C.E.J. Pacian on Best Individual NPC

C.E.J. Pacian is a time traveller from the 20th century and hobbyist game maker, probably best known for authoring Gun Mute (XYZZY Award winner: Best Puzzles) and Rogue of the Multiverse (XYZZY Award winner: Best Individual NPC).

The Best Individual NPC finalists for 2013 were Bell Park, Captain Verdeterre, Coloratura, Faithful Companion and Horse Master.

-bitmap-zer0- in Bell Park, Youth Detective (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)

When a tech conference decides that it would be better to have a famous kid detective, Bell Park, investigate a murder than to get the cops involved, the second suspect she considers is -bitmap-zer0-: a l33t h4x0r of some sort. Of all the weirdoes involved in this incident, -bitmap-zer0- probably makes the best connection with Bell, while also teaching us the important lesson that we’re all really weirdoes when it gets down to it.

Bell Park: Youth Detective harks back to the style of classic Choose Your Own Adventure books, breaking up longer pieces of text with fewer choices, and telling a more straightforward kids’ own story instead of the kind of counter-cultural hypertext one might have come to expect from a Twine game.

This also means there’s less of an emphasis on complex variables and more straightforward branching. Yes, if we don’t ask -bitmap-zer0-’s name, we get told it in a different branch, and if we accuse her of the murder Bell apologises for that in the ending passage, but mostly we get funnelled through the same-ish set of events to the conclusion.

-bitmap-zer0- certainly has the game’s most interesting optional branch, in which Bell becomes so frustrated with -bitmap-zer0-’s strange attitude to the murder that she breaks down and admits how scared she is of failure and being judged for it. In return, the hacker gives her some advice about solving the case:

“Weird is normal. There are weird people all over. What you need to look for is someone being weird weirdly. Who’s being weird in a way that weird people aren’t normally weird?”

Aside from that rather touching moment, it’s also easy to like -bitmap-zer0- because she’s cool. Not in the Poochie sense (she does throw out words like “meatspace”, “grok” and “youngling”, but with some ironic credibility), but in the sense of having a global, digital view of the world. The attitude that so frustrates Bell in that optional branch is one of disinterest in the murder because she doesn’t know the victim. What does geographical location matter anymore? Isn’t that a quaint notion that we’ve discarded in favour of far more meaningful and less random connections? The same applies to the victim’s name:

“Birth names don’t mean anything to anyone. What’s her twitter handle?”

Which might seem like the ravings of a caricature until you Google “Paige McKinley” and see how many of them there are.

Try as I might, I wasn’t able to dramatically affect the relationship between Bell and -bitmap-zer0-, outside of that one confession, but that is emblematic of the best decision the game makes about character interaction: it is the youthful detective who is more changed by the conversations than the NPCs. -bitmap-zer0- arms Bell with some useful advice and a kind ear. This makes her a likeable character in a likeable game. And sometimes, that’s all you need.

Captain Verdeterre in Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder (Ryan Veeder)

To peek at someone else’s hymn sheet for a moment, there is a kind of balance at the heart of games, where we, the players, want to be challenged. In return, the game must be careful to give us challenges that, although they may seem so at first, are not unfair. Personifying these conflicting requirements in an ambiguous antagonist can go do a lot to curry our good will – mapping the demands of the game to the demands of a (hopefully) loveable (or love-to-hateable) NPC.

Captain Verdeterre is such a character: the captain of a sinking pirate ship who has charged us, as his last remaining crewman, with salvaging as much of his plunder as we can. We run around stuffing valuables into a sack before getting into the lifeboat and then being told by the captain whether we suck or not. Inevitably, at first we do. Then we get better, until the point where the captain admits that hiring us was a pretty good idea of his and pats himself on the back.

Yes, Captain Verdeterre is completely self-absorbed and utterly disinterested in our welfare. He demands we grab items of only sentimental value to him and does little to help us distinguish those items that carry true value. But he does all of this in an entertaining enough fashion that we, the players, can’t help but like him. Why exactly the player character remains with him is a little more mystifying, beyond this Stockholm Syndrome-esque response:

>shoot captain

You couldn’t. What would you do without him?

Our interaction with the captain is predominantly restricted to him commenting on items as we examine them and stow them in our sack – such comments illuminating his relationship with the player character and the history of the ship under his command. One particularly amusing set of commands looks like this:

>put locket in bag

“Ooh, jewelry! Good eye, Tibert!” says the captain.

You stuff the silver locket into the sack.

>open locket

Verdeterre looks on with interest as you struggle to undo the locket’s tiny clasp, and when you finally get it open he asks, “Who’s the picture of?”

The tiny painting depicts a fairly respectable-looking rat. Engraved inside the cover is the name “Etienne”. You turn the interior toward Verdeterre for inspection.

“Oh, hey, I know her. Let me see that,” he says, prying the locket from your hands. He swings it over his head and throws it as far away as possible.

“Cool, that’s taken care of. Let’s get a move on.” You decide it’s best not to ask.

Oh, and I don’t think I mentioned this: Captain Verdeterre is a talking rat. Which also means his dialogue can give us hints of this world where rats and humans share a civilisation (more than we do already, I mean), and he can solve the odd puzzle involving small tunnels.

So Captain Verdeterre is well written, but is he especially well implemented? To pick an obvious example, this is first and foremost a game about avoiding drowning in rooms that fill with water. So how does Captain Verdeterre cope with the oncoming flood? Does he perch on our shoulder or ride on our hat or jump between tall items of scenery?

You’re struggling to keep your head above water.

The captain scurries along after you.

Oh. He scurries along, just as he does in rooms that are bone dry.

Or:

Verdeterre’s eyes light up as you lift the key. “I know what that is! That’s the key to the strongbox in the hold! I knew it was somewhere.”

[...]

>open box
You yank on the lid of the strongbox, but it’s locked tight.

“Oh, shoot,” says Verdeterre. “I forget where I left the key. Knowing me, it’s probably hidden extremely well. But I can’t remember what was in there, either, so it’s not a big loss.”

That direct interaction with Verdeterre is prevented is entirely in keeping with both his character and the tone of the game. That he does not react to entirely predictable aspects of the game (rooms flooding, things being done out of order – and remember that this is a game that relies on knowledge learned during previous playthroughs) is somewhat more jarring.

Is this forgivable? I’m going to say: yeah. Captain Verdeterre is a charismatic antagonist and he’s the spice that turns a dry optimisation puzzle into a fun adventure.

Ghost in Faithful Companion (Matt Weiner)

Some of the best characters in video games are non-verbal ones. In graphical games this makes particular sense – repeating an animation is less noticeable than repeating a particular line (and its particular inflection by the voice actor, if there is one) – but it can also help things in text-only games. Although the text may be the same each time, we can still imagine a natural individuality to each action in terms of what isn’t described. Thurnley’s ghost in Faithful Companion is a non-verbal character, and probably the most interesting nominee from a technical perspective.

This game, it must be noted, is a polished version of a 3 hour speed-IF. In that context, it is nothing less than fantastic. In the cold, hard light of the XYZZY Awards, however, I shall cruelly vivisect Thurnley’s ghost for our edification.

Thurnley’s ghost is invisible, but delineated supernaturally by leaves, which is a pretty cool image, mostly left to our imagination.

There is no wind, but the leaves fly up from the bench and twirl in the air. Somehow they describe a faintly human shape.

This ghost’s trick is that it does everything we do, only two turns later. For example, one of the first things we will want to do is pick up a key. Two turns later, Thurnley’s ghost does not reach out to the spot where the key once was and close its spectral fingers around thin air. Instead it runs the command “take key” through its parser, which then tries to take the key from our inventory. Being touched by a ghost is typically unpleasant to some degree in ghost stories, and in Faithful Companion this touch causes us to faint and the game to end.

My solution to this puzzle was to quickly unlock the door in question and then drop the key. A solution which foreshadowed how utterly at odds with the game I would be over the next puzzle.

Through the door is another door with three locks. These locks are opened and closed with a single press of the same latch, so typing “open bronze latch” twice in succession will open and then close the bronze latch. This naturally causes a problem when we are unlocking the third latch and Thurnley’s ghost dutifully types “open bronze latch” into its parser at the same time.

There must, I thought, be a neat trick to use the ghost’s delayed mimicry of us to open all the latches. And I wasted a lot of time on this puzzle, getting increasingly frustrated, because this kind of puzzle, where you know the actions that must be performed, but not the order to perform them in, is my favourite kind of puzzle in parser IF.

Eventually, nursing a murderous grudge against Thurnley’s ghost, I decided to see if there was a ClubFloyd transcript I could steal the solution from. That solution is to not drop the key in the first puzzle, but instead to race through the door and lock it behind you. When the ghost types “take key” and “go in” into its parser, it will get only the parser error messages “That’s not something you can see.” and “(first opening the marble door) It seems to be locked.” And we will be safe to unlock all the latches without interference.

So, what is actually the game’s centrepiece puzzle involves completely avoiding its most interesting mechanic rather than exploiting it. Given how annoyed I was at this ghost for locking all the latches I unlocked, finding out that the solution is to mistreat it hardly made me feel like a faithful companion so much as a justly vengeful victim. Certainly, inflicting parser error messages on an NPC (or so I presume must be happening, behind the scenes) is a delightful act of retribution against its entire kind.

The final room and its puzzle are fortunately much more agreeable, in particular the way that we must co-operate with the ghost to lift a heavy object. It is very fitting that the ghost should actually get to do something positive in the player’s eyes after ruining all our best laid plans in the previous rooms and before being finally laid to rest. If it had resisted us (albeit unwittingly) the whole way, we might have been left to wonder whether this spirit really deserved our help.

We learn very little about Thurnley throughout the game, aside that he was a man, and a pretty unlucky one in both life and death, which leaves open the question of why exactly his ghost mimics what we do after a short delay – I was expecting some sort of time travel twist. But perhaps that is too much to expect from a three-hour game. To return to my original thesis, Thurnley’s ghost is a great technical achievement, if little else, and of all these characters, probably the one the most likely to be remembered in future discussions of unusual forms of NPC interaction.

Your horse in Horse Master (Tom McHenry)

Probably the most common genre of speculative fiction among Twine games, at least in my experience, is a kind of gonzo slipstream that relies on strange turns of phrase and the careful omission of details. It’s a genre that’s uniquely suited to text games, especially as an underground reaction to the expensive high definition graphics that eat up the lion’s share of the scope, development time and processing power of modern AAA games. “Your horse” in Horse Master, a prime example of the genre I’m talking about, is a perfect demonstration of the way a (mostly) text-only game can conjure visuals that a graphical game would never be able to.

From the game’s opening, where we arrive at a factory to obtain a horse genetically engineered to our specification, there are hints that the horses of the world we’re in are not the horses we’re used to. By the time the horse has hatched from its embryonic sphere and “uses its cilia to push itself around your bathtub” during its larval growth phase we know that all our preconceptions of what a horse is should be set aside.

What details we do get of the horse are delightfully weird, but also specific and consistent. And, brilliantly, we’re never given either a detailed description or vague précis of the horse’s appearance as a whole. We get enough detail to know that our horse is strange and wondrous and terrible, and we’re left with to fill in the gaps with our own imaginations. And, of course, our imaginations provide things far stranger and more startling to us than any concrete detail we could have read in the text.

Interaction with our horse is mainly via a consistent menu of actions to perform which will raise its vital statistics (glamour, uncanny, pep, realness and discretion). These actions are all, naturally, otherworldly and surprising. Even simply feeding the horse raises the aside that:

Many horses are raised to a professional caliber without ever eating solid foods in their entire lives.

We get to perform three of these actions a day, in the twenty days leading up to the Horse Master Competition. Notable events in this period include your horse learning to walk and breathe air, naming your horse, getting the option to use the optimal winning strategy the player character looked up on the internet, and getting evicted by Deputized Military Officers and sleeping in a grimy alley.

That optimal winning strategy part is kind of interesting. At first I thought it was going to be a commentary on actually enjoying games (or life, or relationships) versus obsessive min-maxing or munchkinning. But after winning the game while using the option heavily, I’m not so sure, and I think it’s actually more of a concession to the game’s potential for tedium. After seeing all the flavour text for the different actions (and maybe making sure the horse’s stats are well balanced, although no-one seems too sure how to win this game), we can then just click this option to get through to the end. Ya know, until we lose our house.

You see, the horse is great and memorable in its own right, but the really interesting character in Horse Master is the player character. And as the game progresses, the horse, and what is required to raise it, serve more to illuminate the player character than to tell us much about this (necessarily mysterious) monster. Raising a horse is shown to be an act of desperation. It’s dangerous both physically (“Safety Note: NEVER ride a horse”), medically (the player character must destroy their health with drugs “in order to react with an almost unconscious speed to [a horse's] powerful movements”) and financially. Buying the horse and associated equipment clearly eats the last of the player character’s meagre bank balance. There are a few references to other horse masters also being poor and desperate. This is the last ditch, kamikaze life plan of a person with nothing left to lose. Because, as the game tells us:

[T]op Horse Masters essentially ascend from the cash-based economy to a place of pure grace and skill.

And why would anyone want to ascend from the cash-based economy if they were actually doing well at it?

Naming this horse and raising it through great adversity naturally leads to some sense of attachment. But, for me, the game’s overall tone of despair and deprivation and impending loss stopped me from connecting too much with the creature. I’m always wary of stories about animals, because they often feature scenes in which the animal dies or almost dies in order to provoke a cheap emotional reaction from the audience, and with as dark a story as Horse Master, I knew to keep my horse at arm’s length.

As the final part of the Horse Master Competition arrived and was skilfully drawn out, I’ll admit I got pretty tense about what might happen. But when the player character calmly killed and butchered the animal they’d given so much to raise (“you can see a dozen more things you should have done with and for [your horse]“, the PC frets shortly before) my reaction was only that this was about what I expected. Really, it might have been more shocking for the game to actually have a happy ending of some sort.

And, again, this ending serves to use the horse as a means of showing us more about the player character than the horse itself. That this is a person who can so calmly and dispassionately slaughter their only friend in the world in this way. And that’s really as it should be, I suppose. The horse must remain a mysterious force of (un?)nature. The player character merely hopes to transcend, and probably won’t.

But perhaps the horse really does get a happy ending. One that is, as far as I can tell, dispensed at random. In which the player character becomes lost in the prison-industrial complex while:

[Your horse] is still out there somewhere. Growing still. No whistle guides it anymore.

They might bring down the thing you made, but they will never be able to un-see it.

Mercy in Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Even more so than Horse MasterColoratura is a game where interactions with the main NPC are coloured by the nature of the player character. In this case, we take the role of a strange deep sea intelligence squirming through a research ship. This creature, the Aqueosity, is part of some kind of telepathic society (which the researchers have removed it from) and perceives everything in terms of emotions – which it can both see and manipulate as colours.

This last ability is a key interaction mechanic in the game, as we must frequently identify characters who can be easily tipped into certain emotions and give them the final push they require. This is nifty, and a nice way to give us something to do during key developments in the story, but you can forgive the author for not fully implementing the combinatorial explosion of options that would be required for using this skill willy-nilly. It’s usually a case of identifying the one emotion-colour to psychically paint a character to make the story progress. Consider our introduction to Mercy:

The Mercy moves between the bodies, grasping out to them in an unbalanced orange horror. You realize that her Blindness prevents her from seeing their bliss, their perfect happiness.

>x mercy
A Blind One. Possibly a female?

Her bright orange aura churns anxiously.

The Mercy reaches out in faint grasps of curious yellow to one of the sleepers, but the instinct is too quickly overwhelmed by her orange repulsion: she is afraid of what the answer might be.

>colour mercy yellow
You reach out, caressing Mercy’s delicate aura, willing it to become yellow. Her aura absorbs this new state willingly, as though they were her own emotions.

The Mercy forcefully perks into yellow curiosity. She rapidly leaps disjunct from one sleeper to another, examining each thoroughly. [Further stuff happens.]

“Mercy” is, of course, the player character’s term for her, based on its weird perception of her nature and emotions. Mercy is apparently a scientist, and her curiosity and open-mindedness make her especially open to peaceful interaction with the player character:

You notice the Mercy pause over your Cellarium, tracing its harmonic patterns. “What are you?” she whispers, enraptured. Her mind opens, connects for an instant. But then she snaps back to the physical and hastens to catch up with the other Blind Ones.

It’s not until we broadcast our psychic “song” throughout the ship, however, that both parties are actually brought together. Mercy proves receptive to the song – receptive enough that she ODs and lies dying on the deck until we manipulate the crew into saving her.

Now, up until this point in the game, my favourite character was probably Newsong, the meat golem that we fashion from the ship’s freezer stores. But take the one character to maybe, possibly not be vested in killing me and put her in danger because of my actions, and then charge me with frantically getting help to her (okay, I’m sure there’s no actual timer at work, but it felt frantic) and I will give a damn.

Once she’s revived, Mercy turns out to have “heard the majesty of the Universe. She is awe-struck – she knows and sings and you can feel her willingness to help.” Which sounds great, from a selfish point of view, but it’s also part of the tragedy of Mercy as a character. Has she really experienced a kind of enlightenment? Or has she just been mind-controlled by a monster? Does the fact that she is now happy maybe even mean it doesn’t matter?

As a perfect example of this ambiguity, when we first meet Mercy face to face, no longer skulking in the shadows, she gives us a loving cuddle – and our aqueous, alkaline flesh burns her – kills her if we don’t ask her to drop us.

Mercy does have some influence on the Aqueosity in turn, giving it a more human perspective. Room names and purposes become more recognisable, as the most obvious effect. And the penultimate stretch of the game sees Mercy and the Aqueosity working together to return it home (and despite all the terror and death it leaves in its wake, this is really all the Aqueosity wants from the start of the game).

At times Mercy is directly possessed by the Aqueosity, at others not, although the actions each character takes become a bit conflated at this point, and I’ll admit I don’t fully understand what this possession really means (or, I guess, more what effect it actually has on the game). It does lead to a nice puzzle where the possessed Mercy creeps out one of her shipmates and we need to release her from our control so she can act convincingly human.

For much of this penultimate act, Mercy serves as a way of introducing more traditional interactions to the game – knocking on doors, pushing buttons and the like. This is the weaker part of the game, I’d say, and I solved the final action scene by using controls randomly, with no real understanding of how they would help. But the final sequence, in which Mercy returns the Aqueosity to its home by rowing it there in a lifeboat, is simple and heart-breaking and uplifting and delightfully ambiguous.

Mercy has been touched by this strange creature’s psychic society and spirituality. She feels deeply connected to it. Maybe this means she’s just a mind-controlled zombie shell of her former self. But she is happy. And as she rows us back home, the realisation that we are going to leave her and take that connection, that happiness with us, slowly dawns on her. Finally, despite her attempts to rationalise herself into happiness (better to have loved and lost an amorphous cryptid from the crushing depths of the sea than to have never loved at all, perhaps?) she is forced to admit her impending bereavement.

Sinking Cellarium
For one last moment as your blissful tomb drifts downward, you connect with the Mercy in perfect unison, and you feel her dread over what is to come: the emptiness, the disconnection, the unfeeling tedium. She wants so desperately to go down with you.

A big part of the experience of playing parser-IF is scanning the text for cues pointing at valid actions. And a big part of playing the role of a defined character is the tension between what you expect from an action and what your character actually does. This goes double when your character is as alien as the one in Coloratura.

>mercy, down

I typed. Expecting to get the Bad End. Expecting Mercy to drown herself in a futile attempt to keep her deep connection. Dying happy, at least. And to start with, that seems to be what’s happening:

The Mercy dives after you, grasping firmly to your Cellarium. Her body cells scream for oxygen, and the pressure concaves her delicate frame.

But then:

So she abandons it, entering into the Song instead. The body maintains its desperate grasp on your Cellarium, and you puppet it in a way that pushes your Cellarium exactly back to the infinite junction. The connection of this place overwhelms you, and you Sing unending. Mercy sings with you, an eternally blissful duet. White. Perfection.

In the pursuit of higher and higher stakes in their drama, a lot of storytellers miss the fact that pulling some sort of happy ending out of an impending tragedy can be even more powerful than letting the tragedy run its course. Note that this isn’t a deus ex machina - the Aqueosity has been trying to join humans in the Song since the start of the game. Also note that this is not a saccharine everyone-lives-happily-ever-after ending. We’re still ambiguous about whether Mercy is really acting as herself or whether the Aqueosity just doesn’t understand that it’s mind-controlling people.

Is Mercy a tragic character, in the end? Or has she fought heroically to achieve happiness? Has the Aqueosity warped and used her? Or did two strange souls cooperate to find a home together? Great characters are like real people: there are no definite answers to any of these questions. And that’s often what helps a character like this to linger in the memory long after the story has ended.

2 thoughts on “C.E.J. Pacian on Best Individual NPC

  1. matt w

    Thanks for the review, Pacian! (May I call you Pacian? I get the idea that that’s more appropriate than C.E.J.?)

    What’s going on behind the scenes is not that the ghost is reparsing the commands, but that the ghost is attempting to repeat your action — the action of “taking the key,” for instance. So it’s not getting a “You can’t see any such thing here” error but rather failing the basic accessibility rule. You could think of this as the ghost responding to the mental echoes of your action at a nonverbalized level (though of course what’s really going on is that I’m storing the player’s actions and using Editable Stored Actions to change the actor to the ghost; source code.)

    I had some backstory in mind about how Thurnley’s ghost is responding to the presence of an old friend/lover by repeating what zhe does but it would be an exaggeration to say that this made it into the game.

    Going by Thurnley’s namesake, the story “Thurnley Abbey,” it would’ve been fitting to make the ghost obey direct requests, but I didn’t do that. Again, thanks for the review and the kind words! (But is “vivisect” le mot juste?)

    Reply
  2. Pacian

    Hi Matt! Thanks for making such an interesting game.

    Pacian is fine. And I’ll let others with a better handle on etymology figure out the correct term for dissecting the undead while they’re still unalive.

    I guess mental echoes is a nice explanation that fits the tone of the game, but I still like to picture the ghost tapping away on a keyboard…

    Reply

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