NPC’s or Non-Playable Characters are the extras of video games. They are bit players in the truest sense of the term: digital extras that populate the background of a game but have no agency or narrative importance. The video essay Hardly Working puts them in the spotlight and makes them the center of our attention. While doing so, this fine piece of machinima questions capitalist work regimes.
A laundress, a stableman, a street sweeper and a handyman. Those four NPC’s from the successful game Red Dead Redemption 2 become the leads in Hardly Working. Their repetitive routines are pointless: they do not contribute anything to the game’s development but only provide monotonous background activity. It’s only when one looks in detail at their menial work that the absurdity hits home. In the words of Total Refusal, the collective behind this video, the result is an “ethnographic exploration of the work and daily life of non-player characters (…). Their labor loops, activity patterns as well as bugs and malfunctions paint a vivid analogy for work under capitalism.”
The detached and mockingly objective tone of the voice over commentary indeed references that of nature documentaries. NPC’s are described as capitalism’s ideal workforce: unquestioning, without autonomy, unbothered by boredom. And they don’t need any sleep to boot. In this way Total Refusal subverts a prestige video game and its visuals to comment on the (work) ethics that have made the video game industry a financial juggernaut. This particular piece was conceived by Susanna Flock, Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner and Michael Stumpf. Their work was featured on this site before, in machinima that turned shooter games into city tours or into dysfunctional playgrounds.