May's Topic

This month's round table discussion is on character flaws in games, or the lack thereof.

There a few Secret of Monkey Island spoilers, but none too shocking and certainly not the titular secret. I manage to be primarily spoiler free, but the same cannot be said about referenced Wikipedia articles.

To be honest, I've been quite intrigued by posts so far in this round table. There's something of a early lament that so many characters in gaming are of the nameless hero sort, immortal dimensionless shells, created as disguises for a player to crawl into and eke out fantasies of heroism that don't seem to involve any real character building (story-wise or otherwise, perhaps). I think that there is a deep tie between a protagonist and the interface to a game, and a character's flaws are a meaningful part of that relationship.

I'm an primarily an Old School Graphic Adventure fan and to me, most of my favorite characters to play have been anti-heroes and characters with flaws. There's certainly a wealth of them, for me. There's Larry, whose attempts to get laid are so laughable and whose flaws redeem the character from the precipice of insensitivity and bad soft porn. There's Roger Wilco, space janitor and accidental saviour of the galaxy. What about Freddy Pharkas, the gunslinger who retired to become a pharmacist?

I've spent several replays with Ben, born rebel biker that can lead an entire gang of fellow bikers but doesn't know how to deal with women. I particularly love the journey of Manuel Calavera, as it echoes some of the journey of Rick Blaine and invokes wild demons and balloon animals in the process, and I wish Residual were further along.

But there's one character whose flaws continually draw me to replays: the uniquely named Guybrush Threepwood...

You Look More Like a Flooring Inspector

It's hard to describe my relationship with Guybrush Threepwood. He's somewhere between an incarnation of myself and brother that I've tormented. Guybrush opens the Monkey Island series as a not too bright young man seeking fame and fortune as a notorious pirate, whose only skill to his name was the ability to hold his breath for 10 minutes. Unlike Jim Hawkins he doesn't even have a very valuable treasure map to his name. The only reason the local professional pirates even offer to teach Guybrush rudiments of pirating is because there's been a lot of recent attacks by a ghost-pirate, Captain LeChuck, and pirates dumb enough to fight him are increasingly rare.

In Secret of Monkey Island Guybrush is a very likable sort of naïve kid with delusions of fame and fortune on the high seas. Through a mixture of pure determination and stupid luck, Guybrush even manages to capture some small amount of fame towards the end of the game by eliminating one worldly avatar of the ghost-pirate Captain LeChuck.

Curse of Monkey Island, the third game, throws a small reset switch and once again leaves you with a more naïve Guybrush bumbling through incredible odds to get the girl and defeat the bad guy. Curse is a very loveable return to Secret's formula. Escape from Monkey Island, the fourth game, is ultimately something of a complete tangent to everything else and might be best described as "a lovely romp through scenic vistas of the Monkey Island series to socialize with its well known denizens".

Character development magic happens the most in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. This is the only numbered sequel and to some fans the only true sequel in the series. (I love Curse, so I think that it belongs in the series, and Escape I remember being fun, if somewhat thematically disjoint, but I've yet to replay it since it first came out. I do think there is good squeezing room between MI2 and Curse for a true transitional game.)

MI2 is the hardest of the first three for me to replay, because it's quite a bit darker than the others, and that's part of the intention. MI2 begins with Guybrush literally on the edge of a major screw-up. A good bulk of the game is flashback to the screw-up. The game's flashback begins with Guybrush losing grasp of what little remained of the coat-tails of his small fame from Secret, having estranged himself of his love interest, the Governess [1] Elaine Marley, in the process of trying to remain in the addictive bliss of fleeting fame. Having learned the fickleness of fame he decides to set out on the quest for that other piratical treat, treasure. He makes finding the much talked about (and wonderfully named) treasure of Big Whoop his next task.

Needless to repeat, things obviously don't go well for Guybrush through the course of the game. His ego remains mostly 3 sizes too big, thanks to his brush with fame, and the combination of ego and some subconscious desire to be more piratical leads Guybrush to more malice than other games. Guybrush certainly makes many of his most cutthroat actions over the course of MI2.

That Doesn't Work

In the world of Infocom adventures it is common enough to talk about puzzle solving from the perspective of figuring out what the Implementor expected versus what the goblin narrator, the ever present Parser [2], expected. A lot of this, I think, comes from the somewhat schizophrenic nature of Infocom's original Zork series which began as one sprawling shared world where each original Implementor worked on different aspects of the game's design. Even in the era when Infocom Implementor's mostly worked on solo projects there was that habit of blaming odd or inconsistent puzzles on an Implementor rather than attributing them to consequences of the world or character design.

In comparison I think that graphical adventure games are interesting because in many ways there is a greater attempt to push puzzle design directly into the world design. I think this shows up primarily in the varying flaws of game protagonists in the graphical adventures of yore. A character's flaws become intertwined in the game's interface. It's not "why didn't the Implementor think to let me use the credit card to open the door?" or "why didn't the Parser recognize that credit card fits the 'can jimmy doors' category?" there is much of a sense of "isn't it wild that Guybrush won't try jimmying that door with the credit card and has to resort to using the screwdriver?"

I think particularly interesting is the greater and greater push to the idea of the game being a puppeteer collaboration with the main character rather than illusions of direct control of his or her actions. In a graphical adventure it is certainly more common for a character to share more of his or her inner monologue as things spoken out loud, presumably to himself, but obviously directly to the player. There's a good reason that the graphic adventure has been characterized by statements like "That doesn't work" and "I can't pick that up" and "That won't fit in my pocket"...

I think that MI2 is perhaps the best example of this collaboration with the character. With a slight change in the premise of Guybrush Threepwood's flaws, apropos to the narrative, from "earnest, yet bumbling fool" to "bearded man of ego", you see an almost entirely different feel to the overall game that certainly feels like it comes from the main character's approach to the world at the time more than the designer's specific thematic choice. I think that it is great design when character narrative reflects so much in the entire narrative.

For me, MI2 is certainly one of the biggest and earliest chance encounters with some of the hard questions of who is controlling whom, something that seems to have become relatively popular in recent blockbuster narratives. Am I, the player, Guybrush's conscience? His ego? His unbelievable luck? Do I encourage Guybrush to malice because I demand it or because the puzzle design requires it? Or is Guybrush simply malicious and I'm only leading him in the right direction to direct his malice?

In GTA4 Niko Bellic's primary character flaw is a background of violence... How much does the expression of violence in the game reflect Niko and how much reflects the inherent violence of the player pulling the strings? There is so much complaint about "the nature of the game" without nearly as much speculation and talk about the context of the game with regard to the role of the player, much less the interplay of the character's background and the world he thrusts himself into.

I think there's a lot more places to discover interesting relationships between players and a main character's flaws. I think that there is certainly many more places to explore and I think there is some small movement recently in game design that starts to see that a game's interface is a refraction of a main character's flaws as much as a main character's abilities. I look forward to exploring more worlds where that matters...

[1]In the sense that she is the Governer of the entire Tri-Island Area (of Mêlée, Booty and Plunder Islands plus minor affiliations with other islands in its archipelago), not in the sense that she is a nanny...
[2]Interestingly, design emails about "Milliways" the proposed sequel to Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game mentioned the idea of having the updated version of the Infocom parser announce "himself" explicitly to the player and be a minor character in the game itself, which would fit the H2G2 universe of bizarre robots and anthropomorphic animals.