Jenni Polodna on Best NPCs 2012

Jenni Polodna writes on Andromeda Dreaming, Guilded Youth and The Statue Got Me High.

Andromeda Dreaming, by Joey Jones

We don’t spend much time with the NPCs of Andromeda Dreaming before they burn up in some sort of white-hot planetary calamity that I don’t really understand.  (The B I got in astronomy class was largely due to being good at algebra, which is what physics turns into if you have no idea what’s actually going on.  Then astrophysics is just that with stars in; also I think you have to care more about blue and red shifts, if those are both even a thing.  There you go:  science!)

This short acquaintance is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, you don’t really want to spend any more time with Sen than you have to.  She is your typical sneering cartoon villain, with a twist:  she is impressively incompetent.

How incompetent are we talking, you ask?  Okay, you know how your average sneering cartoon villain will explain their entire plan to the hero, and then the hero gets loose or does something with their foot or reveals their secret torso gun or what have you, and the villain dies?  Well, Sen explains her entire plan to the hero, and then dies without the hero doing anything, because she insisted on being taken to a planet that was going to blow up.

(Or… something?  I tried to follow the plot, honest, I am just really bad at following plots, and it made me sleepy.  Which, given that the main plot-progressing verb in this game is SLEEP, can be considered helpful cluing.)

Jimmy, on the other hand, is a guy we could learn more about.  How did he get his scars?  How did he convince whatever authority cares about haircuts to let him keep his glam-rock locks?  Is he single, and is he into girls who sleep a lot?  If we keep talking to him, will he start using Kadro’s weird twins language?

Kadro is another guy we could get to know better.  His main characterization is that he seems nice enough and talks like a refugee from The Gostak.  (I won’t say too much about Kadro here, because he’s an Individual NPC nominee about whom I will be writing 500-1000 words.  This worries me a little, because I just said pretty much everything I had to say about him in seventeen words, but I’m sure it will all work out.)

Your dreams also host various NPCs, even less fully realized than the waking ones.  Some have no personalities of their own, existing only to query you about dreams and existence.  One is simply a memory of the person who programmed you to kill upon hearing a code phrase — a code phrase which Sen should know, but actually repeats to you later.  Nothing happens this time, maybe because you have not been supplied with a target?  Still, casually throwing around trigger words in front of your programmed assassin is just bad policy, which adds to the notion of Sen as Least Effective Cartoon Villain Ever.

The true shame of the way the voting went down (other than Soupbot not making the second round, for which I blame Communism) is that I have been tasked to talk about everyone in this game except for its player character.  Aliss is a recent oneiromancy graduate, a Manchurian-style push-button assassin, and easily the most interesting person on the ship despite — or because of — being asleep most of the time.  Poor Aliss.  I hope she managed to make a universe in which her story was longer.

Guilded Youth, by Jim Munroe

The magical thing about being a teenager in the early days of the internet, at least for this mostly friendless small-town nerd, was the way it opened up the world and let you talk to all different kinds of people, provided they were also nerds.  (Because, computers.)  By way of contrast, Guilded Youths The Guild BBS is strictly for teenage nerds in the same (Canadian) geographic area, which probably explains why it only has six members.

Actually, the thing that best explains why it only has six members is that the story had scope for six characters, so I will refrain from over-insistence on realism.  It is tempting to speculate about how they all found the place, though, and how it has become such a big part of their lives when any out-of-character chatter is liable to get them banned by the Joyless Nerd Fun Police.

We are talking about Maximus the Cleric, gangly, pimply, power-mad.  He is the highest-level character on the BBS and wields his banhammer with extreme prejudice.  If you choose him to share a bottle of wine with in the endgame, he shows up, takes the wine from you, and gives you 10% of its value.  This, I think, is the best illustration of exactly what kind of unlikeable prick we are dealing with here.

The other characters are more sympathetic, with the possible exception of Harry the Barbarian, a big stocky kid who likes porn, yells a lot, and is handy with a crowbar.  That is pretty much all there is to say about Harry the Barbarian.  Jim Munroe took a pass on writing him his own special ending, and if he doesn’t have anything more to say about Harry the Barbarian than I certainly will not presume to.

There is our best friend, Ryan the Bard, one of the few people in the world who thinks bards are cool.  This is kind of adorable.  Ryan is kind of adorable in general.  He proudly displays his love of hardcore music but is afraid to go see a show, as a subset of being afraid of basically everything.  There’s a putative really cool guy in there, though, and he’s a sweet kid and a good friend.

(Jim Munroe totally forgot that Ryan and the PC went to different schools when writing Ryan’s epilogue, so there is just a glaring continuity error, but that’s okay.  It was real nice of Jim Munroe to go back and write all those special endings in response to people thinking the game was too abrupt.  You could also spin it as Ryan going back to Tony’s school after the manor burned down, but we would all know you were just spinning.  Unless Ryan’s school was actually inside the manor!  Maybe it’s like that bit in Alias when Sydney thinks her dad is going to a psychiatrist when actually he’s just talking to himself inside an abandoned building.  Maybe that is why no one else at Ryan’s school is into hardcore music:  there is no one else at Ryan’s school.)

(Anyway.)

There is also our lust interest, Chris the Paladin, the tough brash cop’s daughter who gets off on behaving in ways a cop’s daughter shouldn’t.  She is a gymnast, which proves useful for our manor adventure and will also make things interesting if we progress beyond kissing.  Her self-identification as an honorable paladin contrasts with her excitement at doing crimes, in the same way that the PC’s good-aligned thief character is an apparent contradiction.  He finds her exciting, they have good chemistry, and I found myself wanting more time with both of them on screen.  (Which eventually I got.  Thanks!)

Then we have my personal favorite, Paula the Mage.  She is one of those classy Goths for whom the word “counterculture” is all about the culture part.  She cares deeply about wine pairings.  Her forks all match.  She probably never wears blue-black with brown-black, like some sloppier Goths of my acquaintance.  (Actually I’ve totally done that.)  Paula can be overdramatic, and has been accused of taking things too far, which is perhaps why she was kicked out of the Freak Clique.

The Freak Clique (do these words rhyme in Canada?) are a group of self-described weirdos that feel like they are from another story entirely, like a portal opened up in the manor to an alternate dimension.  If you choose Paula for the endgame, she tells the PC the entire sordid story of the Freak Clique, but we the player never find it out.  It is probably one of those teenage dramas involving love and betrayal and inconsiderateness and minor social slights and differing expectations and talking behind backs and really, really petty things that somehow become a huge deal because you are basically crazy all the time anyway because hormones because ugh being a teenager.

(Not that being a teenager isn’t also sort of awesome, in its own way, when you’re remembering it and not doing it.  That is pretty much the moral of Guilded Youth, I think.)

Jim Munroe is basically the weird Canadian Douglas Coupland of interactive fiction — wait, that’s redundant for a couple reasons — and his characters are generally pretty interesting.  Here, they hint at having more layers than the game really has time to flesh out, but the fact that I wanted more time with them says something.  Especially Harry the Barbarian, because what even is his deal?

The Statue Got Me High, by Ryan Veeder

The dinner guests in The Statue Got Me High are a collection of unpleasant individuals in the same way that the Hindenburg was a blimp.  (Unless blimps and zeppelins are different, in which case pretend I said “zeppelin.”  Actually, you can do that whenever you want; “zeppelin” is a really good word and I’d like people to think I say it more often than I actually do.)

Chucky, the cranky, territorial cook, is arguably the least terrible character in the entire game.  The others (including the PC) have all done horrible things, it is suggested where not explicitly stated, and Chucky is not the most likeable guy, but he’s only cooked duck a l’orange for terrible people, and that is not itself a crime.  He seems to be spared the statue’s wrath, if that means anything.

The guests themselves are all pretty awful.  For one thing, they are actively seeking the company of the PC’s boss John, a wealthy womanizer with a non-functioning moral compass and no soul to speak of.  In banality-of-evil terms, he is basically the devil.  (He is also legendary loverjerk Don Juan; the plot of the game is based on Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, in which Don Juan invites a statue of a guy he has murdered to dinner and is surprised when it shows up and dooms him to hellfire.  So, there’s that.)

Miss O is one of John’s paramours, a terrifying battleaxe who tells stories about furniture acquisition that end in “I just grabbed his neck for a while until he passed out.”  At least, we hope that is where it ends.

Dr. Ivan Worm is much less amiable than his namesake from the They Might Be Giants’ song “Dr. Worm,” who is not a real doctor but an actual worm who likes to play the drums.  The game’s Dr. Worm is a real doctor, one of those pill-pusher physicians who writes you a prescription if you look at him funny, and is only a worm in the metaphorical sense (I straight-up stole that from Ryan Veeder).  He is also a bit of a gynophobe, which is his prerogative but dude, we are over half the population and very few of us have battery acid for skin.  Come on already.

Garry Horrible lives up pretty well to his namesake from “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair,” who is essentially that stapler guy from Office Space.  Garry spends the game anxiously anticipating judgment for the crime of having stolen a chair (presumably the same one someone kept moving), but when justice arrives in the form of the statue, he is not destroyed with the others, simply compelled to apologize — and it is not even clear whether this is a forced confession from the statue or he is just getting his sins off his chest because it’s what the cool kids are doing.  I think this might genuinely be ironic, but who even knows.

Cap’n Miles may or may not be an actual sea captain.  He dresses nautically, and the PC thinks he probably owns a boat.  In John’s upscale-cargo-cult appearances-are-everything world, this is perfectly sufficient.  Miles has done some horrible things, but he doesn’t want to talk about them.

He is understood to have an understanding with Hope Idie, a skeletal woman with a publishing company, a wasting disease, and a surprisingly racist view of Asian people.  (Surprising both because we are not expecting it, and because it is just plain weird.)  She can be summed up pretty efficiently by this line of narration:  “We get it, lady.  You’re left-handed.”

Peter, the statue, is the cleansing fire of justice that arrives to purge the dinner party.  In life, he held a grudge against John for sleeping with his daughter and then murdering him.  As a stone guy, though, he seems less interested in ordinary terrestrial vengeance than full-on divine retribution, and proceeds to lay some on out there like whoa.

There is no one to root for in this game.  I found myself siding with the PC, because he might have done horrible things in the service of his master, but he at least had the decency to be annoyed by having to do them.  (It is oddly easy to empathize with his hatred of Judy, who keeps destroying the pool table, which he is in charge of having refelted.  I don’t even have a concept of what it’s like to get a pool table refelted, all I know is I hate Judy with the passion of a thousand Suns fans.)  Mostly, though, I was on his side because I felt the need to be on someone’s.

All of the awful people are well-written and entertaining in their awfulness, though.  That is a thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>