October 22, 2008 8:00 AM |
['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This time, in honor of the debut of the game's sequel, Emily looks at the original version of unconventional life sim Kudos. ]
Positech's Kudos is a game of social interaction and self-improvement. In subject matter, it's a little like The Sims, except in that the player controls only one avatar, and does not get to design the layout of her house.
But play entails many decisions about how to allot time and money: should we buy a bike? take Italian lessons? go to the opera? And these feed into larger goals: what career do I want to have? How in-shape do I need to be? Which friends do I want to cultivate?
The avatar starts at age twenty. You get to play until she's thirty, and then a curtain drops: whatever you've accomplished by that time is it. Plausibly enough, many of the best jobs are hard to reach in that time period, especially if you make some false starts.
On my first play-through, I got my player educated enough to take a job as a biologist, but the jump to the next level -- as a senior botanist for a major pharmaceutical company -- would have required that I raise her intelligence farther than I considered achievable, given her starting abilities. So I gave up on lab science and had her embark on a new career as a chef -- but she never had adequate people skills to rise really high in that field, either.
There are some implausible pieces to the way the simulation is constructed. Among other things, your character lives in such a high crime area that you are likely to be both burgled and mugged several times a year, until you acquire a dog to protect your home and take kickboxing or kung fu lessons. (Once you have enough fu, you can perform citizen's arrests. Listen for the combination of fight noises and triumphant battle cries.)
Despite these quibbles, though, the bulk of the simulation is effective. The strength of Kudos is the realism of some of the large-scale social dynamics at work. You keep your friends by spending time with them, but these interactions are only satisfying as long as there are things that both of you want to do.
As you become wealthier, more of your acquaintances also tend to want to go out to expensive restaurants or throw wine and cheese parties. If, at the age of 28, you decide to scrap your reasonably prosperous career and aim for an ultimately even more fulfilling one, and that requires you to start over with a job at $16,000 a year, your friendships are going to take the hit -- because you can no longer afford to do the things that the people in your current social circle like to do.
Another part of the simulation is the focus on your ability to bring people together and form new friendships. Your friends appreciate you as a social hub figure if you're always throwing delightful parties at which they get to hang out with people that they like.
Also unfortunately true to life is the way that it can be tricky to maintain friendships with people who are very unlike the rest of your social circle. They're never happy around your other friends, so you have to go out with them solo -- which is fun, but makes them much more demanding, time-intensive friends to have.
If (as happened to me once or twice) these friends only ever want to go on expensive jaunts to the opera or to French restaurants, they can become extremely high-maintenance. From a gaming point of view, they're not worth keeping. In real life, decisions like that are more often accidental than intentional, but the factors at work are the same.
Yet despite all this focus on social dynamics and friendly interactions, Kudos ultimately plays as a cold and rather lonely game, and one in which it's difficult to care about any of the other characters besides oneself.
Part of this has to do with the simplicity of character profiles. Everyone you know is made up of a handful of likes -- ranging from "beer" to "opera" to "gossip" -- and you throw your most successful parties by inviting people to activities that feed their likes, alongside other people who like to talk about the same things.
There is a large range of possible social activities implemented in Kudos, but that range is still small enough that over ten game-years of play, the whole process becomes very repetitive: you have a certain posse that you can invite to a Mexican restaurant, and another group that likes to come over for an evening of video games, and just occasionally you can mix things up a bit by throwing a dinner party yourself.
But what people like is constrained, never changes, and never admits the possibility of new fads. Your friends never reach the point where they like each other, and you, so much that they'd be happy to go out for Chinese instead of Mexican if it makes a new person feel more included. They never become so close to you that your friendship becomes a semi-permanent institution, rather than a chance byproduct of proximity.
Which brings us to the second point: the other characters are largely represented as selfish, tactless beings. Though some have a positive effect on your confidence or mood, their few lines of dialogue are often off-putting.
This comes to play especially when you try to spend time with a character (such as a friend of a friend) who is more cultured or intelligent than your avatar: your invitations can get such pointed responses as "I think you've mistaken me for someone less popular" or "That doesn't sound like an intellectually stimulating evening, does it?"
In game terms, that's supposed to tell the player to spend some more time reading 19th century novels from the bookstore and watching the art channel on TV, in hope of becoming sophisticated enough to appeal to these acquaintances. But in story terms, it's hard not to be repelled. I might get a higher social score by earning the privilege of friendship with these characters, but why would I want to? Why wouldn't I, in practice, run the other direction from these self-absorbed snobs?
In fact, the fictional aspects of the game frequently subvert the message of the mechanics. Mechanically, from the point of view of score, it's valuable to spend time with the (supposedly) cultured and clever, going to expensive restaurants and other venues that raise your character's status. But the fictional dressing of these activities hints that this is shallow behavior and that the people involved are unpleasant beings.
(Kudos doesn't seem to take seriously the possibility that some of the people who go to French restaurants, or host wine and cheese parties, are doing so because they actually take pleasure in the food and want to share that experience; these are framed chiefly as gestures of pretention.)
Even an invitation to a close friend can be met with a frank, not-especially-tactful rebuff like "We do that way too often for my taste." In gaming terms, I understand the point of this: the player is intended to invite friends to a range of varied activities, rather than settling into a routine of one constant kind of interaction.
From the story perspective, though, it's bracingly cold. And when you do go out with friends, they may decide they like you less if you happen to be unhappy on the evening in question. Now, I concede that Eeyore-like personalities get wearing after a while, but my avatar wasn't in a constant sulk; surely my closest friends might try to cheer me up on my occasional moody days, rather than retracting their friendship?
It turns out that there is a way to buffer this reaction a little. At least, my impression after a bunch of experimentation is that if you drink alcohol on your outings, your friends are less likely to notice that you are unhappy, and less likely to judge you negatively as a result. But this is another message that makes me question the worldview implicit in the mechanics of the game.
In the end, a full play-through of Kudos left my avatar lonely and withdrawn, focusing more and more on her work (which at least offered reliable prospects of advancement) and her dog (whose love was unconditional) rather than her fickle, self-absorbed friends. Trying over again with different characters and different initial personality traits did not seem to make matters any easier. It may be that I just haven't worked out the right strategies to win -- but it says something that Kudos also manages to make winning look unappealing.
If the message of the original Kudos is supposed to be that social advancement pursued as a status game is empty and leads to unhappiness, then I guess it works. However, the new sequel promises significant updates, both in graphical style and gameplay, so those interested in this type of game might want to check it out nonetheless to see what has changed.
[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]
Categories: Column: Homer In Silicon