Is it weird how attached we get to our characters? They’re just pixels on a screen, less tangible than a pet rock. But we interact with them in ways a pet rock can’t and we spend hundreds of hours evolving, protecting and caring for them. They illicit strong memories and deep emotions and can comfort, if not directly than through the balming effects of escapism. So maybe it’s not so odd that we get attached and then mourn their real virtual deaths.
Sometimes the pixels we get attached to are not even characters in any literary sense. Every game of Civilization starts with a lowly warrior with a single HP. As a benevolent dictator concerned with the (imaginary) morale of my troops I never disband a unit that has gained experience. And so, in some rare games, that lowly warrior survives to the bronze age and becomes a spearman. Then a pikeman in the renaissance. A grenadier in the industrial age, a rifleman in modern times and finally mechanized infantry.
That unit stays with me throughout a very long (large map, marathon game speed!) play through. At least until Civ-5 they create very real added enjoyment. That upgraded warrior, full of experience and perks by the mid-game, is often your strongest unit. It’s agonizing deciding when to risk them to break open a highly fortified defender.
I’ve thrown dozens of less valued units at a stubborn defender hoping to remove a sliver of health so my precious ex-warrior would have a reasonable chance of surviving the assault when I finally use him. Once your champion defeats that stubborn defender (your opponent’s upgraded ancient unit), the rest of your troops can flood in against their equally inferior counterparts. It plays so grandly and vividly in my mind’s eye I can’t help but feel affection for my deadly Achilles or feel the strong pull of save-scumming when a foe dares nick his heel.
Maybe what is odd is that after playing for so long specifically the sorts of deep games written to elicit strong emotions there are only two games that truly broke my heart. Ironically neither did so with any literary intention of pulling my strings. Maybe that lack of intentional pulling was a requirement for me to fully engage, I’m not sure. And lest you think I hold these memories fondly, I do not. These were not the wistful sort of heart breaks, sappily managed and cultivated by a wise author. These were gut punches, sudden and unpleasant and lingering.
Mass Effects 2: Jack
<massive spoiler alert for ME2 & ME3>
As I mentioned, my approach to playing RPGs is to place myself in their world and see how my sense of morality fairs. Constantly placing myself in my character’s shoes enhances my engagement and immersion (also, I’m fond of myself). But one place playing myself hinders my suspension of disbelief is in relationships. They rarely look or start like any that I’ve been part of in real life. Game women tend to throw themselves at the protagonist in ways I have not encountered outside of better gentlemen’s clubs. Granted I’m not quite Geralt of Rivia, but I benefit from meeting women who have not been recently mauled by monsters.
So I largely avoid taking in-game relationships too far; the options being too unrealistic and un-enticing. I also prefer a type of woman usually not modeled – more aloof than sweet, more direct than supportive. For whatever complex emotional soup reason (that should probably be worked out on a professional’s couch and not this blog), Jack from Mass Effects 2 did it for me. I successfully and naturally (in role playing terms) navigated the very long and drawn out set of interactions and actions necessary to actually form the relationship. And when I did, I was as invested as I have ever been in a fictional character from any medium.
That relationship vaulted an already stellar game into the realm of literary masterpieces in my psych. I would have been excited for ME:3 without it and with it no other piece of culture was more eagerly awaited. Please note, I am scrupulous about avoiding all data when approaching a beloved property. No trailers or reviews or even fully reading a headline my peripherals sense might include the game title. Without this rule what happened would have been comically avoidable.
The Mass Effects series does not really concern itself with time. While you are ostensibly on an urgent quest to save the universe, you can sort of fuck around as much as you want on the way to doing so. For reasons of pure sadism the game takes one departure from this convention in episode 2. Ignoring the mission for too long results in the death of your entire crew. This happened to me specifically because the game conditioned me to not worry about time. If I had a hint that this time it really meant its urgency I would have never risked my beloved crew. But that’s garden variety shitty game design.
The otherwise fantastic game-makers at Bioware reserved their worst for the sequel. The entire ME:3 playthrough, a series that holds its episode to episode fidelity to cause & effect in the highest possible regard, I waited for my relationship with Jack to resume. I could see the threads of all the other potential relationships dangling in front of me, but I stayed true, partook of no dalliance and waited for Jack to show up. Then she did, far into the playthrough, on some mission, snarling and charging with a red circle under her feet, a condition with which there is no interaction beyond violence. I reloaded an earlier save and tried again, hoping it was some bug or glitch. Again she charged and again I killed her. Over and over.
Finally, breaking my own rule, I sought out an explanation online. The convoluted mess was caused by another time limited mission I accidentally failed far earlier in the playthrough. The failure switched a virtual toggle in Jack, turning her hostile despite our previous relationship. They turned my virtual girlfriend (who I had real feelings for) into dumb pixels on the screen. It was callous and even irresponsible from a game design point of view, bereft of even the grim reality of a “pointless” George R. R. Martin death. I left the game unfinished for a long time before slogging through the final few missions in listless desultory fashion. So keen was the wound that I still have not fully recovered, avoiding the 1st episode of a new ME series despite it occurring in an entirely different galaxy with a new cast.
BloodBowl: Karguk the Orcish Blitzer
To explain the depths of this pain, I have to explain some things very specific to BloodBowl. In it’s basic online gameplay, you create a team of athletes and play game after game of ultra violent, Tolkienesque football against other human coaches. Deaths happen, usually at a rate of 1 or 2 players per game. The game models the potential damage caused by an 8 foot troll armored in spikes running over your elf. And Tolkienesque is far too mild; the game takes place in the Warhammer world, full of creatures of chaos sporting tentacles and spikes for hands, minotaurs and orcs that would make Tolkien Uruk-hai shiver. And all damage lasts. The game exists online, with no ability to save or reload. Even pulling the power cord (we’ve all tried) is not quick enough to save your players from permanent death or debilitating injury.
Much like RPGs, I play these games a certain way; as a real blood bowl coach concerned with a glorious win above all else. Other human coaches carefully shepherd their stars, purposefully stifling play once they have the lead and creating unnatural football formations to keep them protected. No such lavish treatment for my orcs. Every possession was played with a single minded determination to score or cause a turnover. And as a blitzer (combination lineman on defence and running back on offence), Karguk the Orc was my prime facilitator.
Aside from the predictable increase in risk that comes from testing your star’s armor against Chaos Warriors over and over again, playing BloodBowl in such a single minded way brought its own unique added danger. The revenge team-gank. BloodBowl seems like a highly random game, and it is. But it is in the management of this randomness that good coaches are separated from novices. Different games have different gaps between great and poor players. The most random and basic card game, War, representing one end of the spectrum and RNG-less chess the other. BloodBowl is like poker.
Untrained spectators might think winning depends on cards but as Rounders said, the same players show up in the Vegas finals every year. Additionally, games are matched by comparing team value, not win records or coach experience and team value is where the meta further separates veterans from newbies. This is a very long winded way to say, without bragging, that some of the matches between me (a BloodBowl veteran playing different versions since tabletop 25 years ago) and someone on their 10th match were painfully and humiliatingly lopsided.
With time running out and the score 4-0, opposing coaches do what every BloodBowl player wants to (and only a few rare noble ones resist) do; what the game lore and often the announcers urge you to do; what the rules allow you and barely penalize you for doing; the entire opposing team ignores the ball and knocks down your star. Then they surround him and foul en masse, each additional fouler giving a bonus to the potentially life ending injury.
It is through this gauntlet of RNG and spite in over 150 matches that Karguk scored and maimed and survived. He was slower than his prime, age and injury reducing him, but he was still the engine of both the high scoring offence and the impenetrable defense. In that time he had killed 7 opposing players himself and scored dozens of touchdowns. Then, in a way so BloodBowly perfect as to make me briefly consider the actual existence of Nuffle, he died. Not as he lived, wresting victory from defeat, but in the most pointless and inconsequential way possible.
In BloodBowl players can run so many spaces. Then they can run one or two spaces more (called “going for it”) as long as they don’t roll a 1 on a 6-sided dice. It is a BloodBowl mantra for veteran coaches never to do a single unnecessary move, lest Nuffle punish your disrespect with calamity. But Karguk, in a meaningless game I had won before the half, was one space away from a score that would give him enough XP to reach the highest possible player level and his final upgrade, something I never managed before.
With rare lack of poise, driven by greed, Karguk took that additional step. The dice clattered. A one. He slipped and fell. I had a team reroll (which allowed me to try a single roll again) and used it. A one again. Not an issue unless his thick, reliable orc armor failed (rolling 9 or higher on 2D6). It failed. Still fine unless the injury was dire (an 11 or 12 for death). Twelve. I had one more chance but I already felt the hand of Nuffle at play. It was futile. The expensive magical apothecary on staff failed, the injury remained mortal. I stared at the screen and conceded the match, unable to even run out the clock despite being up 4-0.
If my grade-12 finite math is correct, the odds of that sequence happening are just under .02% or once out of 5000 attempts. Bound to happen in 150+ matches and the hundreds of rolls required for each match. If I didn’t go for the extra move, that sequence would have belonged to my opponent.
The back to back 1’s would have caused a bad block. His player would have fallen, their armor would have mortally failed and their healer would been useless. Karguk would have scored, gained 3XP and gone up to the final available level and retired (there being no point in playing a player who can no longer gain experience). Everything else aside, I really wanted to get a player to retirement. I’ve never managed to. I know other players have but they took great pains to keep their stars alive, sometimes at the cost of a match. My stars were cannonballs.
I love BloodBowl and had been waiting for a very long time to play a computer version – like minded real life humans being harder to come by as I aged. But once Karguk died I didn’t touch the game again for a month. When I returned I abandoned my orcs. There was nothing wrong with the remaining team. In fact, it was stellar. My entire front line of Black Orcs (powerful orcs that are notoriously slow to level up and improve) was above level 4, as deadly a front line as the game could produce. One was so unusually large he could match a troll.
My quarterback was a genetic freak, quick and agile as an elf but clad in a massive orc body. Even the tiny goblin I kept as much for amusement as any actual football reason was an experienced, vicious little monster. He did not touch the ball even once in 80 matches but four black x’s adorned his helmet. Victims of the one thing goblins are good at – sneakily fouling.
The team was elite with or without its star running back. I could have continued its story and done well. Instead I started a new team of Drow, hoping to avoid any green-skinned tinges of memory. I played a few matches without passion and then uninstalled for ever.
When BloodBowl 2 came out years later I repeated the experience. Not quite as heart wrenching but eerily similar in most details. That time I did not even resume with another race. I haven’t played since and have not tried the DLC. I need the time until BB3 to elapse before my heart will be strong enough to coach another team of precocious homicidal maniacs.
P.S. – I was looking for a good description of Nuffle to link to. I stumbled on this amusing Reddit thread full of Karguk like stories of shame and triumph.>