Seeing life from the other side


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What the Other Guy Thinks

An interesting post by Will Hindmarch in the recent issue of THE ESCAPIST. Hindmarch is discussing what he calls the “little details” or background texture to a computer game. The part of the article that resonated with me is captured here:

One moment, you’re neutralizing a pawn to complete a mission objective and capture points. The next, you’re a vile murderer ambushing a penniless grunt to get your hands on the castle’s loot. What happened?

The guard opened his mouth, that’s what happened. You’re playing the first of level of the “immersive sim,” Thief: The Dark Project, in 1998, when the polygonal soldier whose gullet you were about to lance with an arrow mumbles to himself on his patrol.

GUARD: Everyone above me gets all the favors and I haven’t had a thing to eat in days.

Words change everything. Like dousing or lighting a torch changes the nature of the environment in Thief, hearing, reading or missing a line of text changes the intellectual landscape for the player. Consider how this note, pinned to the kitchen wall in that castle, changes the way you render the environment in your imagination:

“Cedric –
Please speak to Cook about last night’s dinner. While, technically, the menu conformed to my instructions, I suspect that the lamb was somewhat older than this spring’s, and I am in no way fooled by his practice of warming the salad to disguise wilting. If Cook is incapable of finding adequate ingredients, he can be replaced.
– Lord Bafford”

By itself, it’s just a simple tool to evoke an opinion about the absent lord whose stuff you’re stealing. (Probably, you get more satisfaction out of robbing a whining schmuck.) But, if you happened to overhear that first guard’s mumbling, the words amplify each other. Now, Lord Bafford is complaining about the technical conformity of his meals while his soldiers are going hungry.

Are you going to try harder to boost every scrap of his loot, ’cause “that’ll show him?” Or will that just get his hungry guards punished for incompetence? What’s going to happen in the castle after you’re gone?

It doesn’t matter. Nothing happens after you leave the castle – when you’re finished, it ceases to exist. What matters is you bought into it implicitly for a moment or a minute or 10 minutes, while you played. You enjoyed the illusion. So, it does matter.

GUARD: What is that smell? Smells like… old meat.

The devil’s in the details. One line of dialogue makes a room smell like rot. One note conjures a person out of nothing. In Bafford’s castle, his journals show he suspects someone called Ginny is stealing from him, and he’s trying to dig up dirt on “Viktoria.” In your imaginarily rendered game world, these people exist out in the city somewhere now, but you don’t know who’s just background or who
might step into play. Anyone could be Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.

When do we actually take the time to step out of the classic heroic role to examine the life of the ‘set dressing’ characters in games like this? Well, never. Nobody wants to play a goon, or a spear carrier, or the local baker. Nor should they. We don’t play games to reinvent a humdrum life, we play games to simulate another form of reality.

And yet…

The notion that a supporting detail has more depth than just another way to further your interaction with a game has tremendous appeal to me. Does anyone remember the final credits and special extra bits from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery? In it, we see a series of vignettes. First, the wife of the security guard that Austin dispatches with toothpaste and rabid trout (“he lost HIS head..”) gets a phone call where someone notifies her of her husband’s death. She (and their son) weep uncontrollably. In another vignette, Rob Lowe and a bunch of bowling buddies are planning a surprise party for an absent guard character (the guy run over by the steam roller at the end, played by the guy who does the Stuart character on Mad TV). Rob Lowe and the buddies go on and on about the guy, telling stories about how great he is… then the phone rings and they are notified that he has been smooshed by Austin Powers. That’s the sort of background detail we almost never think about… what does that goon do in his off hours? Read books? Watch TV? Write the great American novel? What happens in the dungeon when we leave it? It’s no good thinking on the subject, because the background detail ultimately is there on our whim and for our pleasure. Still, it’s nice to think about faceless dungeon guards playing cards, or laughing and joking, or standing in chow line togather, down there in the dungeon… waiting patiently, for us.

8 comments

  1. Dear Walt

    Heh, Heh, Heh, Here you go again Walt. You want people to think about what they mean when they say what they mean and think about what they do when they do what they do. You know this is a pointless activity, why — come on– way way back in the garden I TOLD you that these humans were never going to get it and you were expecting too much from them. But would you listen NOOOOOooooooooooo and I had to go out and prove it to you and you’ve been pissed off at me ever since!

    The Lady
    The Tree
    The Apple
    And Me

    My best work!

    Otto

  2. Well, there’s always hope, Screwtape. What I’m touching on here, as you immediately guessed, is that old chesnut you and I have passed back and forth from time to time, the concept of “seeing the human being” when we make games about killing them. I’m not a great afficienado of the sort of games that are usually the subject of articles in THE ESCAPIST (I’m not much of a computer gamer), but if there are starting to be games that actually create personalities out of the background clutter, then an exciting new “moral dimension” is added to what used to be an exercise in slaughter. As we discussed at length, many of them will not get it. But maybe somebody will….

    Wormwood

  3. This is from Otto Schmidt because he can’t figure out to get around Anonymous.

    True

    I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He killed.”

    Had He and I but met
    at some ancient Inn
    We would have set us down to wet
    right many a nipperkin.

    But ranged as infantry
    and standing face to face
    I shot at him and he at me
    and killed him in his place.

    He was my foe, just so
    My foe he was that’s plain to see..

    He thought he’d ‘list
    off hand- like I- was out of work
    Had sold his traps
    No other reason why.

    War’s –strange –it is
    You shoot a man down
    Who in another time, another place
    you’d help to half a crown.

    My apologies to Thomas Hardy for forgetting some lines.

    This one has stayed with me.

    I’m also reminded of that great movie “Catherine the Great” with Norma Scherer as Catherine who comes into the council room after her husband Peter III (played by Errol Flynn (or is it Douglas Fairbanks) and when she asks where the Tzar is — is told by her generals.

    General:”We don’t know your majesty- we told him the plans for the war, and asked him what he thought and he said “Oh it doesn’t matter what I think but what does Ivan Ivanovich think.”

    Catherine “Oh!” she says, pointing to the row of toy soldiers knocked over on the map.

    General:”Do you know what his majesty is talking about?”

    Catherine: “But don’t you see general, he (picking up a soldier) is Ivan Ivanovich, and he (picking up another) is Ivan Ivanovich- what does he care for your plans. He wants to tend his farm, and play with his children and embrace his wife- and now he’ll do none- he’ll rot under the cold Pommeranean soil…”

    Totally fictitious of course– Neither Peter or Catherine gave a figaro for their people, but a good scene nonetheless.

    , but a great scene.

  4. This is from Otto Schmidt because he can’t figure out to get around Anonymous.

    True

    I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He killed.”

    Had He and I but met
    at some ancient Inn
    We would have set us down to wet
    right many a nipperkin.

    But ranged as infantry
    and standing face to face
    I shot at him and he at me
    and killed him in his place.

    He was my foe, just so
    My foe he was that’s plain to see..

    He thought he’d ‘list
    off hand- like I- was out of work
    Had sold his traps
    No other reason why.

    War’s –strange –it is
    You shoot a man down
    Who in another time, another place
    you’d help to half a crown.

    My apologies to Thomas Hardy for forgetting some lines.

    This one has stayed with me.

    I’m also reminded of that great movie “Catherine the Great” with Norma Scherer as Catherine who comes into the council room after her husband Peter III (played by Errol Flynn (or is it Douglas Fairbanks) and when she asks where the Tzar is — is told by her generals.

    General:”We don’t know your majesty- we told him the plans for the war, and asked him what he thought and he said “Oh it doesn’t matter what I think but what does Ivan Ivanovich think.”

    Catherine “Oh!” she says, pointing to the row of toy soldiers knocked over on the map.

    General:”Do you know what his majesty is talking about?”

    Catherine: “But don’t you see general, he (picking up a soldier) is Ivan Ivanovich, and he (picking up another) is Ivan Ivanovich- what does he care for your plans. He wants to tend his farm, and play with his children and embrace his wife- and now he’ll do none- he’ll rot under the cold Pommeranean soil…”

    Totally fictitious of course– Neither Peter or Catherine gave a figaro for their people, but a good scene nonetheless.

    , but a great scene.

  5. Otto Schmidt Again

    DAMN YOU WALT! Can’t get the line of that guard out of my mind. I understand the “read between the lines” intent of the game between the two quotes you juxtaposed, but I guess I have a lively imagination and I can see the guard in my minds eye.

    The whole scene strikes me with such pathos. Why must this poor underfed guard die? Simply because he is an impediment to my, as a thief? I was always bothered when I was doing D&D about the morality of deliving into these tombs and mugging mosters for their gold when I really was only doing what they had done unto others and so I was no better than them.

    Shortly after this I began developing “unusual” characters who had unique characteristics which wre motivated by inner teleological motives. It was the most fun ever, though I suspect a great trial to my fellow players.

    I had one once who was a thirteen year old girl who actually HAD been raised by wolves. She lived in the wild with her pet wolf (the daughter of one of the litter that she was nursed with). She had absolutely no combat skills but was, as one might expect, an expert tracker and hunter. In fact, when the blades left their scabbards, she and her wolf found a quite out of the way place to hide. She had no sense of value as we have, and when they were dividing up loot, she would choose a nice strap from one of the dead orcs or bandits bodies as a new belt, or a piece of broken glass because it was pretty to watch the sun through.

    I had made her completely mute, unable to mutter a sound, and knew no languages. This forced the group to explain in semi-pantomime (I let them off doing it after a while as I ruled they had the skill). The story (never told to the players, was that she and her mother had been taken in a raid and sold to a vile cult that sacraficed its victims in horrible torture laden rituals. Her voice was destroyed to prevent screaming, and for the edification of her future owners/masters. She, however escaped as an infant and was found by wolves. The use of this device was done by me primarily to prevent my normally “chewing the carpte” over-acting from getting the better of itself, and gave me the time to think of her actions and responses (as she could not speak.)

    The break up came one day when the group decided to extort information from a prisoner they had taken by torturing him, and then they killed him. As I sat there pondering what was happening I realized this was absolutely the one thing that would drive the character away from the group. So that night she left, slinking off into the woods with the wolf. I told the GM what I was doing, but he liked the character and wanted me to keep her in the group. I told him (he knew the history) that this was impossible given the characters history, (no one else knew), but he let them track me (which I thought was highly unfair given my game skills). When I could see they were closing in on me, I thought hard and realized that the character had no choice. So she ran as fast as she could and smashed her head into a rock, several times, till she killed herself.

    The whole group was astounded and when I told them why, they just didn’t get it. As a final point they all decided to say “they were sorry” by giving the character a fancy burial, but I realized that the wolf would not let them near the body (which if you know dogs and wolves often happens) and they wound up killing the wolf and burying us together.

    I was amazed. They just couldn’t get beyond “how good (you -me) were in tracking and such an asset to the group.” None of them could answer the question “Why didn’t you just let her slink off into the woods?”

    Well I got my revenge with the character after the next one. It was female and a schizophrenic. Her passionate ambition, in a world of magic and potions was to develop surgery, medicine, and doctoring as we know it, — a means of treating wounds and pain that was not limited to the elite by the skill of sorcerers– and at the same time she was a homicidal maniac. She had no problems torturing prisoners and slicing them open, and prolonging their agony for days – so long as she could take notes on the circulation of the blood, the beating of the heart, the workings of the muscles. Completely, a-moral, completely dedicated, completely devoted to her discipline, and uttlery repulsive (though beautiful physically)

    They killed her too! They couldn’t take it when it was rubbed in their noses.

  6. Wow, I like the story of the little mute girl. It illustrates why all attempts at playing totally repulsive evil characters have inevitably failed with me– usually because I didn’t play them evil enough, or can’t bring myself to treat even a fictional construct in a repulsive fashion. I can do a fairly decent “Lawful Evil”. where characters can act in accordance with a consistent internal ethical code, but not a character who delights in torture and killing. One of my favorite extended campaigns of all time was an evil campaign. I played Montcrief, a sickly alibino Anti-Paladin who was a bit of a trickster. He would die if he didn’t have regular injections of a magickal serum made from the blood of innocents. The moral dialogue I had to go through to get it would have done credit to Socrates.

    Conversely, some of my colleagues on that campaign were truly what I would call evil bastards. We had along with us an “anti-Ranger” (not a real character class but something we made up.. he delighted in HURTING nature), a high level assassin/thief and a Necromancer. The last two were quirky types in real life but certain idiosyncrasies revealed themselves once the strictures of the real world were removed from their behaviors. (shudder)

    I’m reminded of the little scene in THE TWO TOWERS (movie, not book; in the book, this is Sam’s speech), where he ponders the body of a dead Easterling (I’m paraphrasing badly from memory): “and this poor wretch, did he not have a home, a wife, a son of his own? Did he not fight for his own home and hearth with as much valor as any of us do for our own?” Faramir had removed the faceless mask of his enemy, and could see the human being. That sort of thing contributes to truly great stories.

  7. Wow, I like the story of the little mute girl. It illustrates why all attempts at playing totally repulsive evil characters have inevitably failed with me– usually because I didn’t play them evil enough, or can’t bring myself to treat even a fictional construct in a repulsive fashion. I can do a fairly decent “Lawful Evil”. where characters can act in accordance with a consistent internal ethical code, but not a character who delights in torture and killing. One of my favorite extended campaigns of all time was an evil campaign. I played Montcrief, a sickly alibino Anti-Paladin who was a bit of a trickster. He would die if he didn’t have regular injections of a magickal serum made from the blood of innocents. The moral dialogue I had to go through to get it would have done credit to Socrates.

    Conversely, some of my colleagues on that campaign were truly what I would call evil bastards. We had along with us an “anti-Ranger” (not a real character class but something we made up.. he delighted in HURTING nature), a high level assassin/thief and a Necromancer. The last two were quirky types in real life but certain idiosyncrasies revealed themselves once the strictures of the real world were removed from their behaviors. (shudder)

    I’m reminded of the little scene in THE TWO TOWERS (movie, not book; in the book, this is Sam’s speech), where he ponders the body of a dead Easterling (I’m paraphrasing badly from memory): “and this poor wretch, did he not have a home, a wife, a son of his own? Did he not fight for his own home and hearth with as much valor as any of us do for our own?” Faramir had removed the faceless mask of his enemy, and could see the human being. That sort of thing contributes to truly great stories.

  8. Otto Schmidt Really

    Recall that scene in Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” when the French soldier he a stabbed on the night patrol finally dues after an hours long gruesom rattling death. He opens the mans wallet and sees the papers (the sum of his live) his pay card, the photo of his wife, and his identity. “Jacque Moreau- Compositer”

    He thinks. “I have killed Jacque the printer.”

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