Travel Diaries #21 - NPC
Rather than collecting things, they say this generation prefers to collect experiences - and destinations. Though what is the trade-off when you want to be in a million different places at once?
short for non-player character.
“In video games, Non-Player Character (NPC) usually means a character controlled by the computer (instead of the player) that has a predetermined set of behaviours that potentially will impact gameplay, but will not necessarily be true artificial intelligence.”
Everywhere I went I there were millions of people. Although it was highly unlikely and physically impossible, it felt like I passed by every single one of the 127 million odd people of Japan as I wandered the streets of its towns and cities, a feeling amplified by the fact that I couldn’t speak to any of them. Thus these fleeting passings-by were filled with projections about the goings on of their inner worlds, their pasts and futures, their lives and daily habits. To me they were like the non-player characters – or NPCs – of the computer games of my childhood – the Zeldas and the Final Fantasy games – that I believe had much to do with my long-existing desire to travel to Japan, perhaps even to live there and adopt a similar simple routine in a simple world.
NPCs are the non-hostile characters who populate the backgrounds of role-playing and adventure games, who are often not central to the main storyline of the game, but with whom you can interact with in some way. They might sell you something, perform an action that advances your quest, or maybe just engage in some chit-chat which helps to build the history and lore of the game world, seemingly superfluous details in a game, though to me it was these features which made the worlds, helping them come to life, and imbuing them with this aching sense that they had existed for millenia before the hero – and therefore, I – came along. It is generally assumed by players that, unlike the characters controlled by the player themselves, the NPCs do not think for themselves, and have no agency. In a way I could never articulate or rationalise in my youth, these virtual characters appeared to me as lost souls trapped in some form of purgatory, fated to perform the same routines over and over again, waiting for the hero to come along and breathe life into them by pressing the A button beside them, though still forever destined to repeat the same two lines of dialogue over and over again, a tragic sentence that was the result of the technological limitations of the era as much as the fact that they weren’t real.
In the real-life Japan, even if I could speak more than a few token words of the language, I had nothing to say to anyone anyway. I was a tourist, a visitor to their land with no real purpose other than a sort of vague personal interest in Japanese culture that had been nurtured over the years from a childhood obsession with virtual simulations of its culture, but the developmental trajectory of which was at this stage lost through the back and forth of time and growth and the diminishing returns of memory – I wasn’t even sure if it was mine any more.
I wanted to know everything about everyone I passed by, people whom I wouldn’t have given a second glance to if I’d passed them in similar situations at home, as if I wanted to truly feel what it felt like to be one of them. That sense of longing to know the lives of strangers seems to be common enough that someone has coined a word for it: sonder. It’s a useful word, its construction seems fittingly close to ‘wonder’, perhaps fused with the word ‘soul’.
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, and worries—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
A Punter in a Museum
In Kamakura, I went for runs in the suburban hills and hiked along trails that led to giant Buddha statues. In Kyoto, I watched as beautiful women in kimono ambled slowly down quietened alleys, silhouetted by dark sunsets and bright moonlight. Everywhere I went there were beautiful testaments to the order and conscientiousness of Japanese culture: elderly conductors in regal outfits greeting people as they travelled up subway escalators; plates of food arranged as if they were works of art in themselves. Stone masonry on ordinary shop-fronts with hiragana and katakana calligraphy so beautiful it would make your heart break. I watched Akira on my laptop in my hostel, went to bars, Shazam’d pop songs off café radios and listened to them on Spotify, admired art, walked down alleys, ate food, took photos. I’d read Romanised signs aloud to myself, enjoying playing with the phonetic pronunciation of the Japanese words, despite not understanding any of it. My only friends were the middle-aged men who ran the succession of hostels and guesthouses I stayed at as I made my way around beachside towns surrounding Tokyo, who would spend their days diligently doing handywork around their accommodations, their families clearly existing and being spoken about but conspicuous by the fact that I never saw them.
Japan was a work of art, though increasingly I felt like a punter in a museum, or a kid on a Ferris wheel. Unable to find my way ‘in’, instead being reduced to watching daytime TV shows in restaurants and trying to piece together some understanding of the place for myself. All I could do was watch as beautiful and interesting people walked by and ancient customs unfolded before me, my breath fogging up the glass casing of the model world as I gazed down into it, a child staring at a map and wishing he could go here, there, everywhere.
Finally, my travels and adventures had led me to what appeared to be the end of a lifelong journey to the gold at the end of the rainbow: I’d reached the land of my childhood dreams, the seeds of its culture implanted in an impressionable mind who was learning to go on adventures whichever way he could before he was released into the real world. And I was free – completely alone, free to go wherever I wanted, to talk to anyone, to spend my days as I pleased.
And all I wanted then was to go home.
A Pre-Ordained Love
Before I travelled to Japan, I’d spent almost three years living in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital which lies in a clammy basin of the Red River, in the centre of the unforgiving north of the country. I did not arrive to Vietnam with a pre-established love for the place – I barely knew anything about it. The only media about Vietnam when I was growing up were images of napalm attacks and movies about war atrocities and extreme poverty. There were no computer games infused with Vietnamese culture spreading relatively benign and technologically impressive ideals to impressionable youngsters around the globe, and if there had been, they would have been sneered at by Western audiences or met with wary assumptions of being organs of Communist propaganda.
The first myth about Vietnam dispelled from my naïve mind was that the food would be similar to Thailand, simply because it’s also in the South-East Asia region, even though the two countries don’t even share a border. To take my first faltering steps in this strange new world and find that coconut-infused curries were not on the menu – rather, fragrant bowls of translucent soups, baguettes of luncheon meat and crunchy vegetables, simple meals of meat and vegetables served with sticky dipping sauces, and in Hanoi, a preference for functional fuel and economic efficiency over flavouring and spiciness – and Vietnam consisted of one preconception-busting experience after another for most of my time in that mysterious and chaotic – yet gorgeous – country.
Unlike Japan, it was not love at first sight. I did not find it an easy place to live. It baffled me at every turn, its culture – that is, the ways in which people function together on a day-to-day basis – mirroring the seemingly chaotic and loose form of its traffic. A country with an identity crisis, between young and old, tradition and progression, between east and west. A place of extreme political order, social conformity and face-saving bashfulness, but which under the surface reveals a distinct disregard for rules in favour of getting-things-done, a mischievous sense of playfulness, and a blunt directness which would put the hardiest Irish grandmother to shame.
I struggled with Vietnam’s incongruent dishes, its pungent wafts, its oily nicotine-stained airs and its gnawing elastic accents. I dismayed at – and repeated the same cliched assertions as my fellow ex-pats about – our new home’s dishonest social conventions, its chaotic timetables, its unreliable mechanical devices, its suffocating climates and its bizarre musical tastes. Inevitably, the unerring novelty has the effect of leaving one utterly frazzled. And yet, I dug in and stuck with it, and was resolved to see some measure of the beauty I knew had to exist there.
On the other hand, I held a love for Japan that was pre-ordained, a projection of lifelong expectations.As soon as I landed there, I was infatuated. But it was a love rooted in the aesthetic, the superficial. Graham Coxon of Blur once said that the difference between a friend and a fan is that if you can explain why you like someone, you’re a fan – friends are people you love for no clear definable reason. I knew exactly why I liked Japan, and why I wanted to go there. And when I got there, the skin painted over its world by its culture was everything I’d dreamed it would be. I glowed with excitement at the wonder of it all.
Yet very quickly I realised something was amiss, and I was in a world I didn’t belong in. I was in Japan for too long, and too emotionally invested to be content to be a mere tourist, and yet my existence there was too uncommitted, too detached, too uninvested and flaky, to truly fall in love with the place.
Making Somewhere Else a Home
There are only two places in the world: home, and somewhere else. The skin lain over the top is just details. My time in Vietnam or Japan were just worlds within a world – a period of time within my entire life. One of them became home, not because of the length of time I spent there, but because of the effort I had to put in to exist there long-term. To give something back to the community does not mean something in a strictly economic sense, but in giving back to the world a part of yourself. To remain detached means to remain a tourist. Always thinking about going home, and thus never committing to giving a part of yourself to the place you’re in.
The sense of being comfortable where you are – being at home in yourself – is something that must be created within you by yourself. If you are forever dependent on your environment to feel at home – whether that’s the super-familiar environment of your home, or a foreign one onto which you’ve projected some sort of idyllic bliss in an imaginary world – you will never feel at home anywhere. So often while I was in Vietnam I continued to dream of somewhere else, despite already being there. Places that weren’t like Vietnam. Somewhere more sophisticated or refined. Somewhere more modern. Somewhere with a ‘cooler’ culture. Somewhere things actually worked. Or somewhere that offered more in the way of my own interests.
Japan. Mexico. Spain. New Zealand. London. Anywhere (anywhere but home, I guess).
Though I also resigned myself to the choice I’d made to live there. And, if nothing else, at least Vietnam offered one thing which it categorically did better than possibly anywhere else in the entire world: it was different.
In accepting where I was I grew to learn – then appreciate and eventually love – its idiosyncratic ways, with much of what I presumed to make little sense on arrival, in time came to be an entirely satisfactory, if not superior way of doing things – that is, carrying out the actions and interactions required to live as a society – than where I had come from. I embraced the chaos its world imposed on me. Often the old cliché of travel revealed itself, where everything began to remind me of home, whether the Ireland of 2018, of my youth in the 90’s, or of a time before I was born.
“This could be anywhere”, as we so often say, as if it’s some sort of compliment.
At some point, it stopped being somewhere else (or a candidate for ‘anywhere’) and I stopped wanting to be somewhere else. I let go of the attachments I had to go elsewhere, and committed myself entirely to where I was. At some point Vietnam stopped being ’somewhere else’, and simply became ‘home’.
I grew to love the food. Not the dishes you’d see crudely photographed on sandwich boards in the tourist trap Old Quarter, being choked down by sweating tourists in wifebeaters and elephant pants, but the simple home cooking of rural family guesthouse’s or generous canteens in the schools I worked in.
The traffic regressed into the back of my mind as I merged with the shoal of fish and just got on with it. Last-minute schedule and classroom changes in schools forced me to accept the terminal embarrassment of unplanned lessons and just learn how to wing it. It’s nothing personal, but people will shout at you in Hanoi. Parking lot attendants will pull you by the arm if you stray an inch into the wrong territory. Rules are arbitrary in general, and you will be ignored, and then shouted at, in the dripping smog of a 40 degree summer. You will go hungry looking for food after 11, and then be fed too much for dinner. You will always be running late, and if you’re not, the person you’re relying on will. Then your bike will break down, and so will the clouds, but despite being in the middle of nowhere and with no phone and none of the local language, someone will drop the contents of their day to help you fix it, or bring you to work anyway. The locals won’t understand a word you’re saying even though you’re pronouncing it perfectly, and then you’ll have an entire conversation and exchange life stories through the medium of clinking beers and shot glasses You will simultaneously be melting hot, drowned wet, running late and early, hungry and full, exhausted and frustrated and elated, drunk as hell and glaringly sober, in opposite land.
And one day you’ll wake up, and it’ll all make sense.
Collecting Extra Lives
My generation wants for no things, it is now claimed, and thus the nouveau riche and nouveau jeune aspire to collect experiences rather than material and consumer goods. However, in the past it was the case that one could afford to live the life of the rich – that is, ‘life’, singular – or you couldn’t. Now we are too connected by technology, too aware of the possibilities of life the world over, and with this infinity of experience beamed into our pockets and heads 24/7 we are inevitably drawn to wonder about life in far-flung parts of the world, or single experiences that we hope will temporarily help us simulate those lives, to be collected like trinkets or levels on gamified apps. The phone is always there to take us somewhere else, whether to instantly give us information about another, better place, to show us evidence of the trips and journeys of others, to simply take us out of where we are right now, the destination is unimportant.
it seems that one life does not last long enough to fit so many experiences into, and thus we want to live two or more lives. The simplest way to achieve this, to multiply the availability of experiences to experience, is to travel, to spend as much time as possible in different places. Eventually, a week, or two, or more is not enough, and we covet extra lives like Super Mario, so that if we board a plane across the world, dead to our homeland and forefathers, we can cash one in and live in a bonus land somewhere else.
How long is enough? To experience a life lived somewhere else? I’d spent almost three years in Vietnam before coming to Japan. At regular intervals one turns around and says ‘finally, I’m settled’. After a month, three months, six months, a year, and then two. Time grinds along like a runaway snow plough that pulls everything either side of it along with it so that everything that is experienced is remembered as if it were this morning. Time is not equal in all places. As each milestone is reached one thinks they know the place, they know their way around, and “have it all figured out”, and then each subsequent milestone one turns around and thinks “how young I was then, I knew nothing.” So much happens in such short periods of time that one feels a lifetime of experiences happening in the space of weeks and months.
And yet still I left and wondered if I’d spent my time wisely, if I’d experienced all I could, if I had learned enough Vietnamese, if I’d travelled to enough places, if I had lived enough of another life, or even just one. One could stay in a place forever and still never scratch its surface. And it’s a case of the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know every day in a strange and novel land opens up possibilities the likes of which you couldn’t even know existed.
There is a trade-off for time spent and depth of quality of experience. The more you know a place, the greater the quality of each experience you have; though the more novel it is, the more vivid the memories. Depth or breadth, which is better? For every day you spend in a new place you get more quality of experience, though you sacrifice some opportunity at home. Eventually you stay long enough to have to find work to pay the bills of existence, to learn some words of the language, to have to make trips to supermarkets for a weekly shop. Every day you go deeper and deeper into the new world, and every day something of the old world is lost.
No matter the quality of your internet connection, you cannot truly exist in two places at once, there is a trade-off. You must choose one or the other. To think too much of home while you’re away, or to think too much of elsewhere while you’re navigating your life at home, is like rapidly switching tabs on a computer browser, or trying to multi-task. Eventually it exhausts you. And neither life is truly lived unless you choose one and stick to it. You must make a decision, and discard the one you don’t want – or more accurately – the place you’re not in. Even to hold a return flight ticket stored safely at the bottom of your luggage takes you out of the experience, it tethers you to home while you’re away on your holiday. You are not always thinking of it, though it always is a reminder, an anchor, a ballast, a weight – you are not from here, and your time here is running out. As long as there’s a plan to leave or a plane to catch, you cannot fully embrace the future, and you inevitably complete a cyclical journey that returns to your past.
Windows open up in your new home each day where anything could happen. Every person you pass by and every place you travel to opens up fractals of opportunities, of forking paths and sliding doors. Each person with their own past and their own future, one gently pushing and one gently pulling them along through a discreet life. To sonder too deeply on the existences and possibilities of everyone you pass by, of every place you go, and of every place you could go (and in the past two decades, this number had reached a point of effective infinity for most people from first-world nations with the drive and inclination to do so) has the potential to drive you insane.
At some point you have to close these windows of opportunity and go home, wherever that is. Back to yourself. Nowadays we all want to experience these different lives, if only for a weekend. Or maybe for months and years. It is not just travel. Careers are built and discarded in matters of years for people of my generation, passions are nurtured obsessively for a few years before we move onto the next thing worthy of our attention. It is not just the frivolity of youth, but the hurtling acceleration of technology and the speed of communication and the exchange of information. No wonder our attention spans are non-existent. There is no longer a lifelong career or path or identity to ground you. We all exist untethered from our environment and floating in space, jumping from place to place and role to role, forever gazing off the edge of the map, and then jumping over the invisible wall.
The weekend away in a beautiful historic city gives you a glimpse into a million lives you never had, and you return home, your plans set in stone, before you get a chance to make good on any of these opportunities, before anyone there even knows you exist. You are not part of their world, you play the role of tourist, or maybe weekend fling or drinking buddy if you’re lucky and adventurous, though it is like a time traveller messing with things in a place they don’t belong, a child tempting the wind to change and stick his face in a contorted position. Look, but don’t touch, or you will open up alternate dimensions and timelines the likes of which you can’t yet imagine. And if the winds change, if you catch the look in someone’s eye in just the right light and at just the right moment, you might get locked into a path through time and space that you never knew existed before.
And you mightn’t be able to get back to your home world so easily.
The Chaos of Freedom
The modern world has given us the freedom to go anywhere. To do anything. To become anyone. I had plans of living all over the world. A year here, a year there, living the contented life of a peripatetic flâneur, observing life as I saw it in different places, enjoying and sampling their cultural and natural delights while perhaps being inured from the trials and tribulations of life, or worse: the monotony of everyday existence. This is the life that is sold to the modern digital nomad, the remote worker, the 4 Hour Work-Weeker: a life of terminal wandering with no fixed abode, and thus, it is implied, of no responsibility. The eternal sunshine of the spotless Instagram feed, a place where it doesn’t rain but only shines, a place that no-one has ever really seen.
Freedom however requires boundaries, otherwise it is simply chaos.
The freedom of endless choice is too much for our minds to handle, and we become trapped by analysis paralysis: with so many choices, it becomes difficult to choose one. When we can go anywhere, we often end up going nowhere. There is always the sense of regret that we’re not choosing the best option. That the other one would have been better. It's bad enough when we become envious of our dinner partners’ meal choices, what about when you dwell for too long on the places you could have gone, the people you could have met, the things you could have done, and the lives you could have lived?
In the final weeks of my trip around Japan I experienced, as Geoff Dyer beautifully and tragically articulated, every second of every day, and every possible permutation of not just my own life, but of my future life, or lives, projected onto every place I visited, every shop I entered, every town I stayed in, every person I passed.
“What would it be like to live here?”
Or somewhere else.
Japan was a step too far. If my love for Vietnam was in my actions, in the hard-earned graft of a long-lasting marriage, my attraction to Japan was purely superficial. And it wasn’t enough. It turns out you can’t just keep showing up and mine each corner of the earth for experience. There is something lost, a trade-off. I would have to start all over again, an entirely new relationship. Quality over quantity. It turns out you only have so much time. One life to live, if it is to be lived fully. And by now, there was no more of me left to give.
I was exhausted.
I experienced each moment, not as pure presence, as my newfound meditation practice might aspire to, but the opposite – pure absence, a chronic desire to be somewhere else, on the micro scale of day-to-day existence, but also on the macro scale of my life at large. Ironically, I’d gone so far at this point that going ‘somewhere else’ now meant going home.
I’d fulfilled my childhood dreams of going off the edge of the map, with the giddy excitement of a drunken medieval sailor cheering as his ship careens across the ocean in a storm, to presumably sail off the edge of the earth, just to experience the thrill of it, something no-one in history had ever experienced, or ever would experience, ever again. The problem was, once you go off the edge of the map, you have nothing to hold onto. No role. No responsibilities. No attachments. No meaning. No language. No words.
Bob Dylan once mumbled “To live outside the law, you must be honest”, a supporter of Aristotle’s assertion that any man who can live outside of society must be either a god or a beast. I was neither. I had wanted to be the hero of my own adventure game, wandering the earth, hacking up bushes, collecting gold coins and talking to local villagers as I completed my quest. Though I discovered that to be the hero of a role-playing game you need a role.
In my journey through Japan I was just another background character, a random passerby in the lives of millions of people with routines, jobs, families, relationships – and homes – hoping the real heroes might bump into me so I could repeat my two snippets of pre-programmed dialogue -
Rather than being the hero of the quest, I was just another NPC.
If you enjoyed this, and aren’t already a subscriber, then sign up now for regular updates. Essays and stories about travel, the outdoors and stuff that’s good for your peace of mind.