Sunday, April 12, 2020

All Your Well-Learned Politesse

As I sift through the fragments of a family history that seems as unfamiliar to Kathy as it does to me, one thing, at least, becomes all too clear: if you're going to play point-and-click adventure games you can't afford to be polite. This is a truism which also applies to computer role playing games of all stripes and it creates some serious problems for me because I'm really, really uncomfortable with rude behavior.

Peculiarly, I'm significantly more uncomfortable with it in fiction than in real life. I'm fairly certain that many, even most, of the people who've had to spend time with me over the decades would be able to come up with numerous anecdotes about times I behaved very much less than politely. I've been called on it often enough to know that much.

Why it is, then, that acting impolitely when playing in character causes me such discomfort I'm not sure. It's a highly nuanced behavior, too. I think one of the reasons I strongly prefer playing diminutive or childlike or animal characters is the license it affords me to behave, well, childishly.

As I've mentioned before, Mrs Bhagpuss and I both have a queasy tendency to roleplay immature characters. In Guild Wars 2 we have a clutch of loosely related Asuras who range in age from around eight years old to late teens. They bicker and tease each other and get emotionally overwhelmed. We have a slew of long-running in jokes that we indulge, most of which revolve around insulting each other. My most-played character can be cartoonishly rude at times. Quite a lot of times.

When I play my more mature characters there, my many Charrs, for example, I am much more polite. Formal, even. Mrs Bhagpuss's Sylvari and humans tend to behave like adults, too. It's not "roleplaying" as such. It's more that the physical presence and appearance of the characters sets a tone.

That's all well and good when the interactions take place between players, particularly in an environment that encourages a mutually sustained backstory, but it breaks down almost immediately as soon as external narrative imposes itself on the action. Whatever the established personality of my character might be, when faced with a set of alternative options in a dialog tree I find it all but impossible to choose any but the most socially acceptable.

I have to be polite at all costs. It frequently seems more important to me that I maintain social norms, by which I mean real-world social norms appropriate to the society in which I live, than that I either represent the supposed attitudes of the race, gender or class I'm playing or give the responses most likely to further the plot.

If I fail to do this I feel uncomfortable. Since I play primarily to entertain myself, feeling uncomfortable is not a desired outcome. Fortunately, one of the huge benefits of MMORPGs over most other video game genres is that almost all dialog options exist purely for flavor. It's highly unusual for a choice to have meaningful, far less significant, impact on how things turn out.

In single-player RPGs that's not the case. Rather, the entire genre has tended to align itself around the concept of decisions that matter. It makes things awkward at times but I can often find a narrative thread that's acceptably unabrasive. If not, I stop. Not ever game has to be for everyone, after all.

In adventure games it's much more of an issue. By tradition, adventure games tend to have linear narratives. There may be branches and alternate endings but whichever path you take has, eventually, to lead to a conclusion. Generally you can't just wander about, exploring the world and taking whichever side quests suit you until you feel you've had your money's worth.

Adventure games like Kathy Rain, with narratives that are effectively murder mysteries (it is, as Xyzzysqrl so astutely put it, Joan Jett as Nancy Drew) don't just require you to follow a set storyline, they expect you to apply mechanics that have little connection with either normative behavior or common politeness.

The tension between believable behavior and game function is extremely evident in Kathy Rain. The narrative takes considerable pains to emphasize the importance of behaving in a rational, acceptable fashion.

Kathy simply won't perform the kind of asocial acts we associate with video games. If a person wouldn't do something in normal life, for example try to enter a locked crypt in a graveyard where a funeral is taking place, she tells you in no uncertain terms that she doesn't need to do that right now.

She needs to establish relationships with people before she asks them questions and she needs to have good reasons for the qustions she asks or she just won't do it. All of which suits me very well indeed.

The problem comes when Kathy has run through all of her available, normative behaviors and still hasn't found the answers she needs. In common with most adventure games, new locations only become available when specific plot points have been met. If there's nowhere else to go and no-one else to talk to, all that's left is to keep returning to the same people and asking them over and over again about whatever options still remain.

And that feels wrong. It just does. Going in and out of Kathy's grandmother's house on the day the old lady buried her husband and Kathy walked back into her life after a decade and a half of unexplained absence, just to sit beside her on the couch and ask yet another question feels very uncomfortable indeed.

It might even be less uncomfortable if her grandmother called her on her bizarre behavior but instead she simply complies, running through the same acknowledgments and farewells as though they hadn't happened half a dozen times already.

It's freakish and the writer, Joel Staaf Hästö, knows it. He makes a sterling effort to explain and cover for the most egregious examples, as when Hacker Dave tells Kathy not to worry about having to call I.T. guy Clyde to come fix her PC as often as she needs because "it's his job".

In the end, though, the exigencies of the form override adherence to either naturalism or social niceties. And I have to put up with it if I want to play. Self-evidently I can put up with it, because I am playing, and enjoying myself.

Would I prefer a more moderated experience, though? One where the game compensated for my errors and omissions, filling in the blanks in my journal with insights I hadn't actually had, adding information I'd missed from conversational paths not taken.

It would be less of a game, more a narration, perhaps, but would that matter? After all, I already resort to walkthroughs, not only as soon as I get stuck but also when I intuit I'm going to have to press harder and become more intrusive than feels comfortable.

Maybe I should just read a Nancy Drew novel and listen to I Love Rock and Roll on hard repeat. (Full disclosure: I have never read a Nancy Drew novel).

Better yet, maybe I should just get over myself!


  1. Interesting. I've never thought about it this way, but then, most adventures I've played were made by Lucas Arts and are all kinds of silly to begin with.

    I guess once you've picked up a rather large dog and stowed it in your coat pocket or sawed off a pirate's peg leg you stop pondering whether your character behaves appropriately or not... :-)

    1. The less realistic, the less problematic, I think that's a good rule.

  2. I haven't played Kathy Rain, but I can sort of relate to what you're talking about. Especially if to get the connections you need you need to dig pretty invasively in the first place 'just because' rather than having already intuited a reason or need to do so.

    More generally, I can somewhat relate to what you're talking about. For any RPG that offers a 'good' path and an 'evil' path (Your Mass Effects, your Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republics and what have you) I really struggle to go down the evil/renegade/dark side paths.

    For a first through -- to the point of impossibility. I just can't. I can only ever successfully navigate a bad playthrough after having completed a good playthrough first.

    Bit of an odd hangup perhaps, but I've heard it from enough others to know it is a 'thing' and not just me (or us, if we assume what you're describing stems from similar roots).

    1. Yeah, it just feels uncomfortable. It's odd in that I have no such issues with anti-heroes or even complete jerks as the protagonists of novels or movies. I don't feel responsible or even complicit in their behavior in the way I do when it's me driving.

  3. @Bhagpuss

    How are you when it comes to applying your behaviors to entities, groups or ideas rather than individual behaviors? I'm wondering how you feel about books such as "1984", or even Atlas Shrugged? A lot of games embody elements of both books where people simply don't have a choice to be good or evil, or they openly choose one side(belief) or the other due to the prevailing narrative.

    Also, do you think that exposure to such ideals or narratives have a profound impact on whether someone would dislike a game once they become self-aware of the impending outcomes - by feeling it is necessary to choose one narrative over another? E.G. Choosing not to choose by just quitting the game?

    1. That's an interesting thought. I noticed several bloggers having issues with The Outer Worlds for those reasons, feeling they had no options but bad ones from the perspective of their own personal morality. In fiction it depends, for me, on what I imagine to be the stance of the author (yes, a dodgy critical platform, I know). So, in 1984 I would trust Orwell to be coming from a perspective close to my own while Ayn Rand would be very much the opposite.

      How that translates to interest, enjoyment and involvement on my part is another matter entirely. I read 1984 when I was a teenager. It's a brilliant novel, superbly written and extraordinarily immersive but I have never and would never read it again. Orwell, presumably, intended it to be profoundly shocking and disturbing and in my case he succeeded all too well. I very definitely would not play a video game based on 1984.

      Conversely, I was fortunate enough to learn something about Ayn Rand and her politics before reading any of the novels and as a direct result of that knowledge I haven't read them and don't intend to. Same would go for a video game based on them. I wouldn't want to encourage anything that might promulgate those concepts.

      I do think those are fairly extreme examples, though. When it comes to more general "trying to make the best of a bad situation" tropes in games, I would be a lot more inclined to roll with it if I was finding the game enjoyable otherwise. It's interesting to see in MMORPGS how enormously watered down this kind of thing is. There are often cultures or races whose ethics are based on cruelty and contempt for others but the games barely pay lip service to it in the quest and flavor dialog. EverQuest's dark elves and EQII's Freeport are prime examples, the former being about as evil as Alice Cooper and the latter about as brutal as a pantomime Sherrif of Nottingham in Robin Hood. I don't have many qualms about that kind of broad take on unacceptable behavior.

  4. Primordia was the first point and click adventure game Is played since King's Quest 8. I don't have this particular hangup, but very closely related is the "doing the same damn thing over and over trying to find the obscure thing that I missed" in these games. A mechanic that Primordia used very well to help mitigate the issue was that talking to your sidekick-bot, he gave you hints of what to do next. I really enjoyed Primordia and it was interesting to find that in the time the world was it print it, the point-and-click game had continued to evolve.


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