Character Postmortem: Amabel Swanson

Tom (writer for Penumbra) has written a little post mortem on Dr Swanson at his website here:

“This is the first in a (potential) series of character development write ups for the Penumbra series.

I have no idea whether this level of development detail is of interest or not, but I hope it will, at the very least, provide some added background for the die hard Penumbra fan.

On a grander scale, it’s my feeling that although narrative design is an increasingly trendy area, it doesn’t often see the sort of detailed analysis afforded to design, art and code… I hope that by focusing not on what’s in the game, but why it’s there I might go someway towards correcting that.

Though her reviews were mixed and her role small, Amabel Swanson is, for me, a critical character in Penumbra: Black Plague. I hope after reading this, you’ll understand why.

If you have any feedback, questions or requests, please do let me know.

Who is Amabel Swanson? More importantly, why does she exist? The short answer is she was born to die. You can find the long answer below.

A Character for Every Purpose: Amabel’s Beginnings

From her original character sheet:

“Swanson is our attempt at a ‘rescue the princess’ type character, without actually just resorting to stereotype, going for a bland sort of generic safeness, or making her a helpless goon. However, she does need to be motivational for the player – he needs to like her, to want to save her, and to be livid when Clarence kills her. The latter is our priority.”

The concept behind Swanson was to demonstrate that female characters in video games could be something other than sword-wielding ninja bitches and cute, approachable tomboys. We set out to make her a damsel in distress – the player’s intentionally cliché mission being to rescue her – without falling into the trap of making her appear weak, or pissing him off with fetch quests.

So Amabel was really me looking to stretch myself, and the format. Penumbra hasn’t been littered with female characters, and I for one am not overly experienced writing for love interests – OK, there’s no love story here, but that’s the role she plays – so, yeah, sights were not set low. Incidentally, if you noticed there was another character called Amabel in the game – yes, I screwed up. I like the name, OK?!

For me, narrative design is this very logical, mathematical process (which might seem at odds with the creative process as a whole, but bear with me). When I’m designing a character, it’s very much a case of calculating what’s required by the game at the time. Where does the plot need to go? What sort of person will feel fresh and interesting? What emotions are we looking to generate in the player, and what themes are being expressed? So every character becomes this kind of cypher, a code book made up of personality flaws, plot points and dialogue lines which (if I’ve done my job right) slots neatly in with the rest of the story – and, crucially, is only fully realised / deciphered in the context of that story.

Luckily, Amabel very quickly bonded herself to a plot point I’d had in gestation since we first pitched the project. It’s really the wrong way around to work, but it’s a plot twist so awesome I just had to work it into the story somehow. The idea, of course, was to have the player murder his only ally in the game, as a result of the alien infection that’s rotting his brain. More on that later.

The Evolution of a Theme

Once Swanson was attached to this plotline things began to take shape. Looking back, there seems to be this somewhat accidental theme with Penumbra’s characters where they all play host to these huge contradictions. When we look at Red for example, he’s the player’s best friend; but he’s also hilarious, terrifying and aggressive in equal measures. I think, in retrospect, that’s where the conflicts in all the other characters stemmed from. Before I was even attached to the project, the guys had this idea about Penumbra – about this space that’s between shadow and light – where no one is good, no one is bad. It’s this grey area. This developed when I introduced Red. In real life, you don’t get goodies and baddies – you just get people who happen to side with you, and people who don’t. Sometimes it’s because you get along, sometimes because you need one another, sometimes just because you’ve been forced together. Red is just that. He’s not a good man, or a bad man – and his character conflicts demonstrate that.

Swanson’s no different. I wanted her to play the role of this traditional damsel in distress, this ally who guides you through the game in that standard FPS kind of way. She’s my Alyx. Only I wanted her to play that function without actually just being Alyx.

So she’s this girl who’s seen god knows what horrible shit in the months she’s been trapped here. Pretty much everyone else is dead. How does she cope with that? Well, she puts a brave face on it. In fact, so brave a face that she becomes this really quite uncanny, disconcerting voice of optimism in the game. It’s something we almost got right.

“Those creepy artefacts… well, I… saw someone get too close to one, once. You… probably don’t want to know. I’m sure you’ll be fine!”

The idea was that this dichotomy would simultaneously disturb and attract the player. For me, there’s something incredibly sinister (and darkly comic) about the way this girl talks about the terrible things she’s seen as if she were nattering about wallpaper samples – but also something endearing about the sort of dizzy optimism and sincere humanity that she clings to.

The Character Flaws I Got Wrong

As it turned out, I didn’t give it quite enough thought. We didn’t have any real chance to run pre-release testing, so when it came to review and player response there were largely positive, but mixed receptions. There were two main things I think I got wrong.

Predominantly, I underestimated how accustomed players are to being deceived in games. Now that I think about it, I struggle to recall more than a handful of narrative-lead first person games that don’t feature a betrayal at some stage – and that’s counting Penumbra (assuming we ignore Philip’s betrayal at the end). Ultimately, if System Shock 2 and Bioshock both feel they can level precisely that ally-turned-enemy twist at players and get away with it, what made me think people wouldn’t be expecting the same thing here? The optimism, though intentionally jarring, ended up convincing at least a third of players that Swanson was either insane, or tricking them. Unfortunately, while in many cases this sort of accidental red herring would have been perfectly appropriate, it will have meant that those players missed some of the emotional impact of Swanson’s climax.

This problem was, I think, compounded by how small her role was in the game. Despite her pivotal position, her total airtime is around six minutes – in an eight hour game. In my mind she’s this huge character, with this massive, fleshed out personality; in the game, she’s six minutes of radio chatter. As a result, I don’t think I communicated the key points of her identity in enough detail, allowing those slightly mixed impressions room to breathe.

Serving the Gameplay, Apologetically

Still, for the majority, I think she was a success. I even think we got away with the fetch quests later on in the game. Both Swanson and Clarence have this borderline self-awareness in Black Plague where they are, on some level, aware of the very videogame-like actions the player is taking. For her part, Swanson has to send the player on these missions – he has to do something to rescue her – and if she’s going to stoop to these genre tropes, she’s bloody well going to be sorry for doing it. So she apologetically sends the player off to save the day, but she’s almost embarrassed to ask for his help – a common decency which, given the desperate circumstances – I hope player’s found to be a desirable quality.

“You probably saw this coming – [she cringes] it’s not quite as simple as all that. I had to engage the failsafe on the research rooms to seal myself in here – and that means we need a key card to get me out.”

Sorry Old Girl, Time to Die

So then we get onto her ‘ending’. She was always going to have a messy one, poor girl. Well, she’s in a Penumbra game, isn’t she? Amabel, though, is a bit different to all the other characters in so far as she basically doesn’t have a character arch. She’s the same person the moment she dies as she is when she meets the player, and that’s because she’s not really a character in the traditional sense – she’s more of a narrative tool. God, she’d hate me for saying that.

Swanson, in truth, is just a key element in the developing archs for Clarence and Philip. Half the reason she even exists is simply so that Clarence can trick Philip into killing her. I set her up, he knocked her down. What I wanted from her was emotional pay off. End of story. I wanted to elicit emotional response from players not through empathy – but just real, reactionary emotion. So I didn’t want players to feel this remote kind of sorrow at the fact that Philip’s killed her. I wanted them to feel the guilt and the anger first hand because they’d killed her.

So Swanson’s job is to be killed at the player’s hand. This makes Philip a demonstrably insane murderer, and escalates the relationship between him and Clarence to a point of clarity: the virus must be eliminated. This is one element in Penumrba I’m incredibly proud of – despite losing a portion of the audience to Swanson’s initial optimism – because the people it worked for have said it was something really special.

In retrospect, I should have given the psychology more thought. At the time it was as simple as ‘this is going to make people feel guilty and / or angry’. In truth, things weren’t so straight-laced. For one thing, is it even plausible to promote guilt in players through a scenario that a) wasn’t truly their fault (because they were tricked into the murder by Clarence), and b) was pre-determined by me and the game structure?

It turns out it is for at least some people, and that’s enough for me. In Unknown I hope we’ll have the chance to explore the concept further – real emotional response outside of fear and exhilaration (or unintentional frustration) is something of a holy grail for me and games – but for now, the fact we managed to smack anyone at all in the face with a moment they never expected, and which may stay with them long after they lose the game disc… well, that’s why we do what we do.

And… Back to Our Themes

As an interesting aside, that sequence began life in a very different shape. One of Penumbra’s core selling points for me has always been the lack of offensive capability for the player. It’s a massive rarity in games, and I pushed for the complete removal of weapons that we saw Thomas and Jens [Grip and Nilsson, Frictional Games Founders] implement in Black Plague. As a writer, that’s something I wanted to support, so we had this sequence where the player finds a rifle. He mows through a series of infected – suddenly we’ve become this FPS, with all the player empowerment you’d expect. Only things go tits up. The player winds up standing knee deep in the corpses of the infected. And then Clarence pops up and points out the player’s just put twenty holes in Swanson (who at the time was a man, this was early doors). I liked the idea. It really hit home the terrifying power of fire arms – something the diminishing returns of bigger and bigger guns in true shooters doesn’t really capture – and the resulting death of the player’s only ally I think sums up our perspective quite succinctly.

Of course, if we had the budget to do that, we probably would have made an FPS anyway (joke).

“If you’re reading this, I guess you won’t have to put up with me anymore. I know you will have tried your best – so I suppose, thanks for giving me that, at least.”

So, Amabel’s dead. I threw a final written note in there, something sweet to really rub the salt in, leaving the player to come to terms with his guilt, and eventually turn the tables on Clarence.

In life, I think she was probably our most ambitious character – probably more so than Red and Clarence. Of everyone, I think she probably splits opinion the most. I read one review which complained her in-game performance was too chirpy to be believable (kind of the point, but my fault for not making that clear enough). I read another which said her thread had affected him in a way only Planescape and Thief had before.

That she’s even mentioned in relation to such prestigious company means she surpassed my wildest hopes.”