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:
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.
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.