Theories of a Gamer – Ambiguously Unambiguous Evil

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I’m not quite ready to give a full review of Graveyard Keeper by Lazy Bear Games; I’m about eight hours in, and I can’t stop playing. Just know that I’m missing a lot of time in Minecraft and Final Fantasy XIV performing autopsies, burying “sinless” corpses in the local graveyard, throwing “sinful” corpses into the river, and giving sermons at the local church in the hopes that someday mods will be developed that make this already very engrossing game perfect.

So yeah, I guess that’s a good early review, at least.

I’ve never played a game that gives you the gameplay options it does without throwing out the following message in nearly any way:

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I say nearly because the main character, the titular graveyard keeper, upon learning what his job entitled (namely, the dismemberment and disembowelment of human corpses in order to dispose of them) complains about it. Just once, though. After that, you, the player, are free to harvest all that meat, blood, bone, and brain matter to your heart’s content (and the corpse’s heart’s content, too, don’t forget those). No need to worry, however. It’s all in the name of… SCIENCE. Besides, they’re dead; they’re not going to need all those entrails and flesh. Why not put them to better use instead?

If you’re at all familiar with Fallout 3, you might remember the story of the little town of Andale and the families that lived there: not only were the only two remaining families incredibly inbred, but their source of food in that dark urban wasteland was none other than the visitors and raiders that happened upon the small collection of still-standing homes and shacks. Don’t agree with the lifestyle the residents of Andale enjoy? Don’t worry, you’ll soon change your mind… once they invite you to dinner.

You get one but two trope/memes out of Andale: “DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT” and “STAY OUT OF MY SHED” (specifically SHED.MOV, NSFW but entertaining). Choosing the “good” ending for Andale ends with defending yourself from these well-dressed and well-mannered knife-wielding maniacs.

The Wanderer: “Bring home the bacon? Those are people, not bacon! What the f-ck?”

Jack Smith: “Hey! I’ll have none of that language in this house!”

The Wanderer: “I can’t believe I’m being called a potty mouth by a cannibal…”

Jack Smith: “Okay, that’s it. I warned you. Now I’m going to sock your jaw, mister.”

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Mmm, strange meat.

Unfortunately for Jack, his wife, and his neighbors, death by the Wanderer’s combat shotgun and his companion Charon ensues. Yes, that’s the “good” ending, the murder (admittedly in slightly self-defense) of all the cannibal adults. The two children go to live with their grandpa Old Man Harris (yes, they are cousins, and they were set to be married once they grew up, meaning their parents were siblings, incest did in fact occur…). From one point of view (the karma-aligned “good” choice), these children will grow up as normal as one can in the Wasteland without the influence of their cannibalistic lineage. But at the same time, while the parent’s crimes were great, these children are left bereft of their parents in a very unforgiving world without a source of food, employment, or protection. Would Old Man Harris and the children abandon Andale? Likely, if only to distance themselves from their destructive heritage. Will they move to Rivet City or Megaton for protection? Likely, as Andale is fairly remote and dangerous for an old man and two kids. Will they all have trouble integrating into normal society? Very likely; the only contact with the outside world the children had was with visitors that disappeared pretty quickly and reappeared as a breakfast menu item.

Of course, the binary karma system of Fallout 3 doesn’t take into account many of these particulars, and time constraints in game design mean the family never moves away from Andale in-game, despite how little sense it makes to remain there. In Black-And-White-Land, cannibals = bad and dead cannibals = good, no matter the other consequences.

Old Man Harris: “Better an orphan than a cannibal I guess?”

Graveyard Keeper, on the other hand… is definitely not Stardew Valley.

Right after learning how to butcher- er, autopsy a corpse, you’ll learn how to cook! And what’s the first thing you’ll learn how to cook? Baked meat! And where does this baked meat come from?

…th-the corpses!?

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Just don’t tell ’em you’ve turned into a cannibal. Keep that on the way down low.

Worse, you learn that the village for which you gravekeep is in the midst of a meat shortage, and the only way you could sell meat is if you had a royal stamp proving that it was well-sourced and fit for human consumption. After all, there’s been rumors going around of someone forging a stamp and selling suspicious meat… and we wouldn’t want to be caught selling strange meat, would we? No, especially since everyone’s pretty sure the Graveyard Keeper doesn’t own livestock! Haha! No, we wouldn’t want that, would we?

But we can. That’s a thing you can do in Graveyard Keeper. Not only are you encouraged to chop up and eat corpse meat (for a guy from the present day looking to return to his own time, he sure takes to cannibalism like a duck to water), you can “disguise” the meat with a royal stamp and sell it to the tavern owner as “legit” packaged meat for a pretty good profit. And as long as you toss the bodies into the river or cremate them afterwards, the bodies from which you procure the meat won’t spoil your pristine graveyard with all their icky red skull “sins”.

And you get all of this without a single hint of this:

I’m not sure which is worse: Fallout 3 with its ambiguous and overly-simplistic expressions of morality, or Graveyard Keeper with its unambiguous uncomplaining evil that would become obvious to even the most ignorant villager if they tailed behind the graveyard keeper for even half a day. In Fallout, you can choose to be a raider or a slaver, and spend all day slapping slave collars around the necks of children and the elderly. You can murder almost every NPC you meet. These are things you can do. In Graveyard Keeper, you can strip the skin off of the recently deceased and refine it into sheets of paper upon which you can write a church sermon to present to your ignorant congregation. You can turn human flesh into delicious burgers that restore your energy. These are things you can do.

But one game tells you what you’re doing is evil and one doesn’t. Two important questions: should a game alert you when you’re doing “bad” things? And should the game be responsible for telling the player what they’re doing is evil?

#1: I don’t think so.

#2: I believe so, to a point. What that point is depends on the message the game wants to send. And Graveyard Keeper is anything but a solemn soul-searching narrative of inner darkness.

Of course, Fallout 3 and Graveyard Keeper are two entirely different beasts, and not entirely comparable. But I find it fascinating how cannibalism in Fallout is a trait that must be sought out and used, all consequences be damned… And in Graveyard Keeper, it’s pretty much acknowledged from the beginning that harvesting meat from the dead is a good and expected way to make money. Is this lack of a “morality system” a fault on GK’s part? Or is the ambiguity the only thing that separates it from Stardew Valley and other resource management and crafting games?

I’m not sure! But time willing, the game’s review will be my next blog!

Theories of a Gamer – The Protagonist

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Are you familiar with the “Valve Narrative Formula”?

Y’know, the “Valve Narrative Formula”. It goes like this: your game is a first-person shooter where the only evidence for your character’s identity are the arms that carries the guns and possibly the reflections you see in mirrors/portals. Other than that, the protagonist is embarrassingly silent through their entire stressful ordeal, presenting the non-player characters as the almighty bearers of total narrative structure and progress.

Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal are mirrors of the player, meant to say nothing and meant to be nothing besides a moving camera for the player to experience the story unfold around them. A story, I might add, that would have been radically different had the main character been given a voice with which to protest and reason. I mean, from nerdy nuclear physicist in a hazard suit to a one-man global-alien-regime-toppling army? Only in a video game. In fact, I would make the argument that Half-Life 2’s real protagonist is Alyx Vance, because the real character development (and loss of family, spoilers I guess) belongs to her – if Gordon Freeman lost family to the Resonance Cascade and subsequent Seven Hour War, he never remembers it in a flashback or reacts to it and the player never sees evidence of it. And for Portal 2’s case, I think you’ll find that GLaDOS is the one that develops from a cold and calculating AI murderbot to a cold and calculating AI murderbot that allows Chell her freedom. For GLaDOS, that’s saying something.

Most voiceless protagonists (especially the ones who use bigger and ever bigger guns to do the talking for them) are placed in a world where reason and compromise have been thrown out of window. For the Doomslayer, there are no words that will eradicate the forces of Hell (or force the enigmatic Samuel Hayden to back down from exploiting Hell for its power). For Samus Aran, you can’t talk your way out of a metroid’s maw (unless you make her into an overly dramatic and badly written character like in Metroid: Other M). For Chrono or Serge from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, let’s face it… your friends are going to talk for you, just nod and say yes (but they might just abandon you once you’re dead anyway). And as it turns out, Link is either too early to save Hyrule (Ocarina of Time), too late (Wind Waker), or just plain under-prepared (all of them, but especially Breath of the Wild for plot reasons), but he gets the courage to fight all the same.

Everyone has the same argument. Which one is better: a voiced protagonist that holds the plot hostage just like a movie or first-person novel protagonist would, or a voiceless protagonist upon which the player can mirror themselves and make their own decisions? And then what about voiced characters that speak according to the choices you make? Does the fact that Lara Croft and Nathan Drake can speak make Tomb Raider and Uncharted any less fun? Does the voiced protagonist in Fallout 4 take you further into or further out of your immersion? Does a voiceless protagonist make you wonder what your motivations are supposed to be beyond “do thing, get loot, level up, hooray”?

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Onward, Epona #75! I can’t afford to pay 1,000 rupees to the Horse God!

But instead of all those well-trod arguments, let’s instead turn the voiceless protagonist trope on its head: what if you have a main character that is an absolute chatterbox, won’t stop talking to himself (or herself) about everything he (she) observes and experiences, makes all the decisions for himself (or herself)… and is surrounded by “NPCs” that have no voice, no emotion, and no personality? Or, better yet, what if they develop a personality based on the kinds of inputs and interactions the player has around and with them?

Could this be fun and entertaining, or in the very least, not annoying?

A game that comes to mind first off (that is certainly not annoying) would be What Remains of Edith Finch and other games that could be called “walking simulators” . The narration in the game comes solely from Edith revisiting her childhood home for the first time in many years, and retelling all of the stories she heard and lessons she learned while living there as a child. But that kinda breaks the rules, as all the other characters presented have “voices” all their own as you learn their stories. No, I’m talking about a game where the characters have little to no personality besides what the player can reflect onto them instead of the other way around.

The first type of this game that comes to mind is a person who starts off sane, but starts talking to random objects around their office/cubicle/workshop/tool shed/submarine/nuclear launch bay/presidential bunker and gives them personalities by talking to themselves at first, then to the objects themselves as they go slowly insane from boredom or isolation. The isolation would be necessary to maintain an excuse for the lack of actual active NPCs, and the tone could turn anywhere from comedic and light-hearted “oh look the shiny red button is talking to me” madness to tragic “why won’t all the voices stop” madness. I think a game like this would either require a very talented team of writer/designer/programmers who know how to take dialogue and mix it up so that every game is a unique, player-driven experience, or a team of writer/designers working to tell a very specific story about isolation, mental illness, the power of boredom, or all of the above. An example of this (but only kind of) would be the Lab Rat comic from the Portal series; poor Rattman has only one friend in the whole world left, and he slowly hears the voice of his bestest friend in the whole world (the Companion Cube) go silent right when he needs him the most after he takes his antipsychotic meds.

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The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.

Another idea that comes to mind would be more akin to the whale from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxya character that is so brand-new to the world that they start giving names to objects they see, and then giving them personalities based on what you think they do (naturally everything will HAVE to be taste-tested first). I think it would be rather silly to be in control of an infant learning about the world while the thoughts going through the baby’s head sounded very excited and slightly British, but that’s just my enthusiasm for Douglas Adams. Again, it would have to take place during a period of isolation, in a crib or a playroom, some place without other active NPCs. Maybe you can meet an object that hurts you or smells bad, creating a negative personality that then calls you bad names, making you upset enough to cry and call for Mom, which would reset the experience. Again, you could set the tone to be light-hearted and funny or as tragic and terrible. It reminds me of Among the Sleep if you’re angling for horror, as experiencing a dark and stormy night as an infant can be a very frightening experience.

Just a thought exercise, that’s all. What other ideas come to mind when you play a chatterbox protagonist surrounded by mute companions?

Edit: It just occurred to me that my theory put into practice could produce something like Bubsy 3D. Heaven help us.

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