Wade Clarke on Best NPCs 2012

Wade Clarke writes on Guilded Youth, Andromeda Dreaming and The Statue Got Me High.

Guilded Youth, by Jim Munroe

Guilded Youth effects a set of vivid exterior portraits of its ’80s teen NPCs, and does so with a great economy of writing and a dash of ascii artwork. The protagonists are moving towards adulthood with various degrees of hesitancy, trying to work out who they are and whom they want to be, and both the presentation of the game and its subject matter focus the player’s attention on their mutable identities. In the intimate environment of the BBS fantasy game they play together, a one-liner dispensed by one of them often prompts quick echoes from the others which will tell the player something about all of them. The exchanges are funny, too. Some are funny for the characters. Some are funny for the observant PC Tony the Thief. Some are funny for the player, who has the luxury of being able to survey the situation from the outside. And of course a lot of them are funny for various combinations of these entities.

Everyone’s first reaction to the opening screen of Guilded Youth is along the lines of: ‘Wow!’* (*Actual survey of everyone not undertaken.) The green glow of the ASCII Dungeons & Dragons character portraits is so appealing that it makes folks just want to jump right in there. These portraits act as the first big piece of characterisation for all of the NPCs. They are loaded with the meaning we get from computer and fantasy gaming systems – What role do I want to play in this game? How will the class I choose distinguish me from other players? What do I want my avatar to be? – and they communicate that meaning almost instantly. This makes the BBS world a neat framing device for a game with six main characters who are all tweaking their sense of self.

Each of the kids appears in only one of two contexts: as their avatar on the BBS, or as themselves, at night, sneaking around the abandoned manor with Tony in search of loot. It’s the consistent backdrop and specific circumstances which don’t change from one night sortie to the next which allow the personalities of the NPCs to be thrown into such quick relief. That and Tony’s keenness of observation, informed by the contrast between how his friends act on the BBS and how they strike him in the flesh. Once I had grasped the pattern of the game on my first play, I started looking forward to meeting each new companion and finding out how they would behave, what their idiosyncrasies would be. I especially liked Chris’s strong-willed presence and her amateur gymnastic skills, and how cool she thought it would be to get to use those skills during an adventure, and that she got to.

A lot of folks, including myself, found the place Guilded Youth ended in its IFComp incarnation disappointing. This amounted to a strong communal sign that players were interested in the characters and wanted something more for them. Jim Munroe obliged and updated the game to include character specific codas. These are very satisfying and add a lot to the quality of the NPCs. If you’d speculated on such future topics as whether Tony would retain his dash of kleptomania into adulthood, or whether Magnus’s portentousness was a weird harbinger of Something (an interest in hedge funds) you’d have the answers. The romantic post-caper ending with Chris is a good surprise, too. It almost feels like the outro of a James Bond movie, though without the smut.

What’s funny about the NPCs in Guilded Youth (or just jealous-making) is that even though they don’t say a tremendous amount of stuff or stay onscreen long enough to do a tremendous amount of stuff, they manage to leave a great impression of their liveliness, individual foibles and relationships in a way that’s both fun and realistic.

Andromeda Dreaming, by Joey Jones

Andromeda Dreaming gives all the best dialogue, connivings, knowing glances and most other things to its NPCs. It does not give much to the PC, Aliss, who may be radical and profoundly interesting for all we know, but there is no way to know, since she can’t remember anything about herself and we are her. Her lot in her new amnesiac life is to be strapped into a space bunk bed, to flailingly question NPCs while awake and to engage boldly but fleetingly with NPCs while asleep. Thus Andromeda Dreaming is largely an NPC piece. While only one of those NPCs is significantly fleshed out – the garulous Kadro, and entertainingly so – the others you encounter while awake, Sen Kulpa and Jimmy, complete some kind of dynamic which is representative of the game’s interest in different levels of awareness.

Kadro’s Morbozzan slang, a great creation of Joey’s, initially stands between the player and a basic understanding of their situation. And this obviously isn’t Kadro’s fault. The big bearded man likes to talk, has an entertaining attitude and would seem to be good company. He doesn’t hold it against Aliss that she is some weird amnesiac assassin, and he answers her many questions as best he can. His presence is so vivid and down to earth (down to Morbozzo?) that it veils the creepy backstory of the game, and also brings a clarity to the here and now which can be contrasted with the murkiness of the game’s dream states and memories.

The villain Sen Kulpa is initially described just as “a thin woman”. If you look harder, you don’t discern much more than that. With her unremarkable physical presence downplayed, she quickly seems to exist mostly as her voice, as the things she says to the player. The sense of this is apparent once the Manchurian Candidate plot is revealed, as it aligns Sen with the whispering mind controllers who are able to change their victims’ reality with just a word or phrase.

“Little” Jimmy is a background character, a guy about whom all we know is his that his name sounds dodgy and that when we take a look at him while he’s asleep, we are presented with the wall of his scar-covered back. While not of great import in his actions in the game, Jimmy is a reminder of the opaque region of reality in general. In terms of player awareness, he’s the opposite of a vital and imminent presence like Kadro. And somewhere in between and beneath these two fall Sen and the anonymous hypnotists of Aliss’s dreams, unsettling and disembodied voices tinkering in the twilight between consciousness and unconsciousness.

The sexless Expert of Aliss’s memories brings sinister precision to its stream of the game. Kadro’s chummy banter, the vague question and answer session taking place between he and Aliss aboard the pod and even the silly space opera on the TV immediately seem miles away in the expert’s robot-like presence. Its dialogue is that of a philosopher carefully seducing a prospective pupil: “Education is not training. I do not give you answers for you to memorise. Would you like to discover the truth for yourself?… You won’t find oneironautics on the core syllabus.” I’ve played Andromeda Dreaming a number of times now, and its way of suddenly presenting scenes that are so different to what is going on in the pod, but which then “crash” back into the now when you wake up, makes me think about a particular phenomenon of life, whereby the present can sometimes feel so overwhelmingly real that it’s hard to either remember other places or ways of being from your past, or to imagine the possibility of others in the future. And how dangerous this feeling can be if you can’t shake it off.

Kadro, in spite of his having aligned with the bad guys in this game, is very much a positive manifestation of the present, and that’s why I see him as the entity off which everything else bounces, all the dreams, uncertainties and vaguenesses which threaten the real. In his own right, he’s also one of those voluble, likeable and idiosyncratic NPCs of the kind who can scoop up all the Oscars on Oscar night (though he didn’t actually do it at the XYZZYs.) But together, Andromeda Dreaming‘s NPCs collectively stake out all the terrain necessary to realise the game’s ideas and atmosphere, from the clear and imminent to the distant and dreamt.

The Statue Got Me High, by Ryan Veeder

When I first approached The Statue Got Me High, I felt a bit like that Ray guy à la IFDB (“…opaque references to some music band I neither know nor like”). I didn’t have an interest in the band They Might Be Giants. I didn’t know the plot of Don Giovanni, so I wouldn’t even have recognised its unannounced presence. Now I just don’t have an interest in the band They Might Be Giants. The game was well positioned to confuse me. Instead, it aggravated me, making me take notes for a puzzle that didn’t happen, then blasting me with imperative italicised text speech that I didn’t know where it was coming from. (Wait, I’m going somewhere with this!) But by game’s end, the put-upon butler PC can say to himself, “At least all of those jerks died in a fire.” For the dinner guests were indeed a cavalcade of jerks to varying degrees, but not in a screaming and ranting way. Had this dinner party not ended in a premature inferno, it would have been one of pained seething.

I think the sum effect of the NPCs in The Statue Got Me High is to demonstrate that class of people in the world who are physically well off but who, lacking any discipline or insight to bring to bear on their mountains of leisure time, are stuck in circles of unhappy meaninglessness with friends who aren’t even their friends. Or at least a tongue in cheek version of that class of people, given that there are characters with names like “Gary Horrible”. Garry is a man who has such self-contempt that he can’t even stand to sit where a painting might stare at him in judgement. Miss O seems to have beauty and snobbery and little else. Just before his spine falls out, Ivan admits that he’s essentially an enabler of drug addicts. Miss Idie’s splat of nonsequiturial racism turns out to be grounds for the statue to incinerate her, and her fastidious and self-obsessive explanation of her lefthandedness also suggests that she is of broad spectrum unpleasantness.

The PC is the conduit for all of this. The casually confidential manner in which each NPC speaks to the butler allows the game to rapidly expose their eccentricities. Their upper-class attitude towards the help as a non-person of no consequence means that they’re prepared to impart information to him in a heartbeat that they wouldn’t dream of sharing with anyone else on the planet; whom they can’t stand, what they hate, what ails them. IF can be powerful when characters speak straight to the player, and even more so if that communication excludes other characters who may be excitingly within earshot.

The PC (and the player, probably using pen and paper) makes an effort to satisfy all the NPCs’ seating vanities, but is thwarted when John suddenly rips up the place cards. It’s frustrating for the player, but re-emphasises that John is a supreme jerk and that any attempts to please these sour guests are probably doomed. Potentially wasting the player’s time with the seating puzzle pushes The Statue Got Me High a bit into conceptual art territory, and the effect of that particular gesture is better appreciated afterwards, rather than in the moment when you may simply be pissed off. But it is a gesture which reflects the strong sense of futility peeling off all the NPCs. The statue’s climactic massacre is a florid demonstration of comeuppances for the horrible, and the horrible are quickly but finely sketched in this game.

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