Sunday, June 9, 2013

Biased Opinion - Unkillable Characters

The unkillable Mayor MacCready.
He's an ass, so you desperately
want to kill him. Or at least spank him.
For the last couple of weeks I've fallen down the Fallout 3 hole, mostly because I've been unmotivated to do much of anything productive, and because I've been rationalizing the time spent by telling myself that because it is science fiction related, I'll eventually write a review of the game. But, because I can't follow any story without subjecting it to some analysis, I've been thinking about the incredibly screwed up nature of the stories contained in the game.

These story missteps don't take the form slight faux pas moments where something doesn't add up quite right. No, Fallout 3 has some very fundamental issues that doom what could have been a brilliant and immersive experience. And a lot of the flaws boil down to a simple factor that plagues the computer game industry: invulnerable non-player characters. All too often, lazy game writers resort to making a "critical" non-player character invulnerable to player action, and then make the player run through gates controlled by that non-player character to advance the game. This is lazy, obnoxious, and incompetent writing, and every single game writer who resorts to this technique should be fired immediately and banned from ever working in the computer game industry again.

The problem with invulnerable characters may not actually be their invulnerability, but rather the style of writing that they engender. Almost inevitably, when handed an invulnerable character to use, a game writer takes this as an opportunity to make them an insufferable ass. And at the same time, the game writer usually uses this insufferable ass to preen over what a great character writer he is, and berate the player's character. There is some question as to which direction the causality arrow points: Do invulnerable non-player characters cause game writers to create insufferable asses, or does the desire to create non-player characters who are insufferable asses cause game designers to make such characters invulnerable. Either way, it is lazy and obnoxious game writing that results in game worlds populated by unrealistically petulant jerks who know they can get away with being aggressively venomous because they cannot be harmed or otherwise affected in any way.

Invulnerable characters should be banned from games. If I ever find myself in a position where I can direct the development of a game, my first instruction will be to prohibit the inclusion of invulnerable non-player characters. I can already hear the whining that would follow: "If we don't have invulnerable characters then the player might kill my precious non-player creation and mess up the story of the game." I don't care. I would also fire any writer who made that objection on the spot. If your story is so brittle that it cannot withstand interaction with a player, then you have no business writing games. Go write a novel or a television screenplay or some other form of non-interactive media. But if you are a frustrated movie script writwer who is only writing games because that's the gig you could get, then you should leave the industry now. And never come back. No matter how much you love your precious author insertion persona, they are not the hero of the story. The player is. And if your character is more "critical" to the story than the player, there is something fundamentally wrong with your game story.

The first thing a game writer should do if they have a non-player character who they don't want killed is figure out a way to make the player not want to kill that character. This isn't that hard. In Fallout 3 Moira Brown is an annoying character who offers a series of potentially deadly, but wholly optional, quests. But even though many players complain about the almost psychotic nature of Moira's quests, very few kill her. First, because she is a merchant, and thus a valuable character for other reasons, and second, because she is written to be somewhat adorably psychotic, mixing in some endearing traits with her annoying ones.

The second thing a game writer should do is have a back-up option in your game. If you have a non-player character who is "critical" to your plot, then have an alternative that can come in to effect if the player kills them off. In Fallout 3 there are a couple of quests that fit this mold. "Reilly's Rangers" is a quest that can be started by talking to Reilly. It can also be started in several other ways, meaning that if Reilly were to be unavailable for some reason, then the player could still complete that portion of the game. It is a side quest, so there's no reason the player has to complete it, but there are still multiple paths to get to it. Some paths are better than others, for example if you talk to Reilly she will give you some codes to get some additional benefits, but that's okay. Keeping her alive is a benefit, but not a requirement meaning that the player is rewarded for having the right skills and making certain choices rather than others. And the fact that there is this sort of flexibility in a side quest like this is what makes it so frustrating that there are points in the main quest line where the game writers stopped pretending to care and channeled the player through hateful and obnoxious invulnerable non-player characters with no other options.

I also hear the whiny game writers saying: "But if we don't have invulnerable characters then game stories can't have any unlikable characters in them." Aside from the fact that this is dead wrong - games are populated with any number of unlikable characters that the people who play them don't want to kill for a variety of reasons - it is also a cry of someone who is terrible at writing. If you write a character that you know the player will want to kill and the only way you can figure out to keep that character alive is to make them invulnerable, that's a complete failure on your part as a writer. If you want to include a non-player character who is unlikable enough that player's will want to kill them simply to add such a character to your game, that's also a complete failure on your part as a writer. Turn in your pen and get out of the game writing business. Now. You're incompetent at it.

As an example of the kind of terrible writing I am criticizing here, I point to Mayor MacCready of Little Lamplight in Fallout 3. Little Lamplight is a settlement of children in the game that seems to be based at least in part on the Cathedral section of the city in Logan's Run where antisocial young kids nicknamed "Cubs" are housed. At the age of fifteen, a Cub's hand clock changes color and the other Cubs kick him or her out of Cathedral. This makes sense in a warped way in the twisted dystopia of Logan's Run, but when the same system is applied to the wasteland of Fallout 3, it is simply ridiculous. Leaving the inherent silliness of transporting a concept from Logan's Run into another story without considering whether doing so makes any sense, once your character gets to the town, which you must go through to complete the main quest line of the game, you are confronted by the ten year old Mayor MacCready, who, like all children in the Fallout 3 world, is invulnerable. And he's an obnoxious ass. He insults your character repeatedly while backing up his tough talk with what amounts to a pop-gun.

In any sane world, your character would turn this arrogant and self-important pip-squeak over his knee and paddle some manners into him. Or, if you were playing an evil character, which is allowed in the game, you might shoot the kid in the head. But no, you can't do anything but sit there and let MacCready berate you over and over again, and then go and do his stupid quest so he will open a plywood door for you. What makes this especially grating is that by this point in the game your character is probably carrying a missile launcher, a flamethrower, a weapon that shoots miniature nukes, and enough grenades to outfit an entire regiment. But because you can't use any of that ordinance to get through a plywood door, you need to kowtow to a badly written asshole of a child. And that is a complete failure of story writing. Whoever came up with this part of the game story needs to be fired from any writing job they might currently hold and be blacklisted from the game making industry for life.

This sort of lazy writing is endemic to games, and it simply has to stop. Good writers figure out how to work around the disappearance of characters. When J. Michael Straczynski was writing Babylon 5, he had a five year story in mind, and numerous characters who were supposed to play a vital part in that story. But because he was writing a television series, and one cannot always predict which actors will stay with a series, Straczynski had a series of alternatives for each story line, or as he called them "trap-doors" where he could drop one character and move someone else into their place in the story. This is good writing, and something that every game writer should seek to emulate. They won't, of course. They will continue to churn out lazy and sloppy stories and game buyers will continue to buy them. But I can still dream that good writing will start showing up in games.

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  1. I agree. I too would ban invulnerable characters.

    1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I wish the games industry would realize that invulnerable characters are an indication that the writer has failed rather than simply a regular part of their story telling. If you have to make a character invulnerable to make your story work, you have failed as a writer.