The unsung heroes of video games, NPCs, provide precisely what gamers need at the times they need them the most, from advice and supplies to moments of comic relief right when needed.
Technically, the term NPC applies to any AI-controlled video game character, including bosses. However, for the purpose of this list, we’ve restricted our NPCs to exclude Bosses to give the spotlight – with a few notable exceptions – to those characters frequently overlooked when players talk about their favorite game franchises.
Meet the best NPCs ever created.
1. GLaDOS- Portal
Sarcastic and scheming, GLaDOS plays the leading antagonist in Portal and Portal 2. Not only is GLaDOS an AI, but she used to be human, adding an absorbing layer of complexity to her character. When first introduced to gamers, GLaDOS appears to be the classic figure of NPC Guidance. However, not long after, her nefarious intentions come to light, and a character was created that lives on in the minds of any who have played through Portal.
GLaDOS had the right balance of malice, menace, and sarcasm needed to play a convincing villain and did so to great effect. Their conflict and motivations make GLaDOS such an imposing and remarkable NPC. Everything combines to create an evil and scheming character yet inherently flawed and real.
2. Deckard Cain – Diablo
Deckard Cain is a mainstay NPC from the Diablo series and has appeared in some form or another in every game. He is a guide and a scholar who has garnered a large fanbase, propelling him to a cult-like figure and one of the most recognizable faces in Sanctuary.
As an NPC, Cain offers advice and guidance to players. However, his stories and lore-building capabilities pull people in and make him such a valued character. The name Deckard Cain resulted from a contest run by Blizzard and was chosen by the winner, who surely had no idea how iconic their choice would become.
3. Ashley Graham – Resident Evil 4
Whether by design or oversight, Ashley Graham is one of the best NPCs in video games, thanks to the difficulty she adds to an already challenging game. For years, she has frustrated gamers with her poor spatial awareness and, at times, stupid choices that make the level where the player must protect her at all costs more complicated than needed.
Ashley Graham is borderline inept, yet the game would not be the same without her.
4. M’Aiq the Liar – Elder Scrolls
M’aiq the Liar offers little helpful information, and his presence has almost no impact on the game either in terms of gameplay or the eventual results. However, should he vanish from the game, players might riot.
The more he appears and says, the less gamers seem to know about him. M’aiq the Liar demonstrates the power of NPCs in video games and the intrinsic need for their presence, even when they contribute minimal game-changing value.
5. HK 47 – Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic
Sarcastic NPCs help relieve tension, even in games with a more subtle way to stress the plater. HK 47 from Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic is the perfect example of an NPC whose sarcastic quips act as a near-perfect distraction device. A profoundly philosophical character with an awe for the world around it, offset by a thirst for violence and a yearning for destruction that never abates, his personality contradictions amuse gamers.
6. Murray the Talking Skull – Monkey Island
A demonic skull with severe delusions of grandeur, Murray the Talking Skull is an NPC loved by many and feared by none. What sets Murray apart from other NPCs, not just in Monkey Island but across the gaming spectrum, is the depth of his character and the sharp edge to his wit.
While nothing more than a skull, Murray always has a threat or two, which become so comic they are a joy to receive, especially with how empty they are, given his lack of torso and limbs. His larger-than-life personality helped establish Murray as one of the best and most memorable NPCs in all video games.
7. The Curator – Dark Pictures Anthology
The Curator from the Dark Pictures Anthology serves as a cryptic guide and occasional antagonist. His remarks and retorts break the fourth wall and speak directly to the player with delicately barbed comments on their progress and the results of each complete game stage.
The Curator is an unexplored character. This increases gamer intrigue and allows gamers to create their own explanations as to his role and true identity. To many, the Narrator embodies judgment. Whether he is Death or the manifestation of the gamer’s conscience is up to each player to decide.
8. Tom Nook – Animal Crossing
Tom Nook ruins the relaxing experience of Animal Crossing with offers of employment, wages, taxes, and a generally unwanted adult-oriented approach to life.
A capitalist in all ways, a villain in the eyes of many, and a misunderstood nice guy in the eyes of a slim few, there is no denying that Tom Nook is a character whose complexity far outweighs any other NPC in the Animal Crossing universe. Nobody would deny Tom Nook’s deviousness, using money as a device to keep people in his servitude. However, he does so without paperwork, and there is no need to pay back the final loan amount to complete the game. Perhaps he is nothing more than a bad businessman after all.
9. Claptrap – Borderlands
Claptrap went from being universally loathed to the franchise-defining character and, daresay, its mascot. An overenthusiastic NPC is not necessarily a good thing, and while Claptrap offers gamers a good amount of comic relief, he also proves that too much of a good thing makes it bad.
However, across the different games in the series and the various DLCs that have been released, Claptrap’s role and character have undergone several transformations, leading to him becoming a fan favorite. The first character gamers meet when they start playing Borderlands, the irritating yet lovable robot moves and experiences a lot before the series ends, including a form of robot genocide at Captain Jack’s hands and torture at Captain Flynt’s hands. His enduring spirit and never-say-die attitude captivated a generation of gamers and showed us that no character is ever beyond redemption.
10. Sans – Undertale
Sans makes a perfect NPC for a game like Undertale. At first glance, Sans seems like a simple character, giving commentary and guidance in its own way. However, playing the game soon reveals the deeper and more complex the character becomes.
Sans mimics the morality of game by game; aware of time resets and the underlying futility of existence, he continues pushing forward and is always there to help his friends despite his fatalistic understanding of the world.
11. Elizabeth – Bioshock Infinite
Those who have played Bioshock Infinite understand what makes Elizabeth a phenomenal NPC. She offers the right sort of help when needed the most. From advice to healing, she never disappoints.
All too often, NPCs counter their help with nonsensical positioning and the danger awareness levels of deer caught in headlights. Not Elizabeth. She supplements her usefulness with a near-god-like awareness of the world around her, leaving players free to focus on the game without worrying about what their non-playable partner is getting up to.
12. The Narrator – The Stanley Parable
The Narrator is an interesting concept for an NPC. Depending on how a player plays the game, his character acts as either the antagonist, the deuteragonist, a neutral bystander, the Devil’s Advocate, or the best friend. Depending on gamer choices, the Narrator’s role will change, giving rise to any number of possible combinations and endings to the game.
Ultimately, the Narrator stands for divorce and is the figurative angel and devil standing on Stanley’s shoulders. Transcending the game, he sits between the player and the story, a digital dungeon master, offering what the player needs regardless of whether it is right. The Narrator is the ultimate NPC, a character who is everything and nothing.
13. Ellie – Last of US
For most of The Last of Us (Part I), Ellie is an NPC, following Joel, occasionally getting in his way, particularly in doorways, and always ready with a dad joke or a sarcastic quip. Yet, gamers take control of the character for a portion of the game. However, regardless of that, Ellie is still classed as an NPC.
When looking at any list of the best NPCs, Ellie is a surefire candidate. Her role in The Last of Us was pivotal. The whole game was about her, which is as important a role that could ever get entrusted to an NPC. Beyond that, the character development and the era-defining bond between Joel and Ellie is the kind of thing that comes along once every generation.
14. Hal ‘Octacon’ Emmerich – Metal Gear Solid
Hal Emmerich’s arc showcases how even an AI character can still grow over time to become someone stronger and better. Hal has an inauspicious introduction as he wets himself. Yet, throughout the Metal Gear Solid series, he grows as a character and blossoms into a badass in his own right.
Ultimately, Hal is the Snake’s best friend and closest confidant, making him a valuable NPC regardless of his character. As it stands, the character of Hal Emmerich is one for which gamers cannot help but develop a kinship.
15. Philip’ Baron’ Strenger – Witcher III
The Witcher III game offers a wealth of experiences to gamers willing to invest the time and look around. The Baron is a wonderful character with a memorable story. Gamers consider the Family Matter quest, which revolves around the Baron, as one of the best side quests in video game history.
The Baron has two possible resolutions to his quest, neither ostensibly happy but one far more grim and emotional than the other. The Baron left a mark on gamers and set a new standard for what NPCs can achieve.
16. Jeff’ Joker’ Moreau – Mass Effect
Jeff Moreau has a role to perform and executes it with flawless precision. Though a pilot with supreme flight skills, his comic timing makes Joker an essential and memorable character. Breaking the tension when everything feels too much, helping the players calm their minds, and approaching things with renewed focus and determination.
Seth Green voices Jeff, and nobody should overlook his efforts in bringing life to the Joker, as his style and persona complement the role this NPC plays in the Mass Effect games.
The role of Joker highlights the many different roles that an NPC takes in games, each just as valid and essential as the previous one.
17. Dogmeat – Fallout
Few dogs have left such a mark on gamers’ lives as Dogmeat, the lovable German Shepherd from the Fallout series. In a world full of bad boys, Dogmeat helps players detect enemies, bypass certain locked doors, and access areas they cannot.
Animal NPCs tend to have greater resonance with gamers than human characters, not only because of the close bond people form with their pets but also because an animal rarely has a distinct personality, so people have the freedom to create an entire life story for their favorite NPC pals.
Fallout players have gone to great lengths across the games in the series to ensure Dogmeat stays alive, often going above and beyond in time investment to save this NPC’s life and keep him by their side until the end credits roll.
18. Error – Legend of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link
Error’s legend extends far beyond his role in the game. Fame struck Error with fortuitous irony, with his now iconic line ‘I am error’ coming about due to an error in localization. The character was supposed to say, ‘My name is Error,’ which, while comical, lacks the impact of the line that ended up in the final game.
Error’s only purpose in The Adventures of Link is to provide directions to the titular character. Error left an indomitable mark on video games and cemented himself as one of the most memorable NPCs ever coded.
19. Atreus – God of War
While there are moments during the God of War game when players have a modicum of control over Atreus, he is primarily an NPC. However, he plays an invaluable role as a father.
Alongside his direct involvement, aiding Kratos in taking down the creatures of legend that prowl the levels in God of War, Atreus has a fantastic personal story and a three-dimensional relationship with his father, Kratos. Atreus’ presence is vital for the game and thrusts him into the upper echelons of NPC importance and value addition.
20. Cortana – Halo
Cortana makes the Halo universe tick. While nothing more than an NPC, Cortana plays an integral part of the series and the right-hand helper of the Master Chief—hacking systems, decrypting information, and generally acting as the voice of the pair. The Halo lore has long established that none of it would have been possible had Cortana not been conceived.
While not a playable character, Cortana appears repeatedly through the early mainline Halo games and deserves recognition as one of the best NPCs ever programmed. Many argue that Cortana is one of the most significant characters in gaming, playable or otherwise. In the Halo world, hers is one of the more natural and three-dimensional characters across all games in the series.
21. Navi – Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time
Most gamers find Navi an annoying character who does nothing but interrupt the game with her irritating shouts of ‘Hey, listen.’ However, Navi plays a crucial role in guiding Link and aiding him in battle. Her interruptions, while annoying, have gone down in gaming history. The years since Ocarina of Time was released on the N64 have turned “Hey, listen” into a quirky and recognizable catchphrase.
Love her or hate her, Navi is a pivotal figure in Zelda lore, and whether as a traveling companion or aide, she serves her role well, and the games would be weaker without her presence.
22. Sadie Adler – Red Dead Redemption 2
Sadie Adler has appeared in several Red Dead Redemption games. However, her most significant involvement was in Red Dead Redemption 2, where she played a central role in the story. As an NPC, Sadie has a deep and compelling backstory that helped endear her to fans of the RDR games.
The story of Sadie Adler weaves through the Red Dead games, and she is one of the few reliable confidants of protagonist Arthur Morgan. So significant is her involvement and the fan appreciation of her character that many would like to see Sadie become the focal playable character in Red Dead Redemption 3 if we are lucky enough to get a third installment.