Blood is Thicker
Well team, I was hoping to have a review ready for today. With my schedule clearing somewhat, I was plugging at Shadowrun: Hong Kong until the wee hours of the morning. Alas, I have failed to meet my deadline. And unlike an actual video game review site, I won’t do a proper look at the work until I’ve completed it. Granted, this isn’t a major loss as the main topic I wished to discuss in my review I can cover here today while still leaving myself that material for a future date when I have no other valuable words to scribble for the website. So if you want to know what Shadowun: Hong Kong really is and whether or not it’s worth your time then you’ll just have to hold out a little longer.
But Shadowrun: Hong Kong did touch upon something that I’ve seen a few times in video games but that I’ve rarely seen done well. And that is the topic of family.
It’s a fantasy staple for protagonists to be orphans (and that is sad), a trope that roleplaying games based on fantasy works were more than happy to lap up at every turn. Why this is, I cannot accurately say. For video games I can understand the appeal. Family is an incredibly complex social structure and you can’t have any idea how your player is going to feel towards one. I don’t think there exists a social structure tighter, an observation made by humans for as long as we were able to record our interactions. A look at just about any cultural mythos and you’ll see the sordid affairs of family members and their interactions the heart of nearly every tale. Uncountable number of words have been inked on the subject and there’s untold baggage involved in dissecting the roles of family members and the expectations of the individuals to each other. And for better or worse, the narratives in video games have always taken a fairly shallow and light touch. You don’t see a deep exploration of the human condition or of complex themes. RPGs are pretty ubiquitous in their adherence to the stock “Good guys vs Evil dudes” telling where the lines between heroes and villains are pretty stark. These stories are almost always plot heavy, revolving around the need for goody two-shoes protagonist to stop puppy-kicking antagonist from getting mythical MacGuffin and destroying or ruling the world.
Having to pop down to the market and haggle with the ornery bread merchant in order to procure a side for tonight’s dinner doesn’t really enrich that tapestry. Family in these classical settings serve mostly as a springboard for the protagonist’s motivations. This is, to say, that your family—if they are to show up at all—are basically going to be portrayed as lovingly saccharine as is humanly possible within their five minutes of screen time before being brutally and irrevocably murdered so that you feel compelled to go off and get just revenge against the black-hearted bastards that would commit this universal tragedy against people you knew for less time than a typical bowel movement. Good luck if you expect a memorial to your dearly devoted Mama or if you expect any NPC to ever mention them outside of the first twenty minutes of gameplay.
It’s a humorously ironic event, especially considering how often RPGs devote so much of their time trying to write interesting companion characters that you’ll feel attached to for the next eighty hours you’re stuck with them fighting the Big Bad. And it’s not like video games were creative in this treatment of family and doing so under the pressure of trying to make interactive family dynamics that could match their audience’s expectations. The most famous fantasy novels love to shove the protagonist’s family “in the fridge.” Lord of the Rings? Check. Harry Potter? Check. Lies of Locke Lamorra? Don’t even need to bother since he’s a street orphan (the other common cheat) but don’t worry, we’ll kill whatever foster parent figure steps in to fill those formative years.
Needless to say, it’s a bit overdone. But so widespread is this problem, that even the few moments where you’re given a family member that isn’t murdered immediately, you’re almost assured to have the majority of your kin run through with swords, spears, claws or magical equivalents. If I were a psychologist, I’d been scheduling counselling appointments for every single fantasy writer from now until the end of the year. So, yeah, needless to say I find it refreshing when we’re able to hold onto at least one family member, as rare as it occurs.
I’m happy to say that Shadowrun: Hong Kong—while trying to have and eat its cake—does provide a family member to your rag tag group. I’m sad to say that he’s the least developed of the bunch. It’s a great disappointment, especially when you consider your foster brother’s role in the story and compare his interaction potential to the other strangers that you obsessively accumulate like a child starting their first game of Pokemon. You’ll have far more personal and meaningful conversations with a man trying his damnedest to create a robot dog to treat his undiagnosed autism in a world filled with artificial intelligences than you will the man that supposedly grew up with you. It felt very much like the creators were paralyzed with trying to not force the player into a specific backstory that they both accidentally forced them into a backstory which they refused to explain. It’s understandable that a video game is going to be constrained by its programming when it comes to the story it can tell. I like having total freedom in character generation to make the character I want but, as a player, I recognize there’s a limit to the role that I can play. If I want to play the glib socialite, I need the game to provide the opportunities for me to express that character. If none of my dialogue options are glib then I certainly can’t play that character. Likewise, if I want to play the poor orphan and you throw a sibling that I never wanted into the mix, I’ll learn to adapt.
But I think what puts writers off family in video games is that it requires more work. The nice things about strangers is that they can’t reminisce over your history. The only thing they know is the game and the events you’ve shared with them. In fact, there’s a surprising lack of curiosity in RPGs about the player in general. Even when you’re just a no-named wanderer, you will rarely (if ever) get questions about where you came from or what you did prior to murdering villains and saving the day. There’s this sense that writers make plotlines despite their players and you’re just this faceless force that happens to come in and muck everything up. Or, to be more generous, you fill that big empty space they never finished fleshing out called “the protagonist.” And for your reward in doing half their work, they’ll politely not ask you anything about it.
I can appreciate the intention to give the player all the freedom they can and that the argument of family and a history constrains a player. But we’re not afforded this sort of freedom in our personal lives, so it seems strange to try and push this standard. I mean, we define ourselves by our choices and our actions. By denying us a history we just make our persona all the less of a person. When I come to a group of bandits holding hostages, my approach to this situation is molded and shaped by my experiences and history. Having someone there to voice that, I feel, could have a very interesting impact on both story development and player behaviour.
Imagine that standard RPG encounter but instead of rushing in to murder all the terrible bandits, you have a character pipe up at your elbow. They ask if these bandits truly deserve immediate execution, mentioning how they look like people on hard times just like our parents had faced when we were five. And do you not wonder if father might have given in to banditry during that long winter when the fields were barren and we had felt a hunger we had never known before? Could these people be just trying to find food for their family as well? Oh, one is taking to breaking a captive’s fingers for fun? Ok, nevermind, they’re just psychopaths, let’s go in and stop them.
I’m reminded of a character from the Baldur’s Gate trilogy. In the first game, your foster father dies after the tutorial, stereotypically propelling you on your epic quest that will shape the realms and blah, blah, blah. But through the game you’re accompanied by your foster sister, Imoen who always had a smile and joke to entertain you along the way. The opening tutorial even established the dynamic you two would play, whether you were a joker just like her or more of a stoic, rules abiding older brother/sister that just wished she would start pulling her weight someday. I feel that without Imoen, the Baldur’s Gate story would not have been as compelling as it was. This is the western development studio gold standard and the writers cleverly used Imoen as a vessel to express the changes in character to the revelations of the main plot line without having to force the player to go through a classic emotional arc. Your sister served as the protagonist with you able to follow in her footsteps or simply supplement her development if you choose to be unchanging as the tides. And when things happened to her, I felt responsible and more invested in the outcome than if the writers decided to torment one of my other disposable companions. More importantly, I was able to have an intimate relationship with a girl without her wanting to crawl into my cot—an event that’s becoming exceedingly rare in games.
More than anything, it feels strange for this topic to be so absent from game stories. It’s perhaps the one easy element which everyone could empathize with. I doubt few people can understand the hardships of traveling mercenaries or the difficulties of murdering giant, fire-breathing lizards. However, nearly everyone can understand the troubles of family—of the concern over the well-being of others who you may not always see eye-to-eye but you know they’ll typically support you no matter what. Or, even more interesting, they’ll hurt you like no other can.