What does 'NPC' mean? Understanding non-player characters, an important aspect of any video game

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What does 'NPC' mean? Understanding non-player characters, an important aspect of any video game
If you've ever played a video game, there's a good chance that it had at least one NPC.Alyssa Powell/Insider
  • The acronym "NPC" refers to non-player characters, an important aspect of most video games.
  • An NPC is any character not controlled by either the player or an AI, and can be an important character, or simply populate a game's world.
  • NPCs are different from CPUs, which are computer characters meant to act like a real person.
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There's no shortage of abbreviations and acronyms in the video game world. Among those abbreviated terms is NPC, which is used to refer to specific "non-player" characters in a game.

What NPC means

NPC is an acronym that stands for "non-player character." A non-player character is a character in a game that's not controlled by the person playing the game, nor by any sort of AI. They're not usually meant to act like real people.

For example, visiting shops to stock up on supplies is a common scenario in games. In these cases, the shopkeeper - who doesn't move from their spot or dynamically change their behavior in any way - is an NPC. They just exist to be interacted with in the same way whenever you like.

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Other than serving a functional purpose, NPCs can also have relevance to a game's plot, filling the roles of villains or other important characters. In "Animal Crossing," NPCs like Tom Nook or Blathers will give you tasks to complete, which you need to progress.

What does 'NPC' mean? Understanding non-player characters, an important aspect of any video game
Blathers, the museum owner in "Animal Crossing," is an example of an NPC.William Antonelli/Insider

They might also just be there to fill the world. In games with large cities like "Grand Theft Auto," NPCs are used as citizens on the street, simply walking in a single direction or running away from you. They help make the game's world feel more immersive and alive.

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In essence, NPCs generally serve a single purpose, and have a very limited number of actions and reactions to the player.

The difference between an NPC and CPU

As noted, in single-player video games, NPCs are usually controlled by a limited set of routines and protocols. They're robotic, and don't try to hide it.

However, many games - especially multiplayer games that can also be played single-player - have characters known as CPUs. These characters are controlled by the computer, but are meant to move and act like a real person is controlling them.

CPU stands for "central processing unit," which is the component that operates a device's most vital systems. You can think of it like a computer's brain. Games use this term to indicate that the character is being actively controlled by the computer, making decisions dynamically like a human player would.

What does 'NPC' mean? Understanding non-player characters, an important aspect of any video game
In "Super Smash Bros.," you can fight other players, or a CPU pretending to be a real player. You can even set the CPUs "level," which determines how humanlike its AI will act.William Antonelli/Insider

As noted, they're most common in games that are meant to be played with multiple people. If you don't have enough human players to fill all the spots, the game will let you play with CPUs instead.

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For example, take Chess, a game bundled with every Mac computer. In these games, you can play chess without a partner, in which case your opponent - the computer's programming - will be a CPU. This opponent isn't a character of any sort; rather, it's an AI reading and reacting to your own moves.

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