Friday, December 21, 2012

I Like Surprises

Looks like I'm about done with troubleshooting my shareable neighborhood; or at least Phase Two of it. Even if no one else ever plays it, my chief playtester is having so much fun with it she's going to keep right on playing, and sharing the pictures and stories with me, so in terms of amusing myself and others, it's been a worthwhile.

I enjoy seeing how certain storytelling truths remain constant across formats and genres. It doesn't matter how you're telling the story, if you're doing your job right, the characters will surprise you. I expected, in this instance, for this to happen as a function of the maxim "No plan survives first contact with the players," particularly as I deliberately created Widespot with the intention of giving the players as many options as possible. I didn't want any particular storyline to be implied as "the right one," and went out of my way to give the most obvious "hero" and "heroine" characters situations with no clear moral path to happiness, and my obvious "villains" some sort of human motivations, or at least excuses. I thought I knew how to design and train a sim, and that I would be able to set up the situation I wanted before they were able to generate the sorts of strong personalities that I encourage in my own games, so that the players would have the pleasure of that phase of development.

Please note, when reading the following paragraphs, that the genre of the game in question is soap opera. Romantic complications and poor decision-making on the part of people who ought to know better are far and away the easiest sources of story conflict. Especially when making a Base Game neighborhood, without access to alternative modes of generating drama enabled by expansion packs.

The playtesters have already done unexpected things with the characters. But it's also true that those characters seem to be manifesting consistently across games. Criminal Mastermind Rich Mann does not seem to be the least bit ashamed of his affair with gold-digger Candy Hart (also dating his son - to be fair, it was her idea, not mine or Rich's), though whether that manifests as telling his wife and son about it and being forgiven, or as brazenly going on to seduce his son's other love interest as well, is a function of the player. Hamilton Beech is stupid whoever plays him; I mean stupid even by the standards of the game, in which the AI is deliberately a little on the dim side. (After all, if sims are smart enough to take care of themselves, what do they need players for?) I could have trained him to be stupid, but in fact I tried to at least train him to be smart enough not to start a kitchen fire every time he cooks, and failed.

I designed Valentine Hart specifically to be a dirty old man; instead, he's one of the most appealing characters in the hood once you settle in to play him. He was very good to his wife during her brief existence (I wanted at least one ghost, and she got elected), seemed devastated when she died, and though he was happy to seduce and knock up the innocent Mary Land, both my chief playtester and I find him unwilling to then abandon her, even in the face of his daughter Candy's intense dislike of her and the game's tendency to goad sims like him to be fickle. We both find that he follows Mary around to give her backrubs, plays dolls with her little brother and sister, and gets along great with her parents. I could drag his relationship with her family down, as I did Candy's with Mary after Candy walked past her father seducing Mary on a couch not five feet from her mother's urn - but he's so charming the way he is, I prefer to leave it. Players who feel like training him into the dirty old man role are welcome to do so.

Anybody creating character-based stories in any medium has had this experience. You start out with a clear idea of who a character is, but he doesn't turn out that way - and you don't fight it, because the result is so much better. The widower taking responsibility for the bad decisions he made while in mourning, or possibly trying to fill the wife-shaped hole in his life with the nearest wife-shaped person he can lay hands on, in the face of family opposition yet, is more interesting than the dirty old man. More interesting is better.

Yes, it may muck up your plot; but your plot might have been a bit hackneyed before. A bit too simple.

If the author isn't ever surprised, how can she expect to surprise the audience?

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