Stephen Granade on Best Individual PC 2012

Stephen Granade writes on Olivia’s Orphanorium, Sunday Afternoon and Counterfeit Monkey.

The “Best Individual Player Character” award is about the character that you step into when you play interactive fiction. We’ve come a long way since the default assumption was that the player character should be an empty vessel into which the player pours herself. The ageless, faceless, gender-neutral, culturally-ambiguous adventure person has given way to more authored characters such as Grunk from Lost Pig.

What we mean when we say “player character” can shift in the same way that what I type into my phone gets autocorrected into many different things. Graham Nelson pointed out that playing interactive fiction involves a triangle of identities: the player, the protagonist, and the narrator. The player types things into the command line, the narrator responds by describing the world and the results of your actions, and the protagonist is the avatar controlled by the player. “Player character” sometimes refers to the protagonist; other times, the narrator; and occasionally both at once. More than a decade ago, Duncan Stevens talked about how the choice of player character affects a game’s design. I mention this not only because I want to show off that I’ve been around a while, but also because all three of the 2012 nominees for Best Individual Player Character challenge assumptions about what a player character is and tug at different sides of this triangle.

Olivia’s Orphanorium, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

Take Olivia’s Orphanorium, by Sam Kabo Ashwell. Olivia runs an orphanage in Victorian England. Your goal as Olivia, the “[s]parky young entrepreneur” who dreams of running an orphanage, is to maximize how useful the orphans are so that you make the most money. To that end you buy various means to improve each orphan’s appearance, discipline, vigor, and morale. Olivia comes across as a determined young woman who doesn’t realize the inhuman system that she’s helping perpetrate.

I lied in that last paragraph, by the way. Olivia’s not really a defined protagonist at all. If you >EXAMINE ME in the game, you find that

You are an attractive, capable woman with a sunny disposition, aged 20-35; despite this, your life is sufficiently dull to excite neither unease nor envy in middle-aged ladies.

“Aged 20-35″? That’s remarkably unspecific for a specific player character. Olivia is more of a blank slate than is normal for a Best Individual PC nominee. But while Olivia the protagonist isn’t sharply defined, the narrator is. Like the narrator of You Will Select a Decision, the one in Olivia’s Orphanorium plays it straight, underscoring how horrifying the orphanage really is, and in doing so provides a very specific voice and worldview.

What I find fascinating is that I, too, feel like Olivia is a strong player character even though she’s not a defined protagonist. It’s like one of those optical illusions where I know that the checkerboard is flat and yet, even after I’m shown how the illusion works, my brain keeps fooling me anyway and telling me that the board is bulging. Ashwell’s sharp, satirical take on elements of Victorian orphanages and mores, underlaid with an ironic yet horrified 21st-century subtext, accrete over time until I attribute the viewpoint to the specific player character of Olivia. It helps that we’re so removed from Victorian England that our tendency is to assign the narrator’s view to the person of Olivia rather than to Victorian culture as a whole.

Olivia’s Orphanorium is a text-based version of the casual time-management games like Diner Dash. No one I know has ever said, “Hey, that Flo from Diner Dash is a great character. I want to know more about her!” (If you have said that non-ironically, please don’t show me your Flo/Om Nom fanfic.) But the text-based interface makes Olivia’s Orphanorium seem more real, giving the game a “you-are-there” immediacy, while it being turn-based gives you time to savor details like how Olivia is unfazed by sewage flooding the orphanage, setting her charges to mopping up the fecal water to stave off cholera without a hint of emotion. Even though Olivia’s Orphanorium and Diner Dash share the same underlying gameplay, the former has a distinct point of view and sly subverting message about time-management games that we attribute to the player character. In doing so, Olivia’s Orphanorium conjures a player character as if out of thin air, and does so well. There’s not that much to the game or the player character, but what is there is deployed to good effect.

Sunday Afternoon, by Christopher Huang

Sunday Afternoon, by Christopher Huang, has a very defined player character. You play a young boy staying with Aunt Emma and Uncle Stephen while your parents are away. The setting of Sunday Afternoon is like the mirror-universe version of Olivia’s Orphanorium, though I expect that Olivia’s would be the one with the goatee. Both games are set in Victorian England, but Sunday Afternoon is nostalgic where Olivia’s Orphanorium is biting, and the former takes place in the English countryside…mostly. But more on that in a moment.

(That last bit is foreshadowing, by the way. Thrill to my use of literary devices!)

Hector Conrad, the player character, is a young boy growing up at the end of the 19th century. As the game says if you examine yourself,

You’ve been thoroughly scrubbed and ironed and starched into your least comfortable set of clothes. One day, when you are either Prime Minister or Archbishop of Canterbury — depending on whether you listen to Mother or Father — you’re going to outlaw starch or declare it anathema or both.

It’s a beautiful summer day in 1892, and all Hector wants to do is to go outside and play, assuming that he can get away from Aunt Emma and Uncle Stephen. Hector is the kind of impossibly winsome kid that I hate because I was that kid, deferential to authority and uncritical of what I was absorbing from the culture around me. Conrad’s had the same experience, as you can see by his description of a portrait of Queen Victoria.

Mother has a portrait just like this back home, hung in exactly the same place over the parlour fireplace. Everybody you know has the same. You reckon that anyone who doesn’t must be a spy, a heretic, a foreigner, or worse.

It’s enough to make me wish I could stuff both Conrad and the kid version of myself in adjacent school lockers. Granted, Hector is like Olivia, in that he presents his world in a straightforward manner that highlights where that world’s views clash with those of our current culture. Just as we’re not supposed to like how Olivia views the orphans, we’re supposed to recognize the blindly classist strains that run throughout Hector’s life.

We learn a lot about Hector through asides like the one above as well as how he reacts to Aunt Emma and Uncle Stephen. For instance, when Aunt Emma tells you that war is a nasty business and that she hopes you never have to see it, Hector thinks, “Well, perhaps, but it would be really exciting….”

In fact, there are several reminders of war in the game. In the kitchen there’s a photograph of a small unit of soldiers in front of an elephant. You learn why the war motif is so prevalent if you try to escape the house without fully distracting Emma and Stephen, as you suddenly find yourself in Flanders in 1916, huddled in the trenches, waiting for dawn. Hector is now Major Conrad, and he’s telling his fellow soldiers about his childhood as a game. The other soldiers tell Major Conrad what to do, and Hector in turn tells them what happens to the young Hector as a result. They’ve created World-War-I-era interactive fiction! You thought Hector was the protagonist and narrator, when Major Hector Conrad is just the narrator and you are playing Hector’s fellow soldiers who are in turn playing young Hector and trying to help his escape outside to play.

It’s all very meta, and it’s also a neat conceit. It makes the main game’s nostalgia far more bearable. Major Conrad is wistfully remembering the kid he used to be, but that look back is colored by his experiences in the trenches. Just like I’m sometimes annoyed at the dumber things my younger self thought, I felt that Conrad highlights Hector’s naïveté about war out of exasperation. For Conrad, the past has indeed become a foreign country.

It’s a shame that the conceit doesn’t fully work. Sunday Afternoon doesn’t commit to this framing device enough to make it effective. If you don’t repeatedly try to escape Stephen and Emma’s house unsuccessfully, you’ll never see the Flanders sections, making the player character much more straightforward and much less interesting. Further, Sunday Afternoon spends little time in Flanders. At the end, when Hector escapes the house, the game’s text tells you that you’ve achieved “Freedom!”, then follows that immediately with the sparse text, All right, men. Move out. But the pathos of the situation is blunted because we haven’t spent enough time with Major Conrad and his men to make their probable death as they charge over the top mean something emotionally.

Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short

Where Sunday Afternoon doesn’t throw itself whole-heartedly into what makes its player character so interesting, Emily Short’s Counterfeit Monkey is committed like whoa. There’s the gameplay, where the T-remover from Leather Goddesses of Phobos gives way to an entire set of linguistic transformations, starting with the ability to remove most any letter from a word and growing from there. There’s the setting, where the implications of a world where you can remove the p’s from “apple” and convert it into an actual glass of ale are worked out in depth. (The island of Atlantis where the game is set staved off an invasion with a depluralizing cannon that turned a bunch of ships into a single ship. I’d kill to have that cannon for trips to theme parks.) Even the player character is a master stroke of invention. Both the narrator and protagonist are characters — Alex and Andra, respectively — who have been fused together into a single person named Alexandra.

Since the game is shot through with reified ideas, I love that Alex the narrator is a literal character. There’ve been games before where the narrator is effectively a character, especially Violet, where the protagonist imagines his girlfriend Violet talking to him as the game’s narrator. But just as Counterfeit Monkey expands the T-remover into a dizzying array of word-altering tools, the game takes what could have been a gimmick and instead makes it one of the things driving the story and the game’s emotional beats.

Alex is a rather guileless graduate student specializing in linguistic studies. He wants to create a constructed language that will make it easy to turn trash into food and seawater into water, but the government of Atlantis views this kind of work as deeply subversive and cracks down on anyone mucking about with language like that. Alex has utopian dreams and no real appreciation of the trouble he might cause, and having been a graduate student myself, let me tell you, that’s a pretty common worldview when you’ve had your head up the ass-end of your research for years. Andra is a smuggler and a thief, working with a crew to steal linguistic technology from Atlantis and smuggle it out into the wider world. Atlantis’s totalitarian government has uncovered her activities, though, so she has to escape by disguising herself. Since Andra and her colleagues were smuggling Alex off the island anyway, Andra decides to disguise both of them by combining them into one person.

Counterfeit Monkey uses a variety of techniques to make Alex and Andra distinct, sharply-drawn characters. Alex is a native of Atlantis, so as the narrator he interweaves functional descriptions with running commentaries on the places and people you encounter. You meet his father, visit his childhood home, and spend a lot of time in the university that’s the center of his intellectual life. Andra is harder to get to know, since she’s the silent protagonist whom we play, so throughout the game you have fleeting memories of Andra’s past life that you can explore more deeply by remembering them. You learn that Andra is rather brittle and not always pleasant in part because of how her stifling religious upbringing has damaged her. It also helps that you’re trying to get off of the island, so you have to interact with Andra’s criminal network. Andra’s fellow criminals have plenty of opinions about her, as does Alex himself. Alex’s a typical academic, so Andra’s more criminal skills always surprise him, especially since it is in part his body carrying them out. At one point Alex ruefully says, “I might not have the nerve to do anything [about the police] by myself, but you’re with me, and I’m starting to appreciate that’s like being Batman.”

The push-pull of Alex and Andra in one body eventually comes to a head (figuratively, as you don’t end up with you controlling the head and Alex controlling the body, cool though that might have been). You have a choice of whom to sacrifice so that you can continue your mission: Brock, Andra’s lover and partner in crime; or a woman who’s spent years transmogrified into an inanimate object by the Atlantis government. Andra doesn’t want to sacrifice Brock, but Alex doesn’t want to see the woman suffer more. But you have to pick one or the other, and whomever loses the argument loses partial grip on Alexandra’s shared body. Before the pivotal choice, Alex describes everything in terms of “we”. If you choose to sacrifice the woman, Alex is weakened and descriptions such as “everywhere we look” become “everywhere you look”. If you send Brock out to be captured, Andra is weakened and descriptions instead become “everywhere I look”.

That decision leaves Alex and Andra both crippled. Neither can be a separate person any more. Restoration gel normally undoes any linguistic transformations, but when Atlantida, the reified spirit of the nation of Atlantis, shoots Alexandra with a pellet of the gel, nothing happens. Alex and Andra are fused. “Sometimes a synthetic person gets broken,” Atlantida says. “Forced into a choice he never would have made on his own. Impossible to separate because you aren’t two whole people any more.” And in a nice touch, the “he” and “his” become “she” and “her” if you the player side with Alex instead of Andra.

All of that makes Alexandra, the player character of Counterfeit Monkey, one of the best PCs I’ve seen in years. Alexandra combines the technical fireworks of a subverted protagonist/narrator dichotomy with two exquisitely-developed characters whose emotional arc drives the story. I should probably draw a comparison between that combination and the way that Alexandra is the combination of Alex and Andra, but I’m too busy being jealous about what Short’s accomplished with this game.

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