A Speculation

Thesis: Many of the most memorable non-player characters in IF are ones the viewpoint character already knew before the game started.

Supporting positive evidence: Michael from Anchorhead; many or perhaps most of the characters in Robb Sherwin’s games; Miss Sierra and Princess Charlotte in Varicella.

Suggested explanation: it’s really hard to get to what is interesting about someone in the first few minutes or hours of acquaintance, so in games where we’re meeting everyone for the first time, a lot of energy has to be wasted on the building of trust and mutual figuring-out.

Also, the viewpoint character can’t make any general observations about the history and personality of other characters, because he hasn’t known them long enough — so the whole tool of direct exposition is off limits. Showing and not telling is good a lot of the time, but telling can be a valuable shortcut when you want to get to the interesting parts of a relationship.

14 thoughts on “A Speculation”

  1. Fully agreed, except one semantic quibble: the words “showing” and “telling” connote a literary approach to communicating details (in this case about characters) which does not need to be done away with in order to develop characters by way of the player character’s memory. “His soft reddish hair lay raggedly over the tops of his little ears,” for example, may as readily be used as a remembrance as it may be used as a present observation.

  2. Counter-evidence: Floyd, from Planetfall. (I’ll refrain from citing Galatea as counter-evidence)

    With NPCs that the player character already knows, the author can get away with simply telling us about the NPC, which is not just efficient, but easier — you can learn about the Michael not just by looking at and talking to him, but also by looking at his belongings and shared living spaces. There is more opportunity to characterize. But having a character be important to deal with, or constantly making his presence known and chiming in also characterizes.

    Miss Sierra and Princess Charlotte, I think, are memorable because they do some pretty drastic things that are useful and interesting. But they are also memorable because both of them have a role in characterizing the player character. Sierra’s reaction to the player hammers home the way other people see him. Charlotte’s dialog gives him more of a personal history.

  3. I think this yet another example of how limiting the amount of interaction in IF can make the story stronger. Readers don’t expect to be able to change memories, so it’s a safe place to put anything that would be tricky to implement interactively.

    Galatea benefits from this as well; a large chunk of the story happens in the statue’s memories, rather than in the present.

  4. Sounds plausible. There’s little point in showing in order to establish character in fanfic, for instance, since the intended audience already knows the character well, and is far more interested in getting to the unusual/unexpected/unexplored situation that prompts a reaction from a character who is already well known.

  5. Couldn’t you make the same argument about linear stories? I think it’s more a function of the length of the story — short stories face the same problem, I think. I certainly would agree, though, that it takes more effort to get a player to trust a character than it does for a reader to believe that the protagonist trusts another character.

  6. One of the rules of improv is that your characters have known each other for at least six months. As you note, it’s simply a ton more work to go through the initial meet-and-greet phase of getting to know someone.

    In improv, you often only have four minutes total, of course, but the principle is the same, I think.

  7. Couldn’t you make the same argument about linear stories? I think it’s more a function of the length of the story — short stories face the same problem, I think.

    Yes, of course, but it’s less common for a linear story to be about a set of characters who have never met before the story begins. Obviously it does happen, but not as frequently as in IF. The IF protagonist is atypically likely to be unfamiliar with everyone/thing around him, and my theory is that that fact may be as important as the obvious technical limitations when it comes to explaining why IF characters often feel flatter than book characters. We’re simply not meeting them at their most interesting moments.

    (The reason I thought of this in the first place: several people have told me they really liked the character of Jane in Floatpoint, even though she never appears onstage and all interaction consists of a couple of email exchanges and the protagonist’s memories. Some of this is the “limit interaction so they don’t get a chance to look like a puppet” effect, but I also suspect a lot of it has to do with Jane not being a stranger to the protagonist.)

  8. Interesting that you should say this…

    Like Lucian, I do a lot of improvisation comedy/theatre stuff, and the person that usually teaches me often advises to start in the middle of an action, or if at the beginning of a scene, have two characters that already know each other.

    The reason for that is sort of similar to what you describe – it’s less interesting to see people go:

    ‘Hello, there’
    ‘Oh, yes, hello – you are…?’
    ‘Mike, and you’re?’
    ‘Jane. Nice to meet you. What brings you to this place?’

    than to get straight in with:

    ‘Mike! I’m surprised to see you here … you know, after last year.’
    ‘I know, I know, I said I wouldn’t ever go diving again after the shark, but what can I say, here I am!’
    ‘Well, it’s true, you never could resist a challenge, eh?’

    It tells us a lot more about the characters and how they relate to each other than the akward greeting moments.

    Although, digressing slightly, unlike Lucian I disagree that there are ‘rules’ of impro – only guidelines of things that are generally helpful or generally less helpful or unhelpful. As soon as you start introducing a rule like ‘must know each other for six months’ then you’ve cut off a limb. It might not be a limb that’s useful all the time, but sometimes it would be perfectly right to have a scene about, say, two people meeting for the very first time in a park and exhibiting constrained romantic tension as their dogs play with each other. The difference is, in this case, not-knowing-eachother is central to the scene. In most cases, it isn’t, so it just gets in the way of whatever else is central to the scene.

  9. I’m leaving the topic a bit, but what’s the Latin term that means in the action? It’s commonly used to describe the use of such as a literary device, but I cannot seem to remember it or find it again.

  10. I think you mean “in medias res”. But, as you perhaps imply, I don’t think it’s necessarily applicable here: to begin a story with characters who know each other is not the same as beginning it after the significant action of the story arc has started.

  11. I have found that putting the player character in a situation where he is meeting many new people runs the risk (in stuff I write) of the PC coming off as some sort of judgmental prick, which is not an effect I tend to desire. Cynicism resulting from a [b]>look[/b] command and IF go well together, and at least taping that to the contempt familiarity can breed can makes it seem a [i]little[/i] more good-natured.

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