Sunday, June 19, 2011

Authority figures in cactus games

I originally wrote this in October of last year, which is why it says "cactus released Dear Agent the other day." Also, the term "player" is used also to refer to the player-character of their respective games, as most of them have no names.

cactus released a new game, Dear Agent, the other day. It's a sidescrolling platformer, super low-res (which makes it a little hard to play/read, but I think it works), with destructible environments and a focus on conserving ammo and manipulating lava flows. It reminds me a little of his earlier game Krebswelte, although one thing it has that Krebswelte doesn't, and many other cactus games do, is an authority figure giving you orders. In this case it's the agent's father and superior, a man in a leather gimp mask who gives the agent orders, urges them to "remember your duties!", and signs off with an eerily intimate "hugs and kisses..."

It's an interesting spin on the idea of the unseen boss giving you orders by phone, especially when you consider the other authority figures in cactus games--many of which communicate to the player in a similar fashion, and almost all of which have nothing but disdain for the player themselves.

The most obvious parallel to the father in Dear Agent is the Boss from Mondo Agency. Both characters command the player "agents" and give them orders throughout the games. In Mondo Agency, it's never explicitly stated that the bald-headed robot man between levels is actually the "Boss" that's referenced in the opening screen of the game, but he's the one who ends up firing the player in the end, so it's a pretty safe bet.

Unlike the main character's father in Dear Agent, the Boss is not related to the player and says nothing of any real friendliness to them at any time. In the beginning he emails the briefing right to the player to read, and at the end he angrily fires them for killing the President. In between, however, he drones on in bizarre, circuitous lines of thought about the current challenges at hand, the tension between the citizens of Mondo Nation and the natives, the state of their society, and his own personal history. By the end of the game, he has let the player in on a strange secret regarding him and his search to find "a flower in a snow...that doesn't exist." By this time, the player has done everything the Boss has told them to (even massacre an entire village full of natives), but any perceived connection with him is lost after completing the final stage: the player kills the President and the Boss reacts with disbelief and outrage, saying "you are fired! Now got lost!"

Complicating this is the suspicion that the Boss may have been the one setting the agent up in the first place. After all, in the final stage, there's nothing for the player to do other than hit the buttons to kill the President, and they've gone through several stages of killing other people anyway. The overall effect is that this is the unavoidable path down which the Boss has led the player, and he even says that "we knew the President would be died...but not by an agent!" Whether he's lying or not, whether he's misled the player or not, is almost irrelevant: it just hammers home the insignificance of the player themselves. AGENT-65386 isn't even important enough to be killed for such a huge crime--he just gets demoted and goes away, somewhere.

The father in Dear Agent dispenses with long, rambly messages. Instead, all of the player's interactions with him are terse and similar, structured the same way: the father calls the player, saying "Dear Agent! This is your father!", gives them just enough information to complete their mission, and signs off with "hugs and kisses...". Other than being told that he's the player's father, we really don't have any evidence that he actually is. Being blood(?) relatives doesn't count for much: he gives the player nearly identical messages in every stage of the game, and between stages it's shown that he keeps the agent locked in a cage that he opens only when they are needed for another mission.

After all of the missions are complete, he informs the player that he thanks them for their contribution (to what?), informs them they will no longer be needed, and that they should "forget their duties." Much like the Boss, he doesn't hesitate to dispose of the player after their involvement with the game is over, and there's a lot of evidence that he never had the player's best interests at heart anyway. His insistence that he's the agent's "father" doesn't do much to disguise a relationship that is almost entirely business. Also much like the Boss, this perceived slight or injustice towards the agent is never corrected, addressed or even acknowledged. The character--and the player, by extension--is just not that important, and the game ends with the agent back where they started: locked in the cage. Thanks, dad.

Mondo Medicals is less cut-and-dried than the above examples, for the reason that the player doesn't initially appear to be taking orders. The game takes the form of a series of puzzles that challenge the player's logical (and illogical) thinking, but it's presented as the player's approach: you're the one who went to Mondo Medicals. You're the one who wants to help find the cure for cancer, so here's what you have to do. The player doesn't initially seem to be forced into the project.

Then the Priest shows up, like the Boss, between every stage. But there's a world of difference between the Priest and the Boss: while the Boss drones on in a relatively evenhanded and sedate way, the Priest screams, all the time, constantly, and he doesn't even attempt to create the "working relationship" with the player that both the Boss and the agent's father do. He doesn't talk about the puzzles or the cancer research or any of that: he immediately launches into telling the player about his own personal history when, as a young boy, his father was killed by the disease.

In Dear Agent, the main character's father has a relationship with the player that claims to be fatherly, but may as well not exist at all. In Mondo Agency, the Boss carefully reveals small parts of himself as the player fulfills his missions, creating a rapport that ultimately is cast aside. But in Mondo Medicals, the Priest drags the player, kicking and screaming, into his childhood trauma. Whereas the Boss and the agent's father don't hesitate to kick the player out when they're not needed anymore, the Priest wants to pull them in deeper until they can't escape. Scroll up and take another look at the Priest's chamber: it's no coincidence that he stands in the middle of those arrows, pointing towards him. He draws the player in, tells them that they should have seen this coming, and then shoots them. (His reasoning: you are a cancer, and the only way to kill a cancer is to shoot it.)

This is where the insignificance of the player hits hardest: when death is the only "good end" the game offers you. There are other ways to die in Mondo Medicals, like getting crushed to death by walls, but that's the thing: the player's input doesn't affect anything except for where and when you die.

Most games tend to reward the player with a good ending on virtue of merit, but in these games, the ending you get is only as good as your superior allows it to be. If they want you fired, you're fired; if they want you dead, you're dead; if they want you in limbo, well, there's not much you can do about it.

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