From PC to NPC
During our childhood and youth — in these narcissistic times, we can tell ourselves that youth extends beyond 30 — we are the player-character in our own lives. We can chug through the huge open world we call Earth and, if we are privileged enough (if you're reading this, I can assure you, you are) be the centre of whatever world-saving, prince-or-princess-rescuing, trophy-attaining narrative that's been laid down in front of us. All the quests are ours to accomplish, the villains ours to defeat.
Everything revolves around us, basically.
I think RPGs appeal to us because they affirm this belief completely. Only you can save the world from the giant evil that is threatening imminent apocalypse! But yeah, if you wanna have a gap year exploring caves, hanging out in a cellar summoning and punching skeletons, or even just chasing butterflies, that's cool, we'll just be at this quest marker until you're ready. By all means, make some more gloves. Become head of the Thieves' Guild. The apocalypse can wait.
If you're lucky enough, programmed in such a way, or whatever it is that predilects some humans to find a long-term partner, and if you're OK with that, you start playing co-op with another PC. You realise (perhaps begrudgingly at first, until a distilled shot of Sesame Street ethos percolates into your consciousness) that the world is to be shared, and that things are way more fun with someone on the couch next to you, experiencing the level. That's not to say there aren't some frustrations around hoarding power-ups or griefing, but hopefully these too can be laughed off before rage-quitting occurs.
Then you have a child, an event that is culturally and almost biologically designed to deliver you an epiphany. Because I have played hundreds of hours of RPGs, my epiphany was framed a certain way: I'm not the PC anymore. I'm the NPC in my daughter's life.
It's no longer about me, and I'm fine with that. I'd lost track of the quests in my journal anyway. Looking back on my university days, I made some serious mistakes with class choices and, of course, gear. I may have maxed out my Charisma, with the aid of a few potions, but I don't have enough Endurance to tread the corporate mill and concentrate purely on making gold. Nor am I brave enough to attempt to live off of my creativity — have you SEEN the state of the arts in Australia? I've played enough XCOM to know not to bank on a 14% shot.
Instead of all that, I can start anew as the opening tutorial, trainer, shopkeep, tooltip– and quest–giver. Through these different roles, my job is clear: level up my child well enough for her to be able to take on the big, bad overworld.
And I'm determined to be the best NPC ever.
Despite my determination, I often ruefully catch myself re-enacting much of the NPC behaviour that I used to bemoan. If I see my daughter struggling to manipulate a toy or puzzle to the point where she is on the verge of tossing it across the room, I will provide a hint that may not solve the whole puzzle but take it one step further. With certain tasks, like teeth brushing, if I detect a lack of player input after a period of time, I will, Super Mario World-style, swoop in and complete it for her. When she fossicks through the toy box and grabs a paintbrush, I exclaim helpfully, "It looks like you're trying to do some painting. How about I get your smock and we do it over here away from the good carpet?" By the time I return with the smock, she has upturned the Lego box and is mauling a Barbie, paintbrush long forgotten.
I used to sneer at the limited AI displayed by the amnesiac shopkeeper who — despite the fact that, yesterday, I barged into his store, threw his things about, tried to pick his pocket, killed his assistant, then ran upstairs to bash open his special chest before the city guard turned up — greets me today with a hearty, "Hello, adventurer, and welcome. Would you care to browse my wares?" Now, when my daughter fronts for breakfast the morning after a tantrumic bedtime screamfest, I know exactly how that shopkeeper feels.
I, who used to pooh-pooh the unrealistically quick cycling of patrolling guards' alert phases, have run the gamut of emotions from "!" to "?" and back down to my normal oblivious mode all in the space of 1 second, as I walked through a crowded shopping mall with my child and she briefly left, then re-entered, my visibility cone.
Like the best expositional-dialogue NPCs, I patiently repeat the same few conversation options, as many times as needed, as she works to put sentences and questions together. Like any good tutorial, I use consistent and repetitive behaviour when encouraging her to learn new skills, and require her to demonstrate at least once that she can perform an action before moving on to the next. I was sufficiently impressed by her quick progression to level 3 spoon to unlock fork. When she hits level 5 fork, I may consider unlocking knife.
I am currently the only one she can safely playfight with, without being hurt herself or copping a lecture about hitting and Playing Nicely, and thus I serve as the early arena level. I am even the much-maligned Invisible Wall when she is free-roaming and I arbitrarily stop her from exploring somewhere she wants to go, like the road, and I see the same disgruntled frown on her face that I no-doubt used to muster.
For her part, my daughter is showing signs of classic PC behaviour. Whether outside on the lawn or inside on the shag carpet, the moment she feels over-encumbered — say, by a box of sultanas or Mummy's tiny-yet-precious jewellery — she'll instantly drop it right there on the ground, and keep moving. When she enters someone else's house, she barges in, past the greeting host, and rummages through the drawers. And it seems she only needs to sleep for an hour or two to recharge her stamina.
As with most early-level PCs, she’ll believe anything I tell her when it comes to world lore. I haven't quite got her to DO anything I tell her; she can smell a tedious, grindy fetchquest (like picking up 10 toys and bringing them back to the toybox) a mile off.
I'm also providing her with an overriding narrative and inculcating her with a notion that it took me years to get over: that she will one day save the world. While I have misgivings about the social ramifications of an entire generation of PCs all similarly instructed, I don't want my daughter to lose the self-esteem arms race. If the Joneses are telling their kid they can do whatever they put their mind to, I'll tell mine she's JESUS.
It's early days yet, and I don't have a walkthrough to show me where all my choices will lead, but here's hoping that after her first few years in my starting village, my daughter will be well-specced enough to handle the PvP zone of kindergarten and school.
If not, she'll always be able to play some cool RPGs with Daddy.