Nobody Cares about Sandy

I suppose I should learn that, even if I have another article idea in my head, it’s not actually likely that I’ll write the next thing that I predicted I would write. But I do want to talk a little about NPC design today, as an aspect of narrative, and how providing context is the key to impact.

My personal belief is that a strong narrative, in a game, RPG, or other situation, will overcome many other shortcomings. At the MIND Lab we are currently doing a small experiment to see if people have different emotional resonance with characters who appear different visually. I believe there is some effect (and my talk about characters and appearances will probably be some future entry), but I believe the effect of narrative is much stronger.

In order to do this experiment I have become familiar with a program called Garry’s Mod. Through Garry’s Mod I also became aware of the webcomic done with the program, Concerned, which has just completed its long story arc and ended its run. I read the entire comic over the course of a few days and I must say it’s a rather good one. I can’t say if it would be as much fun for someone who never played Half Life 2 or not, though I think there’s certainly some meat there even for people who aren’t familiar with the game.

In order to read the “Author’s Notes” about a comic, one has to click on the “Hide/Show Notes” button beneath it. Even if you have no idea what’s going on, the context for what I’m about to discuss occurs in the following comics – One, Two, Three, Four. Slight violence warning on the first comic in that list. If you read the comics, go ahead and read the author’s notes, particularly for the last of the series.

What the author’s done with this small series of comics is make a “life story” up for an incredibly generic throwaway Combine minion, one minion in a series of long minions that you kill during the course of the game. The game itself does its best to dehumanize even these “human” opponents as much as possible, by providing them with a strange look and a very robotic voice. It also dehumanizes them in the narrative. Concerned acknowledges this the majority of the time, but during this small tangent the comic takes a different turn, providing some meaningful context for the death of one of these random NPCs. The author did it as a joke… and was kind of surprised when it wasn’t taken as one. He points out that it’s kind of weird that somehow, while just kidding around, he made some people care about a Combine solider, when he’d killed dozens of other characters off already, “and nary an eyelash was batted.”

It didn’t make it in to my thesis paper, but I’ve seen this principle at work. My thesis involved watching Gamemasters run live roleplaying games – for the uninitiated. If you don’t know much about Gamemasters, you’ll have to read the paper; I hope to have a PDF of the full document soon. During one of the sessions, I distinctly recall the death of a guard named Bob. “A guard is with you; his name is Bob…” says the GM, and everyone had a good laugh because he was an obvious redshirt, a throwaway, a boring Bob in a sea of Bobs, and destined to die.

When Bob did die, however, the GM said something to the effect of, “Well, someone will have to tell his two sons. And his pregnant wife.” And everyone around the table gasped and seemed disappointed. This was an easy enough, throwaway detail to add to Dead Guard Bob, but somehow even giving him that much context in the world around him made him a sympathetic character.

You’ve seen Frank. Now here’s Sandy. The last comic with Sandy is really the only time we get much of a glimpse in to her head… and, then, well… off with it, and she’s barely ever mentioned again.

So why do people care about Generic Minion Frank, but nobody cares about Sandy? Why care about Bob the Guard?

It’s not just the addition of a wife and kids that make the difference here. It could just as easily be a mother or sister, or a group of best friends, or a lonely apartment full of books. Put more simply: Combine Frank’s long tangent gave the character context. Narratively, the author developed a series of people who were around Frank, the friends and life he left behind, a series of hopes and dreams to associate with Frank. In contrast… nobody cares about Sandy. Sandy had no real background. She had PERSONALITY – in so far as she existed to provide a foil for the protagonist of the strip, Frohman, but she had no real backstory. No fears, no hopes and dreams… other than the temporary dream of ditching Frohman. I doubt it was terribly difficult to come up with a backstory for Frank; he had a small family and he apparently loved the ocean. That’s good enough to make him, somehow, more sympathetic than Sandy.

It’s funny how the devil is in the details, and how specificity – even simple specificity – can make Generic Guard #3 suddenly come alive. It’s not always easy to come up with this sort of thing on the fly, if you’re developing an interactive story in particular, but when it comes to creating impact, narrative context makes a huge difference.

Television, Games, and Narrative – Not With a Bang

I relate my experiences with narrative primarily to my personal experience, so in discussing that kind of matter I’ll usually talk about games I’ve played or that I am playing, in as much as I might talk about movies I’ve watched, etc. I’ve at least commented on the blogs of some pretty good academics, so I think this is a suitable psuedo-academic approach. I’ve written a thesis now, so I can say that at least one of the things I’ve written was genuinely academic. When I do talk about my own experiences, I’ll always try to provide references for those who may not share them, though in ramblings I may occasionally tend to fall short.

I was reading a chain of articles today about the ennui of World of Warcraft, and a certain problem with the game seems to be that there is no satisfying narrative conclusion, no “end.”

I believe this is a real problem, and I compare this to the majority of tabletop roleplaying games that I have played. The vast majority of these campaigns end due to outside factors. Perhaps a few players move away, making the game impossible; maybe the gamemaster grows bored and wants to try something else, or runs out of time to run the game. Maybe a player in the game becomes too powerful, and “breaks” it, rendering further gameplay unsatisfying for the group, or, maybe the challenges become too punitive and aversarial, causing players to walk out on the judge. It is very rare that a game of this nature comes to what might be termed as a satisfying narrative conclusion. That is because, I believe, HAVING that end requires both a willingness to prepare for it, to build toward that finale and make it reasonable and satisfying in the telling, AND, the more difficult aspect of “letting go.”

This is also comprable to a phenomenon seen mostly in network television, that of “jumping the shark.” People make jokes about particular games and stories jumping the shark all the time in my circle, but what’s most important to understand about the shark is that he is only seen in hindsight. One can never really, accurately, say, “we are jumping the shark, right this very second,” except in jest, but one CAN look backward and see the fin. Those television series that never jump the shark largely do not jump because they end too soon. Avoiding the shark requires the ability to recognize when you are ahead, artistically, and then quit there. I am thinking here of Firefly, for example, which did not jump the shark, not even with the movie, because it was cancelled and undersupported by the network and powers that be, and did not develop past its narrative peak because it did not have the opportunity. Beast Wars Transformers was cut a season short and thus, though it had to pack a lot of action in to two last episodes, did not definitively jump the shark. The aforelinked Jump the Shark website would like you to believe that The Simpsons never jumped, but I respectfully disagree with the voters there. It’s WELL over; I just can’t pinpoint the precise moment in this case. It went over as a result of an unwillingness to end, and let go, as the networks still had that particular cow to milk (but were happy to cancel Firefly).

This translates to other media as well. Calvin and Hobbes – artist quit while he was ahead – satisfying narrative conclusion with a heartbreaking last panel – comic never jumped. The Far Side – quit while it was ahead – never jumped. Garfield – still going on, has completely jumped, and is now mostly suitable as an internet meme.

There are, generally speaking, only two ways for long-running properties to end. They can end “too soon,” going out with a bang (or even a quiet farewell the way Calvin and Hobbes went out, but with a satisfying and dignified conclusion), or, they can end too late, going on and on until they peter out like so many tabletop campaigns I have been involved in. To steal from the greats, there is either the bang or the whimper.

The Bang is preferable, but much more difficult to coordinate. An MMORPG (and a MUSH or MUD, to pull out a trend) can by its very nature only end with a Whimper. That is because the very business model of a massive game is to work on player retention. There is no way to create a satisfying narrative conclusion for a game when you are still desperately trying to lure new people in to your world even as its sun is dying.

I may have my history wrong, but I believe that an attempt at going out with a bang was tried at least once on a MUSH, or on Megaman MUSH, the site where I am currently administratively employed. I’ve not yet gotten around to indexing this timeline file, but scroll down to the date “7 July 2213” if you click. The then-director of the game ran a story where he literally put the fate of the game on the line, and, if the story itself was not successful in engaging players, it would result in a “loss” scenario for the world and he would close the game. (To say whether or not the entire world being destroyed is narratively satisfying is another topic, but it is at least an end with some gumption.) Of course, the story was successful, players were retained, the world saved, and the game goes on and on for many more years after that.

Bold to try, but any MUSH or MMORPG that goes “out” will go out because it peters out. There’s no other way, sadly, for this to happen. If the game is still retaining players and interest, it will continue to thrive. If the game is no longer retaining players and interest, it will die the slow, ennui death. There is no marketing-related reason for an MMO to do anything other than hang on to its customers for as long as possible, forsaking narrative and artistic integrity in favor of the long, slow strategy; the eventual loss of interest and the last, frail gasp of breath.

Best Foot Forward

I believe I will finish my Masters Thesis this week.

Writing a Masters Thesis was hard and took a long time. It is not just that the paper and writing the paper is hard, but also that the paperwork and overhead involved is very hard. A lot of signatures need to be signed and papers need to be handed to various people, and Human Subjects Use must be authorized, and all sort of things that make writing the paper itself seem like the easy part. Still, I have gotten good feedback about the paper, and I feel it’s time to wrap it up and move on to the next thing.

My current place of employment in the Mind Lab has asked me for an updated bio. And I wrote:

Amanda Flowers is recieving a Masters degree in Telecommunication Information Studies and Media. Originally from Ohio, she recieved her undergraduate degree in Computer Art from Bowling Green State Unversity in 2002. She has worked with the MSU GEL Lab and the Mind Lab on various game projects for use in experiments and research. Her primary interests include digital games, games in education, interactive storytelling, and roleplaying environments.

And then I thought… well… that doesn’t say anything about my web design. But, it’s a start. My web design itself has gotten spotty since I’m doing so much of it professionally that my personal pages suffer from a little lack of polish. You can see the under-construction feel of all my current things.

From a more honest standpoint, I might be equally recognizable on the web as “that girl who wrote that really long Beast Wars RPG,” or “the Megaman MUSH Web person,” or “short-lived Gargoyles fan author.” I’ve recently drifted in to an attempt to become more known in the City of Heroes fanart community as well, so perhaps we’ll see more City of Heroes web content on SecondTruth soon.

I work three jobs right now. Yet sometimes I still feel like I could be doing so much more… funny, how that works.

Amanda Lange's Blog