It’s a joke among weebs that you can always tell who’s the main character of an anime. You look for the teenager with the most vibrantly colored hair, or the impractical clothes. The young heiress Dunyarzad, a newly introduced NPC in Genshin Impact, hardly fits the bill, so I didn’t think much of her when I met her. She was soft-spoken, and didn’t have any tropey personality quirks. During our first meeting, I pretty much forgot about her the moment she was out of sight. Yet the unassuming heiress has quickly become a fan favorite within the Genshin community. “[The quest] was so great and also makes me cry,” tweeted one player. “She’s literally the best NPC in Genshin.”
Dunyarzad may be the daughter of a wealthy family, but she’s not meant to inherit that wealth. Since birth, she’s struggled with a terminal illness that could kill her at any time. Despite this, she challenges social conventions in order to bring back the Sabzeruz Festival, a tradition which her countrymen had abandoned long ago. She feared that she might soon die, and her only wish was to see a dance in honor of her god’s birthday.
When I met her, I assumed that we would shortly part ways after she pointed me in the right direction for my quest. Instead, I was dragged into a multi-hour questline in which she played a prominent role, outshining popular playable characters such as Nilou and Dehya. Every aspect of the tightly designed main quest was centered around Dunyarzad, and she had some of the most emotional scenes in the Sumeru region. Her best line: “There will always be frustrations in life, but I know that the point of living is to not leave behind any regrets.” I promise, it’s sadder in context.
Her courage left such a strong impression on Genshin players that even her English voice actor acknowledged that the community wants Dunyarzad to join Genshin’s super-powered roster of playable characters.
I came to adore her, but I hope that Dunyarzad never becomes a playable character. Giving her the divine “Vision” (an amulet that allows playable characters to use magic) would be missing the point. Dunyarzad is named after the younger sister of Queen Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. Although Dunyarzad is not as famous as her sister, she is literally the reason that Scheherazade survives her murderous husband. HoYoverse chose her to star in the main quest because of a new theme that Genshin has been trying to convey in its latest updates: Ordinary people matter. And the studio is willing to invest actual resources (such as voice acting) into showing players that mundane characters have interiority, rather than simply making overblown anime speeches about it.
I’ve always felt bothered about the way that many NPCs function in JRPGs. Sometimes, they’re faceless in order to save on development time. They often die off very quickly in order to further the main character’s development. There’s a reason why NPCs have been co-opted into a right-wing meme: because many NPCs lack agency compared to player characters. Whenever a heroic character tells me that I need to protect some villagers, I feel compelled to do so out of a sense of noblesse oblige. Because it’s what the hero is supposed to do, and not because I view these wooden stock characters as my equals.
But Genshin has been ramping up NPC involvement in the story since the Inazuma storyline. Some of the best stories in the last region were told by an academic, a village boy, and a rank-and-file soldier. The game’s massive Chasm update was even more overt about how powerless people played an important role in the world of Teyvat.
“I don’t really rue the fact that I don’t have a Vision,” said Yanbo, a soldier in the local military. “Those without Vision-based power make up the vast majority of humans, and those who can truly understand and protect them are, similarly, ordinary folk. As an ordinary person, I am proud to be among those who can protect the many.” He hadn’t just made peace with being passed over by the gods. He was a single, insignificant drop of water in an ocean, and he was rightfully proud of it.
I thought of this conversation as I watched Dunyarzad pull her community together. She was too frail to fight the evils that control Teyvat, and history will not remember her name. Yet she was so determined to achieve her small, insignificant goal of putting on a festival that nobody (including her god) had asked for. NPCs need more than just important story roles; their game needs to treat their lives with dignity and respect.