Who are you in an adventure game? Often you are presented with an identity that matches the world—a pirate, a detective, a college student, royalty—but that identity exists regardless of the actions you take in the game and how they define that character. What is it that you the player do in an adventure game? You break into places you aren’t suppose to be, you steal things, you combine your stolen goods with other stolen goods, and you generally get in everyone’s business, whether you’re wanted or not.
So, in the standard adventure game, who are you? A thief, a busy body, an interloper, and a problem solver. This is not an identity conducive with most of the professions and characteristics given to our avatar by the game [Maybe the detective?—Ed.]. Even if your actions exist in service to an overarching goal, it isn’t always apparent how the little things that we do get us closer to it. We know that, as the player, everything will eventually lead to the goal, but the character shouldn’t.
Sometimes this narrative-defined identity fits with your behavior, like breaking and entering as a pirate, but sometimes it doesn’t, like solving complex word problems as a pirate. And sometimes such an identity enters iffy territory like a private eye taking evidence from a crime scene. This disconnect between what the game tells us what the character is like and how the game has us behave is a prime example of ludonarrative dissonance. It isn’t as detrimental a factor in point-and-click adventure games, but many games will go to extreme lengths to validate behavior one way or the other in positions where it otherwise would be inappropriate nonetheless.
In the golden age of Sierra and LucasArts, protagonists were more often archetypes than characters. Later adventure games like The Last Express and The Longest Journey would go to extraordinary lengths to explain and rationalize why the standard behavior of an adventure game protagonist would still work in every situation as the game wore on. For example, Robert Cath’s character is rationalized in The Last Express through the revelation of further details of his checkered past or the addition of new identities and cultural positions for April Ryan to occupy in The Longest Journey.
The defined identities of adventure game protagonists hold up only as well as their situations allow them to. As the events of the story and the environment change, so does the plausibility of standard game behavior in relation to that character. Two games last year independently came up with the same profession for their protagonist that I haven’t seen before. Both the protagonists of Deponia and Primordia were scavengers and salvagers.
When you pause to think about the behavior that adventure game protagonists partake in, you wonder why no one thought of this before. Scrounging around the various environments, putting together the miscellaneous items found, which frankly would be considered junk anywhere else, to create solutions to problems makes a lot of sense in this ludic context. Searching, evaluating, tinkering, these are the verbs of an adventure game protagonist and the verbs belonging to a salvager.
Rufus from Deponia is quite a despicable character overall. He is loud, rude, deceitful, callous, and more than just a bit creepy, but he is an extremely industrious and creative person. He can put together any two items with two swift hand motions. And while portrayed as clumsy, thanks to the Looney Tunes logic of his world, his creativity is more than enough to get things done, even if what he accomplishes, he accomplishes just by luck. It’s like if Wile E. Coyote wasn’t fated to fail—in addition to be unlikable.
Horatio from Primordia is very different. He is quiet, pious, up front, caring, and the rock you look to in a dire situation. He is industrious, intelligent, and wants to see the world repaired. While I would describe Rufus’ method of tinkering as “scrappy,” Horatio is more meticulous. He knows how things work and how to put them back together. His home is littered with schematics and plans of various devices and electronic systems. Things work when he does them because he understands how machines work.
While both characters are salvagers, they are very different people. Because their profession fits so well in the function of the traditional adventure game, nuance is allowed to come forward in their behaviors. Instead of having to explain the situation that would allow a character to behave in the manner of an adventure game protagonist, both Deponia and Primordia are allowed to explore their characters because their behavior is reasonable, as it is due to their profession.
This works much better in one game than the other. For most of Deponia, I was waiting for this depth to reveal itself. In terms of character growth, the entire middle section of the game is a complete dud. Only the first third in the town and the last third in the sky port do anything with Rufus’s character. Unfortunately, most of the time all of the effort goes into reinforcing his stupidity, his spiteful attitude, and his creepy ego-driven, stalker-esque behavior. Only at the very end, when talking about his unbridled feelings for Deponia and issues regarding his father does anything close to a human moment come out.
Mostly his side behavior is an excuse to provide comedy. The game contorts itself in order to put Rufus into situations that no rational person, cartoon or not, would ever be in. The depths of his stupidity seem so boundless that I’m amazed he could figure out to tie his shoes. Rufus is a dick, and it seems that the thinking is that seeing him hurt as a result of outrageous slapstick comedic moments is supposed to be funny. Instead, it only furthers my irritation with the character and makes me want him off the screen.
Horatio Nullbuilt is much better explored in Primordia. He is a far more cerebral character, whose traits and depth wouldn’t come forward if most of the game had to be spent explaining why he was doing what he was doing. With his salvaging behavior taken as given, his commentary and thoughts are allowed to come to the forefront allowing a more complex realization of an individual on screen. Instead of just simply applying items to problems, Horatio has to be goaded into continuing. His recalcitrance to enter the city or involve himself are deep-seated parts of his character and philosophy on life. His is an individualist and would rather be left to him and his.
This trait in particular would not be present in the character were Horatio not a salvager bent on fixing things. If instead he had been assigned some other profession and was thrust into the activities required by the adventure, those behaviors would need to be explained. He would be in the wastes with little power and a need for more. Logically, he would head for the city that has the power. He wouldn’t wait until he had no choice. He would have gone right away. A defining character trait of a very different protagonist is immediately lost because his behavior would have to be rationalized. Instead, Horatio’s reluctance to follow that path is brought to the forefront and many other areas are explored as other options are explored.
Now a salvager or scavenger wouldn’t be good for every adventure game protagonist. For instance, detectives seem to still work very well for this kind of game. But these other options seem like professions that you’d think would have come up sooner in this kind of game. What is important, though, is that by answering the simple questions early and quickly, games are allowed to develop their more complex questions with more in-depth answers. Or not.