Every week, Richard Cobbett takes a look at the world of story and writing in games.
It's often said that it's fun to be the bad guy, and not without cause. Power trips are fun trips. There's a reason though that even these stories tend to be about paying evil unto evil, and it's that being a complete jerk isn't usually as much fun as it sounds. The sense of power and freedom to be a jerk is a kind of wish fulfilment, which is usually lost when you're asked to be someone irredeemable. There's a reason that most players take the 'good' path through most games, with occasional breaks to take a little too much pleasure in an enemy's downfall.
I've been thinking of this in an adventure game context while playing the recent Supreme League of Patriots over the last week. It's not a game that really clicked with me unfortunately, mostly due to some frustrating puzzle design and a couple of timing problems completely killing the rhythm of the ludicrously overwritten conversations. (Nothing kills timing quite like characters having to fade in and out between lines...) Still, it's not without charms, some good characters and lines, and an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. One of the most surprising of those factors though was how it handles its main character in a very clever way. You're the Purple Patriot, a ludicrously exaggerated version of American conservatism ratcheted up to the point that Glenn Beck would start rubbing his flanks in arousal, whose every other line is either sexist, homophobic, nationalistic, or otherwise insulting to someone.
Ordinarily, that's a pretty tough sell unless you're actually an awful, awful person, not least because the line between comedy-awful and actual-awful is a thin one. One of the greatest failures of walking it was the old Simon the Sorcerer 3D, which as well as being one of the worst games ever made, had one of the most hateful protagonists. The entire first act is basically devoted to him being a dick to people, up to and including leaving a man trapped in a hole and mocking him. Being someone so spitefully toxic just isn't fun, which was at least part of why people never got to the point of it - Simon's realisation that everyone he'd spat on is actually needed to help him in his quest, making his former actions kick him hard. Another one, as linked in my Worst Puzzles In Adventure Gaming feature is Halligan of Mystery of the Druids, who quickly loses any audience sympathy when he poisons a tramp to steal his money. It doesn't matter that he's later raked over the coals for doing so - simply being a person who would do that to accomplish a goal is a Problem.
(Things get even harder when you're actually a villain, for the simple reason that upsetting people, hurting them, stealing treasured possessions and so on rarely feels good. Quest for Infamy suffered from this hard, only not in the way you might think. Having set out to be a Quest for Glory style game about a villain, it seemed to quickly realise that it wasn't fun, with the result that its main character Roehm ends up doing basically nothing villainous except some very minor property damage and being snarky. It was a fun and extremely well made adventure in its own right, don't get me wrong, but one where the innkeeper's order to stay away from his daughter or else probably deserved more than a "Huh. Might be worth it!" in response.)
Supreme League of Patriots though handles it in an extremely smart way. The Purple Patriot is actually a schlub called Kyle, and the first episode of the game is spent with him. In this time, we see that Kyle is fat, lazy, feckless and stupid, but basically a decent enough guy. There's no hate in his dialogue, he seems pretty open-minded, and when he wears the costume, he's just the same guy in a silly costume. His transformation into the Purple Patriot, care of a mix of head trauma and some dodgy pills handed over by a slinky yet morbid nurse, is a radical character shift immediately explained away on medical grounds. Everyone around him meanwhile is horrified at the stuff he starts coming out with, from his best friend Mel to fellow heroes like Bleeding Heart, in a way that doesn't smack of the devs trying to have their cake and eat it too. It allows for the joke to ultimately be on the Purple Patriot and defuses the specific content, especially when the response from most characters he targets with it is a facepalm.
That defusal and the characters shaking their heads is vital, helping turn what could have become a very nasty, unpleasant comedy game waving the parody defense into something with the innocence of, say, The Tick. He certainly borrows a lot from the style with declarations like "YOU SPEAK NERD, OLD CHUM!" The style of humour doesn't always land, and there's a couple of things that are still a bit 'ooooof' at times, but there's never any doubt where the writers stand or who the joke is really on.
Now, that's not to say that openly awful characters absolutely can't work. I quite (if guiltily) enjoyed the cheery filth of the Hector games for instance, which managed to make the awfulness of the main character funny. It's just rare, and a lot of adventure game characters end up crossing the line in the name of puzzles or progress to the point that many of them come across as smiling sociopaths. Even the likes of Guybrush Threepwood have their moments, such as stealing an otherwise practically blind man's monocle, and most adventurers have at least one "You did NOT just do that..." moment on their karmic slate. It actually takes something fairly extreme to stand out in the crowd, like Runaway 2's puzzle where you have an entirely harmless man raped by a polar bear so that you can steal his stuff, or Diamonds in the Rough, where you mix up chlorine gas to help steal a bottle of wine from a bartender whose only issue with selling it to you is that you're underage. It probably says something for the genre that with this kind of stuff in place, it's still Gabriel Knight making a moustache out of cat hair and maple syrup that stands out as odd.
Actually, no, that's entirely fair. Wow, that was a stupid, stupid puzzle.