Delivery Hero would be a place I would not be visiting very often.

Why did I feel this sadness so acutely? All relationships are based on proximity after all, and proximity is constantly changing. These rituals I didn’t always want to engage in, the rhythms, the hi’s, the bye’s, the small bits of knowledge I picked up about them over the past two and something years, it meant something to me. When my best friends got girlfriends, or left the city, or had a work deadline, these people remained. In this fragmented, busy, remote working world, I was just happy to see the same person, at the same office, at the same desk, every day.

These shallow relationships reminded me of the NPCs, or non-playable characters, I would find in video games. NPCs can be allies, villains, annoying, funny, but are chiefly a way to help build a world outside of just the player, and include everything from the ghosts chasing Pac Man to Cortana the AI guide in the Halo franchise. Typically, NPCs have predetermined sets of patterns or behaviors they engage in when interacting with the player, always offering you a quest for 10 gold to save their cattle, for example.

The NPC term has also become a meme via the online community 4chan, with the alt right of 4chan often antagonizing the left by characterizing them as NPC sheep who do not think for themselves. 4chan users went as far as to create fake NPC Twitter accounts that parrot liberal opinions. The NPC designation is often negative, reducing the complexity of a person to a caricature of themselves, and also amusing, a truly modern way to bring our fellow human down.

For me, however, NPC is the closest word that I can think of that describes those shallow relationships with relative strangers you see often, generally in the same location. Rather than the word NPC as a judgment of someone’s character (boring, predictable, stupid), I view an NPC relationship as a shallow, two sided relationship that can become deeper, but often does not. In the same way an NPC is confined to a map, these recognizable strangers in our life are constrained to that location, whether it be work, school, or a restaurant. Seeing them outside their usual abode is jarring.

….

Next to my apartment in Berlin, there is a late night convenience store (a Späti in German, with spät being the German word for late) called Eren.[1] The owner of the Späti, Freddy, is a German man in his late 50s, bald with a white mustache and a certain vitality to him. I see Freddy 3 or 4 times a week, more in terms of quantity than any of my closest friends in the city. We follow the same rituals, Freddy and I, dancing together in the language of shallow human connection. He describes to me the price of every item in terms of cents instead of dollars, while also teaching me bits and pieces of Berlin slang. He cracks the same jokes with various sexual innuendo.

To Freddy, I, with all my complications and feelings and life and beauty, am myself an NPC. I generally wear the same jacket as I’m leaving my apartment (a thick denim coat with a “Monsanto” patch I wrote “sucks” underneath), with a buying list of three or four items I cycle through (Pueblo Blau, Linsen chips, cookies, milk). We are both predictable, Freddy and I, and in that I think we somehow both draw comfort; he is the hero of his story, myself the hero of mine, and to each other, largely benevolent NPCs.

An NPC relationship is not entirely static, however. While it may be predictable and comfortable, the relationship does change, ebb and flow with the seasons, like all relationships. The inherent predictability of the relationship means that any new change is noticed all the more, adding that human, nondeterministic flavor to keep it engaging, this more advanced video game AI. During Covid there was the time Freddy yelled at me for not wearing a mask inside. After that I was not so friendly for a few months, but I forgot about it after a long vacation, and we resumed our more friendly connection. That was me and Freddy’s first and only fight.

If I haven’t visited Eren in some time, Freddy notices. If Freddy is not there for some time, I notice. I think we sometimes have built in clocks, circadian rhythms, just for social interaction. We get into these rhythms with all the relationships in our life, how often we call our parents, how often we see that friend of a friend. Like the Wellesley effect, which found that female roommates living together synced up their menstrual cycles, or this video of NBA players looking like synchronized swimmers, we are predisposed to mimicry, symmetry, rhythm.

I’m not sure if I like Freddy. He is for the most part harmless, and I would miss him if I stopped seeing him, but at times he does things I don’t fully understand. Sometimes he plays up our friendship when there’s other guests in the Späti at the same time as me, almost like he’s showing off our relationship. For what end I wonder — maybe to Freddy his customers are Pokemon NPCs, a collection to exhibit. But every late night, when I have a pressing consumption need, I know I can find him there till 3 AM. That makes me feel safe. A known quantity.

….

A more structured analysis of relationships with strangers is first mentioned by Stanford professor Mark Granovetter in his classic 1973 sociology paper, The Strength of Weak Ties. In it, Granovetter, inspired by the “weak” hydrogen bonds and “strong” covalent bonds he observed in a chemistry lecture, defined three types of ties between people: strong, weak, and absent. Strong ties were ties like family or friendship, weak ties acquaintances, and absent ties things like the “nodding relationship between people living on the same street, or the tie to the vendor from whom one customarily buys a morning newspaper” (Granovetter, 1973).

As Granovetter himself acknowledged, strong, weak, and absent ties are a simplistic view of human relationships, since in truth, every interpersonal relationship is complex, and some relationships are so particular or unique they have no name. However, the language of strong, weak, and absent ties provide useful points on the “continuum from anonymity to intimacy” (Felder, 2020). While strong ties like sibling and friend are common in the Western vocabulary, relationships with strangers have been studied, but not as much.[2]

The most well-known stranger relationship comes from social psychologist Stanley Milgram in his 1972 paper, The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. In the paper, Milgram defined a familiar stranger as a stranger that someone sees repeatedly without any interaction.[3] In Milgram’s experiments, 89% of the commuters he interviewed had a familiar stranger relationship, with an average of four familiar strangers per person. Within familiar strangers, there was a special class of “socio-metric stars” that were widely recognized by a high percentage of people, like a woman who wore a mini-skirt even during the winter or a man in a wheelchair. In the language of Granovetter, a familiar stranger relationship would be in between an absent tie and anonymity, while an NPC relationship would be in between a weak tie and absent tie.

Relationships like the familiar stranger or NPC are a modern phenomenon, a part of the chaotic overload of people and information that comprises the modern city. In Interaction Ritual, sociologist Erving Goffman writes of a threshold he calls “the nod line,” where in communities of less than 150 people, members are obligated to exchange polite greetings. In the modern city, however, it is impossible to acknowledge every person, so a new rule is formed: instead of a polite greeting, people are expected to maintain “civil inattention,” purposefully pretending to not be aware of strangers in public situations.

Add to this already complex urban environment modern technology — is there any wonder then that the modern human, constantly surrounded by people, always able to connect to anyone in the world at the touch of a button, learns to keep their headphones on in the Uber?[4] Much research has been done that proves humans have a crucial need for belonging and social connection, and that this need is less an objective number of required connections and more a feeling or perception of being part of a community.[5] This universal need to connect and belong clashes, however, with the day to day life of the urban city, with technology adding positive and negative dimensions to the experience.[6]

To describe the challenges of human intimacy, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer used a metaphor he called the Hedgehog’s dilemma: “A group of hedgehogs seek to move close to one another to share heat during cold weather. They must remain apart, however, as they cannot avoid hurting one another with their sharp spines. Though they all share the intention of a close reciprocal relationship, this may not occur, for reasons they cannot avoid” (Source). Though people wish for nothing more than belonging and connection, the mutual harm that occurs as a result of intimacy means people are cautious in the relationships they make: “The mean distance which they finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together, is politeness and good manners.”[7]

In the research paper, From Public Familiarity to Comfort Zone: The Relevance of Absent Ties for Belonging in Berlin’s Mixed Neighbourhoods, researchers Talja Blokland and Julia Nast make the case that belonging for the urban human comes from familiarity and comfort within the urban setting. A crucial part of this is the local daily routines and the small everyday encounters that a person has with shallow connections within their neighborhood — the NPCs. This “public familiarity… creates a comfort zone that allows people to feel like they belong, even though they may have no local friends or family, never talk to their direct neighbors, and not even like the place where they live” (Blokland, Nast, 2014).

To make sense of the urban environment, we build up our own routines and pockets of familiarity; and situated at these places of routines, we meet the NPCs, the people that we are forced to notice and interact with.[8] In pre-scripted exchanges, with a mutually acknowledged distance, two hedgehogs have discovered manners. And this repetition breeds familiarity, and familiarity slowly but surely becomes belonging.[9]

Ideas like conviviality or cosmopolitanism posit a world where all humans are part of a single community, living together with difference. Paradoxically, the strongest ties in our life take us away from these utopian ideals, at times devolving into tribalism, an us vs them dynamic.[10] The NPC relationships we have are the beginning of an antidote, strangers that we eventually develop familiarity with, outsiders that make us feel like a part of something, a global community, a universal humanness. NPCs are what keep us going.[11]

….

Every Saturday morning during the first few months of Corona in Berlin, I went to read at the café next to my apartment called Zum Kalten Hund, bringing in the same book every week and feeling self conscious about my reading pace. I would always have a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant, and if I was feeling particularly indulgent, an almond cake. The owners of the café were a German couple in their early 60s, Jens and Viola. Our interactions were measured, not particularly friendly, as I didn’t know German and they didn’t know English. Still, I kept coming, as the croissants were good and the café was right next door.

I continued to come every week, rain or shine. I learned more German, and Jens and Viola learned more English. Silence became small pleasantries. The grumpy old couple didn’t seem so grumpy anymore. I was in between jobs, unable to travel, stuck in a new country, unsure how to socialize in a pandemic, more lonely and in my head than I had ever been. These small rituals, these rhythms, gave me a sense of stability, something to fall back on when my mind was unwell, a pleasant fixed action pattern.

In A Gentleman in Moscow, author Amor Towles introduces to us the character of the Count — a witty, charming, aristocrat in 1920s Russia, who after the Bolshevik Revolution is sentenced to house arrest for life at the Hotel Metropol. For the next thirty years, as historical changes are happening across Russia, the Count is confined to the Metropol, learning about and befriending the NPCs of the hotel, the handyman, the chef, the seamstress, with these shallow connections eventually saving his sanity and his life. Though the Count is the main character of the book, he himself is the biggest NPC of all — always at the hotel, always sticking to his routines, unable to take a step outside the map. When the Count’s friend is in dire need of help, she knows exactly where to go, to the friendly face that she knows will be there.

When I left Berlin for a few months, my last goodbye was to Jens and Viola, the people that I knew would be there. The predictability, the banality, the continuation of a thread, affirmation that people don’t change, that life doesn’t change, that I’ll be there everyday rain or shine, safety, comfort. As benevolent NPCs in the majority of our day to day relationships, we feel invisible. But somehow these shallow relationships give us something that nothing else can, familiarity in our home with a connection to the world out there. A child needs a village, and a village needs its NPCs.

Thanks to my friends for reading earlier drafts of this piece, especially Jack, Mitchell, and Carlo who pointed me in a lot of interesting sociology related directions, and the Berlin Writer’s Workshop for the encouragement.

[1] Eren is also the name of the main character from the Japanese manga Attack on Titan. It’s these German references I keep seeing in Japanese manga and anime — the militaristic society in Fullmetal Alchemist is another example, or the Quincy from Bleach. There’s a few Reddit threads about the subject.

[2] Though of course the “strong” ties in Western vocabulary can be quite ambiguous, like the words “friend” and “acquaintance” are pretty vague and cover a lot of ground. Some named, very unique strong ties: queerplatonic relationship, non-romantic, deeply committed partners, examples of which include the Boston marriage, the cohabitation of two wealthy single women, and work spouse, a close platonic work friendship. I was thinking about another strong tie that is not named in the Western lexicon, “nakama” from Japanese — though the official translation is comrade, or colleague, it’s popularly used in the manga One Piece to denote a crewmate relationship closer than family.

[3] “There are exceptions to the non-interaction rule with Familiar Strangers. The further away from our routine encounter with a Familiar Stranger, the more likely we are to establish direct contact because of a shared knowledge and place. Thus, we are likely to treat our subway Familiar Strangers in San Francisco as close friends if we encounter them in Rome. Similarly, extraordinary events such as an injury, earthquake, etc. will also provide the impetus to interact with our Familiar Strangers” (The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Places).

[4] “In 1997, when Merrill Lynch asked social observer Michael Schrage to analyze how ‘new’ technologies would transform businesses, he stressed that the shift did not herald an ‘information revolution’ as much as a ‘relationship revolution’” (Source).

[5] Chronic loneliness affects 15–30% of people and affects nearly every system in the body. Some researchers call it a public health crisis on par with smoking (Source). This need for social connection is so great that many viral studies conducted over the last few years showed that people with more relationships are four times less likely to come down with the cold than people with fewer connections (Source). I wonder what the cost was in terms of chronic loneliness brought on by the social isolation of the pandemic.

[6] The greatest visual depiction of this loneliness in big cities would be one of my favorite movies, Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express.

[7] An article from the BBC writes: “Sometimes it’s harder to talk to people we know well because those conversations come with an emotional burden. Weak-tie conversations are lighter and less demanding.”

[8] “In a comfort zone we move with relative ease. We know the rules of conduct because the setting occurs predictably and is understandable to us. However, the comfort zone does not need to be a site that we like, nor one that we can identify with. For example, the group of alcohol and drug consumers on a square in the shopping street was known to residents; they were used to their presence and even though they would neither approve of nor like them being there, they had developed ways of co-existence that made passing by predictable and the behaviour of the drinkers understandable. Similarly, residents got used to teenage boys using a football cage as a hang-out: they would not approve of the boys’ behaviour nor find their presence pleasant, but they certainly developed a sense of what to expect from them” (From Public Familiarity to Comfort Zone: The Relevance of Absent Ties for Belonging in Berlin’s Mixed Neighbourhoods).

[9] Propinquity is “the tendency for people to form friendships or romantic relationships with those whom they encounter often” (Source). This is often explained by the mere exposure effect, where seeing a stimulus more often makes it more familiar and likable. This mere exposure effect can apply to relationships where we don’t even interact with the subject. For example, take the podcast story from Love and Radio where a woman begins to form a significant connection with a couple in a different apartment that she constantly sees through their uncurtained window.

[10] There’s a term called homophily which refers to how people prefer others like themselves, eventually forming cliques. Both research from Granovetter as well as Blokland and Nast indicate that having strong local connections vs having an overall feeling of community within a neighborhood are two different things. Granovetter references the Italian community in Boston’s West End, which was unable to form an organization to fight against urban renewal. Despite the strong ties existing there, the lack of weak ties meant there was no way for the community to come together to fight a common threat.

[11] Murakami would say, “Chance encounters are what keep us going.”

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