Jenni Polodna on Best Individual PC 2012

Jenni Polodna writes on Alexandra from Counterfeit Monkey, Hector from Sunday Afternoon, and Olivia from Olivia’s Orphanorium.

Alexandra from Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short

I am going to go ahead and say that Alexandra is the most unique PC ever written for an IF game, to which you are going to respond “But Jenni, uniqueness is a binary state, like pregnancy, the phrase ‘most unique’ is meaningless.”  Then we will derail into an argument about whether or not someone who has been pregnant longer can be said to be more pregnant, given that there is more actual baby up in there, until finally you admit you knew what I meant and were just being a pedant, and we can continue talking about the thing we were actually talking about.

As two people leximagiscientifically fused into one physical person retaining two separate identities, Alexandra (how convenient is that name, by the way?  We could be sitting here talking about Tombeth or Chuckdeirdre) redefines the nature of the PC/narrator relationship.  Alex, the more passive identity, acts as narrator, reporting the actions taken by the shared body, often as driven by the more active identity, Andra.  When Alex says “you,” he is talking to Andra about her past, personality, or something she but not he is saying.  When he says “we,” he is talking about the joint body, reporting actions they are necessarily taking together.  (This stuff is weirdly fascinating, and a more scholarly person than I am, or at least somebody whose glasses frames were less frivolous, could write a big old fancy paper on it and submit it to a journal of their peers.)

Alex starts out in a passive role for two reasons:  he is more of a thinker than an Action Person in general, and he is vocally uncomfortable in their new body, which is the wrong sex for him and feels like it belongs to Andra.  She is coping much better with the arrangement and steps in readily to drive the body, which she does very capably.  (If Andra is good at anything, it’s being good at things.)  Alex does begin to take charge as their adventure drifts into his sphere, though, especially when the action required is talking.  (The boy loves to talk.)

Alex and Andra are very different, which makes their dynamic interesting.  Alex is a utopian linguist, raised by well-to-do parents in the shadow of the Bureau, a bit sheltered, in love with his own opinions.  Andra, the disillusioned runaway child of fundamentalist spelling fascists, fancies herself a hardened criminal.  She is the Action Person Alex is not, practical, bad at emotions, good with a rifle.  We get the sense that Alex admires and envies her for the qualities he is lacking, but that he is also a little afraid of her, unsure what she’s capable of, or liable to do with their shared body.  (This is fair; that notion is legitimately terrifying, and she can be kind of a scary lady.)

What Andra thinks of Alex is largely a mystery; she seems able to keep her thoughts shielded from him when not under emotional duress.  Reading the source code (which I recommend, there’s an interesting bit about an Asian restaurant that serves phalluses of all kinds, including yak), it becomes apparent that she is annoyed by his naivete and considers him a liability.  As far as Alex can tell, she’s dealing very well with the situation, but sharing a body can’t be easy for someone who can’t even handle sharing a stateroom with somebody.

Which brings us to Andra’s boyfriend, Brock.  He is a problem, in that Andra wants to continue having jolly old sexy times with him, and Alex absolutely does not want this.  Alex, presumably, would like to have jolly old sexy times with a lady person of his choosing sometime before his death, and it is uncertain how either Andra or Brock feel about this (although I suspect Brock is just fine with the idea).  This is basically the world’s biggest Facebook “it’s complicated.”

I’d like to imagine some kind of not terrible future for Alexandra, one where she doesn’t descend into gibbering Lovecraftian madness, but it’s so hard to even wrap my head around who Alexandra is, what a cohesive blend of these two people would even be like, that I suspect she is maybe just hosed.  Sorry, Alexandra.  Good luck, though!  You never know!  Have fun doing crimes and stuff!

Hector from Sunday Afternoon, by Christopher Huang

The trick with writing a little kid character is to avoid making them awful in any of the ways a little kid character can be awful.  Real little kids are disgusting, antisocial weirdos that years of evolution has conditioned us to find cute so that we don’t murder them before they can pass our genes on and continue the disgusting, antisocial weirdo species.  People sometimes forget that when they write kids, and you get characters that are overly precious or precocious.

Hector is not awful.  He has solid kid motivations (everything is boring and he wants it to stop being boring).  His imaginings with the flower centrepiece on his head felt believable enough as kid things to imagine.  His tone, though, is a little bit too grown up and clever (he describes his uncle’s sermons as weapons of Mass destruction.  I groaned.)

This juxtaposition of kid motivations and adult voice turns out to be absolutely perfect and called for, though, when it is discovered that child Hector is the protagonist of an IF-style storytelling game being conducted by adult (Major) Hector as an entertainment for his soldiers in the trenches.  So, he isn’t the most realistic child, but it’s actually a nice touch that he isn’t.

I feel like I’ve been discussing twists on the classic narrator/PC relationship a lot while writing these analyses, and I have no intention of stopping now.  Hector is an interesting case.  He is both PC and narrator, as in a first-person game, but the game is in second person.  Major Hector serves as the narrator, and… hang on a second, this is going to get confusing, I need to back up a little.

So, you know how in a second-person game, “you” refers both to the PC and the player?  Like, if the narrator says something like, “You enter the spaceship,” they are nominally referring only to the PC, because you the player clearly did not just enter a spaceship.  (You the player don’t know where that spaceship has been.)  There is an underlying message being sent to you the player, though, that your idea to have the PC enter the spaceship was successful.  This becomes more overt when the narrator says something like “Your plan has borne fruit.”  It was you the player, not the PC, who came up with that plan; therefore “you” that time meant you the player.  (I really like saying “you the player.”  That is the only part of this paragraph that is not open for debate.)

In this game, “you” refers to child Hector, as the PC.  In the sense that “you” also refers to you the player, it refers both to you the player and to the fictional soldiers who are ClubFlandersing the game.  You are, in a way, playing them as they play child Hector, although they appear infrequently enough and are not fleshed out enough for it to feel like that.  In fact, it’s possible to get through the entire game without even encountering their framing story.

The most impressive thing about Hector, to me, was how he elicited immediate empathy by having his goals be perfectly in line with the goals of your typical IF game player:  to not be bored.  And I wasn’t.  So, good job there, and thanks again for the unagi.

Olivia from Olivia’s Orphanorium, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

Olivia, the spunky protagonist of her own titular orphanorium, is described in the game as “an attractive, capable woman with a sunny disposition, aged 20-35; despite this, [her] life is sufficiently dull to excite neither unease nor envy in middle-aged ladies.”

There are a few things to unpack here.  For starters, describing her age as “20-35″ is funny, since she’s a specific person with a name and everything.  It’s not just funny, though, it’s apt:  Olivia is, at her core, the typical heroine of a casual time-management game.  Millions of such women have set out to make their fortunes running hotels, dog salons, organic free-range patisseries, or what have you.  Olivia is probably (you never know) the first to make a living beating orphans into shape to sell off as marginally productive members of society, but her personality — plucky, capable, eminently practical — is essentially the same as those she parodies.

We learn from the intro text that Olivia has always dreamed of being an orphanmaster, and we kind of have to wonder why this is, because her feelings about orphans range from mild disappointment to horror and disgust.  It is clear from the outset that she is no angel of mercy, trying to give these unfortunates a better life.  Nor does she revel in cruelty — she will beat the orphans as necessary, but does not seem to be enjoying it; the game simply reports that she has administered much-needed discipline, with no graphic depiction whatsoever.

The player is in charge of Olivia’s choices, and has some leeway to roleplay her as a saint or a monster, but the game will not reward you with warm fuzzies or titillating violence for a suboptimal choice made in the name of kindheartedness or sadism.  As far as we can tell, Olivia is simply trying to run the most efficient orphan-processing facility possible.  But why an orphanorium, instead of a barber’s or a meat-pie shop?

Well, there is the obvious meta-reason, which is that a time-management game about a Victorian orphanage is funny and worth writing, whereas one about a meat-pie shop would not make for pointed satire.  It’d just, you know, sort of exist, and people would look at it and go “huh,” and wonder why you made it.  This obvious meta-reason is boring.  Let us never speak of it again.

It is far more entertaining to invent various backstories for Olivia in the Victorian milieu.  Perhaps she was out in a carriage as a child and dropped one of her gloves, and before she could retrieve it, an entire troupe of orphans trampled it into the filthy cobblestones with their disgusting orphan shoes.

The one I really like, though, is that she was an orphan herself, who grew up in such an establishment as the one she runs, and originally did dream of becoming a kinder, gentler orphanmaster.  Then, as the years of harsh treatment went on, exposing the worst in her fellow inmates, she became disillusioned with the entire concept of orphans and turned into everything she despised.

It’s a thought, anyway.

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