Puzzling Personas: Puzzles as Character Development in 'The Raven'

The type of puzzle you specialize in solving says a lot about you as a person.

The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief

Publisher: Nordic Games
Players: 1
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: KING Art
Release Date: 2013-07-23

The type of puzzle you specialize in solving says a lot about you as a person.

There are two types of puzzles in KING Arts’s Agatha Christie-inspired episodic adventure series The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief: physical puzzles that consist of finding and using items and conversational puzzles that consist of talking to people to unearth clues and information. The two are often intertwined, or at least, they feel like they’re often intertwined because that’s how the game presents itself initially. In the first episode, we’re introduced to Constable Anton Jakob Zellner, our first playable character, who can seemingly do it all/ He’ll spend just as much time slyly interrogating a suspected thief as he does jumping on moving trains and escaping his bindings.

The rest of the game, however, is less all-inclusive. The puzzle types are more deliberately split up according to character, which makes the puzzles themselves a form of character development. The Raven argues that the type of puzzle you specialize in solving says a lot about you as a person.

The Playable Cast

The Raven revolves around a group of thieves trying to steal a pair of precious jewels called the Eyes of Sphinx. The catch is that the group of thieves is not working together. You are presented with the brutal and brilliant mastermind of the operation, Inch, his kindhearted assistant, Adil, and Adil’s secret fiancée and co-conspirator, Alex/Patricia (more on the dual identity later). Inch thinks he has the perfect plan, but Adil and Alex plot to sneak the jewels out from under his nose and leave him to take the fall.

We’re introduced to Adil, our second playable character, in the second episode. He’s essentially the arms and legs of Inch, who has grown old and has a bum arm, leaving him incapable of the physical feats required for the heist. That leaves it to Adil to sneak around, taunting the detectives to keep them off Inch, posing as the legendary Raven to drum up fear and excitement, and when the time comes, steal the jewels. But that also means that as far as the other characters are concerned, Adil doesn’t exist. He’s meant to remain hidden, to stay out of sight, to go unnoticed, and to absolutely never talk to anyone.

It makes sense then that playing as Adil means solving a lot of environmental and item puzzles. He spends much of his time alone. It is just him and some random items against the world. The game purposefully avoids putting him in public spaces, and when he is surrounded by others, he’s usually in a disguise. Since we spend so much time solving physical puzzles with Adil, those types of puzzles come to define our perception of him.

He’s clearly self-sufficient, a kind of MacGyver figure able to improvise his way past most obstacles. He’s a man of action, preferring to tinker with a problem rather than to talk it through but that doesn’t mean that he’s impulsive. He doesn’t act first and think later. He’ll only act when he’s found a solution. However, he always arrives at that solution by himself.

The in-game journal gives us a more internalized view of this character, and his inner thoughts match his outer actions. He takes pride in being inconspicuous: “A successful thief is one who can blend into a crowd, someone you don’t notice... I’m Spanish and I don’t actually speak Arabic, but no one’s caught on yet. People just look right through you if don’t belong to their class or race.” Adil naturally goes unnoticed, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s a character created specifically to solve puzzles on his own. In other words, he was created specifically for this kind of gameplay.

Alex exists on the opposite end of the puzzle spectrum. She’s Adil’s fiancée, his secret conspirator against Inch, and our third playable character. Unlike Adil, Alex specializes in conversational puzzles, i.e. fake personas and public performances. In this case, she plays the role of Patricia Mayers, “a pretty daughter from a good family,” which allows her to get close to the Eyes of the Sphinx. She spends a majority of her episode trying to solve a riddle by circuitously asking those around her. She never asks a question directly related to the riddle, as that might give her away. Instead she steers conversations towards a related subject that might offer a hint. Alex is good at talking her way to a solution.

What’s particularly interesting about Alex is that she remains so dedicated to her performance that we never actually hear her real name spoken aloud: The other characters only know her as Patricia. Adil never calls her by name, she herself acknowledges the persona but never says her real name, and even the game itself only ever identifies her as “Patricia.” The only place that we see her real name is in the journal, and even then it’s a journal entry written by Adil, not Alex. She immerses herself entirely in her role and enjoys it.

That’s not to say that Alex/Patricia doesn’t get physical at all, and her foray into item puzzles hints at the makings of a more versatile thief. She dabbles in puzzles outside her comfort zone whereas Adil only sticks to what he knows best. Alex solves her way into a locked room by creating a makeshift screwdriver and squeezing through a vent. Once inside she’s faced with the big riddle, and answering it is the only way to unlock an important puzzle box. With no way to break into the box, Alex goes back to doing what she does best: Talking. She talks her way to a solution but only after improvising her way to the puzzle itself. She knows what she’s good at, but she’s also willing to expand her skills. However, she’s eventually caught by Inch, exposing the double-cross, and proving that she’s not quite the expert spy that Adil is.

With this in mind -- how the game establishes character through adventure puzzles -- the final twist that ol’ Zellner is the master Raven feels like something we should have seen coming. He is, after all, the only playable character skilled at both types of puzzles, and among the entire cast he’s the only one who enjoys being skilled at both types of puzzles (Inch is also good at both, but he hates the conversational puzzle that he is stuck in, “degrading himself” by hiding in plain sight as a butler).

This is a particularly great twist because it is hinted at rather explicitly through the gameplay, but since we’re not accustomed to seeing gameplay as reflective of character, it goes right over our heads. The Raven relies on our lack of expectations to hide in plain sight, much like Alex does as Patricia. That final revelation plays us for a fool, yet seems so obvious in retrospect. The Raven encourages us to rethink how we consume mystery stories, especially as video games. Plot isn’t everything, and gameplay is not always honest.

The Supporting Cast

This kind of character development would seem to work best for playable characters since it’s our interactions with the world and its inhabitants that serve as the conduit for the development. However, The Raven also uses this dichotomy to develop the unplayable supporting cast. They may not engage with the puzzles directly but they don’t need to. For them, the puzzles are symbolic of social roles, and all of these characters are struggling with their social roles.

While Adil and Alex are able to stick to their preferred roles, the lone thief role adopted by Adil and the social butterfly role adopted by Alex, none of the supporting cast have that luxury. For one reason or another, they can’t embrace the social role that they’re good at, which leaves them miserable and constantly at war with themselves and the world.

Take Inch, i.e. the Fake Raven, the villain of this story. He seems at first to be a master of disguise like Alex. Not only is he taking on the persona of the Raven for this jewel heist, but he also became a butler for a Baroness in preparation for this heist. He’s playing with two personas at the same time and succeeding, so he’s clearly good at this kind of social manipulation. However, his skill has nothing to do with desire: We eventually learn that he used to be an assistant to the real Raven, and while the Raven was the brains of the operation, Inch was the doer, the muscle, the man on the front lines, much like Adil.

This was his natural role, manipulating the environment to suit his needs for the heist. However, things went wrong during a job and he got shot, so now he’s forced to sit on the sidelines and he despises it.

Inch had his dream role and lost it. He blames the Raven for that loss, and so he now forces himself into a role that he never wanted, forcing himself to puzzle with people when he’d rather puzzle alone in order to execute an elaborate revenge plot. He rages against his unfortunate circumstance by putting himself in an even more unfortunate circumstance, which explains why he’s so damn angry all the time. He’s created a downward spiral of misery for himself in the name of revenge.

Inch’s story is actually very similar to that of Kreutzer, the violinist. Kreutzer loves his music and is truly skilled with his instrument, but he never had his big break. He laments watching other less talented musicians gain fame while he has not, simply because he was never in the right place at the right time. He just wants to play the violin, to live a life that allows him to embrace his natural skill, but a lack of luck has taken that life away.

Now he panders to wealthy socialites for their patronage, and he despises himself for it. He may still be able to play the violin, but with each passing day, he spends more time socializing for his own welfare rather than making music. Kreutzer is forced to puzzle with others when he’d rather play in an entirely different genre altogether, but rather than take revenge on this unfair world, he is defeated by it. He understands that he has a limited shelf life, and that it will become harder and harder to gain that patronage as he grows older. When that finally happens, he’ll just kill himself. That’s his life plan.

Thankfully, not all the supporting characters are as tragic. Lady Wesmacott is a fascinating character because she’s spent much of her life moving back-and-forth between roles. Early in life she was like Kreutzer, forced to ignore her true passion due to the pressures of high society. In her case, Westmacott wrote a series of super popular mystery novels that catapulted her to fame. While she would have simply loved to spend all her time solving crimes at a typewriter or at an archaeological dig site, everyone around her had other plans.

However, unlike Kreutzer she was able to recuse herself by becoming a reclusive writer. Unfortunately, her son became one of those social elites, and their party lifestyle eventually got him killed. Now, Lady Westmacott has made her daughter-in-law her caregiver, giving the widow a much needed job. Thus, Lady Westmacott has purposefully put herself in a subservient role that demands social interaction everyday. She’s even decided to kill off her famous mystery hero, thus preventing herself from retreating into her writing again. Lady Westmacott actually wants to change her role and that allows her to see joy in her new life rather than misery, like Inch and Kreutzer.

The detective Legrand is one of the few supporting characters who is living a life suited to his skills. He’s a lone wolf puzzler, so it makes sense that he’d be a detective. Unfortunately, he’s almost too good at what he does because it’s his knowledge of his own skills that haunts him. Legrand is the man who supposedly caught the Raven, but while the world believes the master thief to be dead, Legrand isn’t convinced. He’s a good detective, and he knows when the clues don’t match up.

Just because the Raven’s robberies stopped after Legrand shot a man on a rooftop doesn’t mean that man was the Raven. It just means the Raven was smart enough to know when to stop, uncaught. If Legrand was a poorer detective he could think himself the hero, but he’s too smart to delude himself like that. As a result, he’s haunted by his failure to live up to his role.

Part of the reason we root for Adil and Alex to succeed, even though they’re initially portrayed as the antagonists, is because they’re living the dream life, and we’d rather not see this likable couple forced to put themselves through their own personal hell. If abiding by the law results in a miserable life based on deception and breaking the law results in a happy life based on deception, the choice seems easy. Their thievery represents their struggle for a happy life and that makes them the secret heroes of this game.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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