I don't have a lot of time to play games nowadays, but I do think a lot about them, and some streamers I keep tabs on have been playing Undertale recently. Without spoiling anything too deep, there's a section in the game where players can choose to fight its hardest boss in a bullet hell sequence that will give those who aren't (and wouldn't be) good at Touhou a pretty bad time. While players can re-try the challenge an infinite amount of times, the game's narrative also recognizes and reacts to players who choose to do so. Most notably, it's the boss who comments on this, suggesting that it's scary, unfair, and messed-up that players can come back as many times as they please from save points to attempt, attack, and outlast this last defender's efforts to stop them. Undertale is a great example of a game whose creator thought about how game mechanics can synergize with certain messages.
Similarly, Log Horizon is a great example of a game-based story whose creator also pondered how game mechanics can be used to tell certain stories that couldn't be properly conveyed otherwise. In one arc of the anime, a non-playable character (NPC) of the original Elder Tale game guards an important secret: power and treasure that he believes must stay untouched for the greater good, and gathers numerous monstrously powerful guardians to this end. One day, players arrive to access the treasure he's charged solemnly to protect. His outlook devolves from calm collection to dread as these intruders are put down repeatedly, only to come back from spawn points and try again. Who exactly are the monsters here: the raid bosses he gathered up to protect the sacred treasure, or these unnatural invaders who don't stay dead like they should? Persisting despite grueling failures and overwhelming odds, the players are on the brink of overcoming most of the dungeon's defenses as this NPC named Kinjo steadies himself to perform his duty as the last defender. While seemingly stoic on the surface, Kinjo is terrified deep down – the single tear on his face betraying his efforts to maintain a fearless final front.
Many anime have incorporated video game elements, most commonly Role Playing Game (RPG) ones, in their stories to different degrees. The plots of Sword Art Online and .hack//SIGN occur primarily within the bounds of an explicit video game setting that their protagonists are stuck in. Even shows like DanMachi and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime that aren't explicitly connected to an established video game world leverage game-like systems to explain away how power progression works for their protagonists. Compared to these examples, Log Horizon is a little unique in that it looks at familiar RPG mechanics, ponders their narrative implications from a more realistic framework, and then has its characters interact seriously with them. The same familiar gameplay elements that characters may take for granted in some self-aware RPGs and RPG-influenced anime are meaningfully engaged with by Undertale and Log Horizon for their narrative possibilities, such as exploring how sentient NPCs would react to player characters who exploit their immortality to get ahead.
A Player, an NPC, and a Love Story
Another question that is underexplored by RPG-based narratives is how players regard NPCs who aren't immortal and weren't previously "alive". I used to do a lot of massively-multiplayer RPG (MMORPG) gaming in the original Guild Wars. In Guild Wars and RPGs like it, how NPCs regard players depends largely on whether they've reached set checkpoints and end states. NPC dialogue would only change after players fully complete certain missions and quests, or at least pass milestones toward their completion. Players who care about being immersed in the story will have to satisfy themselves using limited story cues and their own imagination to explain the time between what they'll be doing out in the field and what NPCs are doing in the meantime, especially if they're story-significant.
But if we're being completely realistic, so many of the NPCs from RPGs stand around doing nothing at all until players interact with them in ways their programming permits; certain NPCs won't even materialize until specific quest triggers have been fired. Other NPCs exist in a weirdly liminal state where they remain in the same spot but speak different words to different players based on how far each has individually advanced up their list of tasks. There are also those who will join players for a mission in the field, and if they or the players end up getting killed and causing the mission to fail, re-dos will often be allowed, with the reality of their deaths rolled back to mitigate player frustration.
For these reasons and others, no matter how emotionally affecting NPC dialogue can be, their artificial existences and existential dependence on player action put the onus on players to heavily suspend their disbelief if they want their story immersion. Some RPG fans learn to get used to the janky artifice in their games and even develop a good sense of humor towards it when it gets parodied as those oft-invoked tropes, while others can get tired at the thought of encountering yet more of the same contrived situations and dialogues in new RPGs. Regarding players' perceptions of NPCs, unrealistic NPC behavior makes it more difficult for those who aren't actively interested in roleplaying to treat NPCs as anything more than entertaining animatronics or convenient resource-dispensers.
In other words, due to the inherent limitations of RPGs and/or neglect on the part of the developers, NPCs often don't feel like real people, regardless of what dialogue texts or cinematic scenes might otherwise try to paint, so why should we as players treat them as such? It's a question that Undertale explores when the game reacts especially to controversial decisions by players in a manner prior experience in RPG gaming has trained its veterans never to expect, which paradoxically makes it feel like there's a real person talking behind the screen. Log Horizon tackles the same question when it explores how the players trapped within Elder Tale reckon with the fact that the world they were initially interacting with as a game is now a lived existence shared by all who inhabit it, both players and NPCs alike. Elder Tale NPCs have now become individuals with emotions and agency indistinguishable from normal players – a reality that some players, at least initially, struggle to reconcile with their own experiences.
We now arrive at the city of Susukino in Log Horizon, where a player named Demikas and his creatively-named guild, Brigandia, had taken over and, like brigands, have been assaulting wandering players and NPC caravans. Even in the new Elder Tale, players can never permanently be killed, respawning instead at a designated site upon death (this is not to say that the experience itself isn't distressing or completely without consequences, however). Demikas was notorious even in the old Elder Tale for being a prolific player killer, and player-killing was something the game's mechanics permitted to a degree and, you might argue, even encouraged. And since for players, death in the new Ender Tale is nowhere near as consequential and permanent as its real-life counterpart, it makes sense for Demikas to return to his old ways in his new existence.
The same immortality unfortunately doesn't apply to what was once Elder Tale's NPCs, henceforth known as People/Persons of the Land (PotL). An initially power-drunk and unobservant Demikas treated the PotL as what they had always seemed to be: entertaining animatronics and convenient resource-dispensers who are always and ever player-dependent and player-subordinate, free to do with as he pleases. Demikas is later beaten and humiliated by other players like the protagonist Shiroe, his tyrannical hold over Susukino stripped away from him, and his Brigandia guild reduced to half its former size and effectively vassalized to another guild. After tasting humble-pie, this once remorseless, power-crazed, and murderous player is later found to be in a mutually-loving (and totally ironic) relationship with Upashi, a spirited PotL woman he initially abducted and now lives with, and who now freely henpecks his temper and screw-ups. From murdering NPCs to marrying one, Demikas has experienced one hell of a character arc.
Personal Struggles and PotL Rights
In addition to confronting player preconceptions about NPC behavior in RPGs, Log Horizon also explores the implications of RPG tendencies that make NPCs weaker relative to players. To go off on another Guild Wars-related tangent, I also played some of the sequel, Guild Wars 2. The marketing for the sequel promised a far more epic and dynamic world than the first; as one advertised example, instead of all the story combat being locked behind quest triggers, players out in the field can encounter small battles erupting spontaneously before their eyes. Friendly NPCs and baddies would be duking it out for supremacy, and players can jump in and turn the tides of these scraps. From my own gaming experiences though, I often came across a too-late aftermath of NPC corpses littering the landscape and idle baddies loitering around their corpses, a consequence of Guild Wars 2 intentionally programming their NPCs to be weaker so as to not overshadow the heroics of players, since why would players feel compelled to help out NPCs who could do it all by themselves?
To return to Demikas, it's not only amusing that this once brutish-acting and still brutal-looking player has a PotL wife who he loves and who he allows to scold him and soften his edges. It's also interesting that Upashi is willing to reproach and criticize her husband, knowing full well that she is weaker and mortal by Elder Tale's design, at one point even daring him to strike her down if he finds her too disagreeable. Demikas and Upashi's relationship is a "marriage" of two issues arising from the relative weakness of most PotL to players which Log Horizon later addresses fully: (1) the personal and (2) the systemic.
On the personal level, there are PotL characters who are frustrated that their strength and ambitions are limited by game balance mechanics meant to enhance player experience. Two PotL characters in particular get the spotlight regarding their initially-programmed weaknesses: Rundelhaus "Rudy" Code and Elias Hackblade.
Rudy greatly admires the player lifestyle of freedom and adventure, and he later participates in a training camp with other lower-level players while keeping his PotL identity secret. However, he is unable to level as quickly and efficiently as players because his PotL status includes a debuff that greatly reduces the amount of experience he can receive from any given combat encounter. His secret ends up being discovered by one of the players he becomes friends with.
Despite his built-in limitations, Rudy remains so determined to achieve brave and noble feats befitting a player that he sacrifices the one and only life he has as a PotL to save a village from a monster raid. Shiroe is informed of his condition, and through his timely intervention and the evolving nature of the new Elder Tale, the code defining Rudy's status is "re-written" just before he dies to that of a pseudo-player. Rudy resurrects like all players do, and is also able to receive experience and level up like normal.
Elias is one of the few PotL with the "legendary" status, which confers him strength comparable to even higher-leveled players. Additionally, he is also able to join players in the field in certain situations, though at a cost: he's unable to reduce enemy health past their last 20%, preventing him from scoring any finishing blows, a nerf designed to prevent NPCs from both making fights unduly easier for players and stealing glory kills. This limitation is justified in the game lore as the result of his fairy blood racial trait.
He describes his trait as a curse. He resents how this curse limits his heroics, unlike players who lack any restrictions – leaving him susceptible to manipulation by an enemy who promises a way to break it. He later breaks out of the enemy's manipulation after a debate-filled-showdown with a player who deeply admires him. Additionally, Elias is able to break through his curse's effects through his own determination and, again, the evolving nature of his new world.
On the systemic level, there are larger concerns that the relative weakness and artificial origins of the PotL will become justifications for enslavement or even genocide. This issue is at the center of the Round Table Conference, a political entity that currently governs the player hub and city of Akihabara and promotes strong protections for and relationships with the PotL. The would-be members of the Conference were all leaders of prominent guilds representing players of different strata, ranging from those belonging to combat, crafting, and merchant guilds to those who are guildless. Their most immediate joint interest was to provide a support network for players especially disaffected by the Apocalypse, the name of the event that caused all players to be trapped in the new Elder Tale. In its aftermath, many players felt terribly homesick; others just didn't know their way around the game like the active veterans; still others were terrified at the prospect of face-to-face combat in a world teeming with monsters. Depression and ennui were becoming rampant among the player base, and these guild leaders felt like something had to be done.
The proposal for establishing PotL protections therefore came as an initial surprise, since it didn't seem to directly address ongoing player problems. Regardless of whether one felt the PotL were persons who, like players, are deserving of dignity and respect, an argument to be made against adopting such a PotL-friendly measure is that player problems should be prioritized first. Addressing this argument, Shiroe points out that the players' food supply is overwhelmingly dependent on PotL farmers and merchants. Most players aren't food producers, nor could players be expected to easily produce enough for the entire player base by themselves. Souring relations with the PotL by approving or even just tolerating their exploitation and mass-murder by players in Akihabara would inevitably result in player starvation. These practical considerations, combined with humanitarian concerns, sealed the debate, and thus the Round Table Conference debuted with explicit pro-PotL provisions as its founding principles.
Later, this exclusively player-governed Round Table Conference would be reformed to include prominent PotL members in recognition of their dignity, contributions, and significance.
The Tales Game Mechanics Can Tell
The unique and varied personal conflicts and systemic issues explored by Log Horizon is a testament of an anime not taking the game mechanics of its RPG-inspirations for granted. Both Undertale and Log Horizon looked at RPG mechanics, pondered their realistic implications, and then crafted their characters and narratives around them. Stories like Demikas', Rudy's, and Elias' exemplify very human struggles set against circumstances unique to the RPG genre, while the larger theme of anti-colonialism is cast through the lens of RPG game systems.
With players who could very easily have been brutal colonizers and the NPCs as the brutalized natives, the relationship between the players of Akihabara and the PotL couldn't have turned out any more different from actual history. The players and audience get to see how similar PotL lives are to everyone else's, and understand how player preconceptions and game systems unfairly oppress and stymie them. But as aforementioned, the Elder Tale of the post-Apocalypse is a world that's new and evolving. Characters aren't doomed by the past or their maker. Log Horizon doesn't have to repeat our mistakes.
Social Scientist & History Buff. Dabbles in Creative Writing & Anime Criticism. Consider following him at @ZeroReq011