C.E.J. Pacian on Best Individual NPC 2012

C.E.J. Pacian writes on New Rat City in rat chaos, Kadro in Andromeda Dreaming, and W.D. in Speculative Fiction.

 

New Rat City in rat chaos, by J. Chastain

New Rat City, Avatar of Rats, first contacts us on board our spaceship after we “unleash rat chaos”, and he isn’t fooled by our video game persona. Whatever we may have got up to in other branches of this stream-of-consciousness Twine story, New Rat City knows we’re not real space adventurers. He knows we’re just sitting in front of a computer. And now he’s going to take us to Planet of Rat. “New Rat City needs a lot of love,” the game tells us. “Help New Rat City with his needs.”

rat chaos is the kind of game that spits out new ideas and moves quickly on without a backwards glance. With liberal use of the back button it’s pretty straightforward to map out the entire game in your head, and the parts focusing on New Rat City are as simply structured as the rest of it. But that simplicity of structure is conciseness rather than shallowness.

The New Rat City branch of rat chaos is interested in the structure of typical NPC interactions in games, which are often padded out with the character spouting exposition and backstory, narrating over gameplay and generally talking a lot without actually genuinely connecting with any other character – except when the player’s character gets the chance to make some trite binary choices that send them one way or another.

And so our interactions with New Rat City are as follows: first, we get to respond to the offer to move to Planet of Rat with a large variety of options, some of which are repeated multiple times, only one of which could be construed to be vaguely not in agreement, and all of which are ignored

in the next scene. From there we can choose to address some of New Rat City’s physical needs, at which point we get a binary choice between helping and not helping, options which lead to a good or bad end respectively.

Or there’s the option to just ask New Rat City if he wants to talk. At which point he pours his heart out about his complex, negative feelings and how they began when he was bullied as a child. And at the bottom of this long speech, presented without any scene-setting or physical context, we, the players, are given the option to choose where we ride our dune buggy to.

This is a microcosm of typical video game character interaction: “flavour” choices that have no real effect; binary moral choices that are unsatisfying in their absolutism; and characters who try to make us care about them, nattering on over the radio, while we wander around collecting MacGuffins.

What makes this all work here is both the entertainment value of the game using these mechanics in such a barefaced and abrupt fashion, and the fact that, following the branch where New Rat City shares his feelings with us to its conclusion, it is ultimately him who grows unsatisfied with the shallow character interaction.

rat chaos makes me feel like there’s a well-rounded and human (if rat-shaped) character on the other side of the computer screen, tapping on the glass and trying to make a friend… but all I can do in response is typical video game stuff. Why on Earth (or Planet of Rat) would he want to be friends with somebody like that? New Rat City realises that player characters just aren’t worth his time.

Kadro in Andromeda Dreaming, by Joey Jones

Andromeda Dreaming begins with us waking up on a spaceship – not a sleeper vessel that’s encountered an emergency, as in so many other games, but a medical space station called Morbozzo. Strapped into our quarantine pod, all we can do is sleep and interact with the three other nearby patients, of which the most talkative is the bushy-bearded Kadro.

We talk to Kadro using a menu-style conversation system that, for the most part, simply works as a more nuanced and transparent kind of ask/tell system. Various statements are appended to a numbered list which you can select from seamlessly with other actions – except on the odd occasion when you’re forced to select a response before you can do anything else (which I’m sure has a solid foundation in the behind-the-scenes mechanics but rankles a little from the player’s point of view). Overall, though, this system works well as a way of interacting naturally with Kadro, and as a way of characterising the PC.

Your first chat with Kadro, for example, might go something like this:

>talk to man
You turn to the bearded man and he temporarily turns off his speakers. “So at last the reg awakes. Stato me amato?”

[1] Uh, sorry?
[2] My name is Aliss?
[3] I had a bad flu?

>3
“Amato, that’s cold as Korh. I hope the bitsters deflagged it. Wouldn’t want to catch something I couldn’t throw back.”

[1] Don’t worry- it’s not infectious.
[2] Why do you speak so strangely?
[3] [Say nothing]

Two things to note above are firstly, of course, the Morbozzan dialect, and secondly the way that you are given two different options to express your bewilderment with it. Replaying this short game, you’ll have a good idea what Kadro’s talking about, but on your first time through, these options make it clear that the game realises you’ve been thrown in the deep end – and gives you confidence that the author will make things clearer in time.

As the game progresses you, unsurprisingly, find out that Kadro knows more about your predicament than you do. But, refreshingly, he plays his cards close to his chest and refuses to dump any exposition on you. Filling in the gaps in the story depends on grasping Morbozzan slang and reading between the lines.

Consider the following, when you ask Kadro about the other Morbozzan native in the room:

“You bit Morbozzo’s the can where they space whatever the prens don’t want spreading. Jimmy, well he has a head full of ideas and there’s less than four more infectious.”

Now we get a sense of why apparently healthy men like Kadro and Jimmy are long term patients on a medical space station. Morbozzo isn’t just used to quarantine diseases, but also ideas. Those on  board include both patients and political prisoners. So it’s no wonder that this place apparently has a criminal underclass of schemers with their own thieves’ cant, and no wonder that a fake illness and a trip to Morbozzo are a good strategy for a high-ranking politician looking to get up to no good.

It is true that we don’t actually get to know Kadro that well. We don’t get too good a sense of what makes him tick, what his motives are and whether he’s really someone we should trust. But that in  itself fits the character: this man shouldn’t be loose-lipped when someone saying the wrong thing  may be what got him where he is now. And, well, when a piece of fiction leaves you wishing that  you’d seen more of a character, that’s a pretty strong indication that it did a good job.

W.D. in Speculative Fiction, by Diane Christoforo and Thomas Mack

Around the turn of the century, Graham Nelson observed that a “triangle of identities” defines our relationship to a text-only game: the main character (who acts within the game world), the narrator (whose voice describes what’s happening) and the player (that’s us). Speculative Fiction is one of that minority of text games to give all three sides of the triangle a place in its world. The duties of both main character and narrator fall to W.D.: a raven and wizard’s familiar. The player, meanwhile, takes the role of the scheming and inept wizard who is sending W.D. telepathic commands.

Speculative Fiction is a deliberately challenging text adventure that aims to make tough puzzles more playable without reducing their difficulty. And probably the most effective weapon in its arsenal is not just essentially giving the parser a likeable personality in W.D., but also setting up his relationship with the wizard as one in which we sympathise with the entertaining raven over his deceptive and immoral boss – even though the latter character is our own role in the game. One ending even concludes, with considerable accuracy:

*** You’ve won! You have a long and destructive career in magical accounting. No one cares about you anyway. W.D. was the real hero. ***

W.D. is a chatty, easy-going fellow: fond of shiny objects and raw food; occasionally limited by his avian nature; mostly loyal to his boss. He’s also very much a character we provide instructions to, rather than a vessel under our absolute control. In addition to refusing certain actions for which he lacks the dexterity, one puzzle hinges on acquiring a respawning item that W.D. will gobble up on sight and in another instance he ignores your commands altogether to go on a rant.

This is certainly a highly anthropomorphised raven, but his physicality as a bird permeates the gameplay (although his ability to fly is rarely utilised), and his narration conveys an appealingly cartoonish take on a corvid’s perspective.

Speculative Fiction is, of course, not a character study. It’s a puzzle game, it’s structured around puzzles and W.D. is our means of interacting with them. The puzzles certainly benefit from W.D., but the reverse is perhaps less true. At his best W.D. sounds like this:

>look in pockets
Hey, hey, there’s a magic wand in one of the pockets! Man, the fat guy didn’t even think it was worth taking? That’s just sad.

And at his worst, he sounds like this:

>disconnect brown
Which do you mean, the brown wossname or the brown receptacle?

>wossname
Disconnected.

The latter dialogue coming from that troublesome fourth lurker in the triangle of identities: whoever wrote the parser’s default messages. The thing is that for a relatively large and complicated puzzle game, it’s difficult to write a characterful response to every command – especially mechanical and perfunctory actions, and even more especially for the actions players take while fumbling with the puzzles and parser. It’s not impossible to do, as other authors have demonstrated, but it is laborious  and unrewarding – and also probably unnecessary for a game, like this, that wants to focus on solid puzzles. W.D. is a cool character, used efficiently.

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