Playing the Fool
Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaws. They are the features of an adventure game that blight the record of an otherwise blameless genre with their rampant lawlessness. Ten years ago, my entire family were murdered by Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaws, and I was left for dead in a stinking ditch. Now, I have dedicated my life to not shaving, riding around on a big motorbike, gazing mournfully into the middle distance, and writing articles to bring justice upon these criminal flaws.
This Month's Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaw:
PLAYING THE FOOL
I was playing Silent Hill the other day -- I know, I know, I’m a traitor -- and becoming increasingly irritated at the clueless dolt I was expected to control. I know you have to expect a certain amount of disorientation in a character who has just stumbled into a nightmare world of unrelenting horror, but I’d have thought, after a couple of hours, he’d get used to it enough to stop going “What?” all the time, whenever something vaguely odd happened. I’m afraid I couldn’t really get behind him as a character. Whenever he met another human being who was somehow uninjured, then insisted on going off alone again for some stupid reason, I found myself taking time out to let him die unspeakably a few hundred times, as one would smack a naughty dog with a rolled-up newspaper.
All of which brings me to the subject that has been irking me this month, cherished reader: adventure game protagonists who are jerks. I’m not talking about the ones who are supposed to be jerks, but adventure game characters the designer expected us to empathise with and care about, when in fact they are the biggest jerks in the world who badly deserve to get hit by a speeding train.
Take note, amateur designers: the portrayal of the player character is vital to an adventure game’s appeal, because they are the player’s representative in the game’s universe. The protagonist is, in effect, an extension of the player’s corporeal form. An extrusion. A limb, if you like. And nobody likes to know that one of their limbs is a jerk.
Let’s move on before this gets too existential.
Why People Do It
Peculiarly, it’s very difficult to make a player dislike their character by consciously portraying him or her as a jerk. Try it -- depict your protagonist committing some of the most vile and sadistic acts in the entire sphere of human wrongdoing, and the player will still find a way to like them. Take for your examples the misdeeds of Sam & Max, the numerous violent assaults inflicted during Full Throttle, and Simon the Sorcerer’s verbal attacks of virtually everyone he meets.
We all know that kleptomania seems to be endemic around adventure game characters, so your character’s going to be on the side of jerkiness even before you create them. And when you’re resigned to making your character a thief, further antisocial behaviour seems like a natural development of characterisation. There doesn’t seem to be any way around this, but then nobody wants to control a total law-abider. You can imagine how frustrated you’d be if your in-game alter ego insisted on taking everything to the Lost and Found.
No, a player only seems to stop sympathising with their character if he or she is (a) stupid, or (b) irritating.
Making the character appear stupid is often a consequence of lazy design. This sort of ties in with the That Doesn’t Work problem showcased last time, so I won’t go into that. To put it briefly, if your character can’t comprehend the logic of, say, using a shovel to knock something off a shelf, it’s going to make us all wonder how many lead paint chips he or she consumed as a child. Wasn’t there someone more qualified who could have gone on this quest instead? Like a trained monkey?
A character often becomes irritating when a conscious effort is made to make them appear cool or funny, but the effort falls flat on its face. The line between ‘dude’ and ‘prat’ is very fine indeed. For example, everyone likes a character to be witty and confident, but take it just a little bit too far and they become smug. On the other end of the scale, a character can be cool by appearing mysterious and aloof, but again, take a few too steps in that direction and they become pretentious. ‘Cool’ can mean many different things from person to person, but a perceived image of coolness too often becomes annoying when taken to extremes.
A Game That Does It
If you want an example of taking a perceived image of coolness to stupid extremes, look no further than Kent, the prat we are expected to control in Normality. Obviously the developers had intended to make him out as a free-willed independent spirit when they garbed him in shades, wellington boots and a goatee beard, and gave him the voice of a California surfer who has been whiffing too much helium, but in practise I felt my toes curl with embarrassment whenever the word ‘yo’ swaggered from between his lips. I’m sure I’m not the only gamer who likes to face on-screen challenges with a modicum of dignity. Normality was actually a pretty cool game, with its groundbreaking first-person interface and involving Orwellian storyline; it’s just a shame they didn’t feel we’d be interested in it without some misguidedly youth-friendly ‘dude’ in the starring role.
I’d also like to give an honourable mention to the eponymous heroes of Coktel Vision’s Gobliiins (yes, three I’s). There is a sequence in that game when one of the characters picks up a big wooden stick, and when you attempt to make him use it on something that he can’t use it on, he compromises by beating himself severely about the head. Now, that could have been funny in a quirky sort of way if the act hadn’t caused him to lose energy, and if the other goblins didn’t then rant and rave and tap their temples like I’d specifically instructed him to brain himself. That really took me out of the game, I tell ye that. Suddenly I wasn’t controlling adventure game characters so much as I was offering a bunch of morons vague suggestions.
How To Avoid It
I won’t repeat last month’s article by advising how to design your game so the character does not appear stupid or stubborn, so I’ll just give some ideas how to not make them irritating.
You could, of course, go the easy way like the Zork series has done unflinchingly over the years, and give your character literally zero personality, allowing the player to completely project him or herself onto a faceless avatar. It’s no coincidence that amnesiacs are such popular characters to centre a games around -- see Beneath a Steel Sky, Sanitarium et al -- that way, the character is defined by the player’s actions, rather than pre-existing backstory, and also means you can get out of programming an in-depth introductory sequence. If, y’know, you’re lazy and fat.
But many of the truly memorable adventures in history have simply had characters for whom it is easy to feel affection. The more I think about it, the more I realise that nearly all the most beloved protagonists have been awkward dorks. That makes sense, I suppose, since that way they reflect their audience. No offense, but we’re all dorks, aren’t we? And playing a dork becomes so satisfying when the dork ends up victorious, winning the girl and the hearts of thousands. And even more so if the dork has befallen sufficient misfortune on the way. How many times did Guybrush Threepwood get himself hurt in Monkey Island? Didn’t that just break your little heart to see him in pain? But didn’t it make you love him even more?
O’course, don’t take this to mean that no one will like your character if you don’t make them a total geek. There have been very good games where the protagonists are not as hopeless as a whelk with an itchy scalp. I’ve just observed that, on average, gamers seem to favour the clumsy weeds of the world.
In summary, then, adventure games are kind of like baseball movies. It’s a lot easier to get behind an underdog.
A Game That Does This Well
Turning to the realms of amateur design, Grrr! Bearly Sane by Wintermute Studios is a great example of portraying a character who remains sympathetic despite being both amoral and invisible throughout the game. Our hero, Dan, of whom all we see is the gigantic bear costume in which he is forced to spend the day, is the ultimate underdog. He’s mistreated, beaten, and psychologically tortured on all sides by everyone, and the focus of the game is the day Dan’s fragile little mind shatters like a Pringle underfoot and he goes completely kill crazy. Like I said, even the most inhuman acts can be forgiven in a character if they remain sympathetic and/or amusing in the process, and I was having the time of my life controlling Dan as he kicked puppies and dropped vending machines on the heads of delinquent children. The ending actually managed to tug the strings of my cynical, dried-up old heart.
In conclusion, fellow seekers of the light, the adventure game protagonists are more than just swarms of pixels on a monitor screen – they are a part of you, and a part of me. So if you make them a jerk, you’re making part of me into a jerk, and that’s the sort of thing I will hold against you for life.