In some circumstances it’s easier for us to empathise with fictional people than with real ones. I am, for example, much more likely to be upset at the noble sacrifice of a singing alien scientist than I am at being told that an actual real life scientist has died. I know them both the same amount i.e. not at all because I’ve never met the hypothetical scientist and Mordin Solus is a bundle of code with a good voice actor that I only think I know and who I don’t exist to at all, really. But people cry at The Notebook even though they never even got to pretend to speak to Ryan Gosling’s character while watching it (presumably with a dialogue option something like, ‘Listen Noah, refusing to accept that a girl doesn’t want to go on a date with you and thus threatening to kill yourself by falling off a ferris wheel is a dick move, and no way to go about starting a healthy relationship!’).
Video games have an opportunity to dust off this trick more successfully than other media because in a game you can live that experience or talk to those people: even though I didn’t really know Mordin, it felt like I’d not really known him for years. Usually this is done through an avatar. You are the hero of an entire country or world or galaxy. In Stay, a claustrophobic point and click adventure from Appnormals Team releasing next month, you are you. And Quinn is talking directly to you.
Quinn is a man of indeterminate age (because he’s all pixel-y) who has been kidnapped by forces and for reasons unknown, but which you may gradually suspect to be at least a bit occult owing to things like a black cat called Belial turning up. Quinn is locked in a room without any lights on. The only thing he can see is a computer with an old CRT screen – like the one that’s still sitting in the corner of your old bedroom at home, because your mum won’t throw it out for some reason (was Quinn kidnapped by your mum?) – and this computer connects him directly to you, via IM.
You can see Quinn in a webcam feed in the corner of the chat window, which is accurate to the global webcam experience by streaming him at an unflattering angle. You can encourage him to explore and suggest which puzzles he should try next (at which point you get a third person look at what he’s doing, or switch to controlling him as he puts a broken plate back together) or what to look at. Eventually he fixes a broken light and finds a door. That kind of thing. You can ask Quinn about himself: he was a therapist, but a pretty bad one, and he feels guilty about that. The IM charts his mood, via the balance of his humours, old-school apothecary style, and how much he trusts you based on the conversations you’ve had. Asking him his name or telling him you won’t leave makes him like you more; suggesting that Belial the cat might be rigged to explode is frowned upon.
And you can leave, because Stay is plotted in real time, so every minute you’re away making a cup of tea is a minute you leave Quinn trapped by himself. Which you feel bad about because he’s almost real. He makes typos when he’s replying to you and corrects them with an asterisk, and you’re like: that’s what I do! I do that! It’s like real life! Quinn said ‘risk it for a biscuit’ which is a phrase I have heard real human people say!
It does make me wonder if it might have been more effective to do without the webcam feed, because the image you see there is very definitely the image of a video game character, whilst messages popping up without a person attached to them is basically how we keep in touch with everyone now. You’re also limited in your replies to Quinn. You get options rather than free reign to type what you want, as you can with sinister AI Kaizen in Event 0, so in a sense you feel as restricted in conversation as Quinn is, both tethered as you are by the programming. But I still felt bad leaving Quinn alone. I made a cup of tea in bits: nipped down to put the kettle on, ran up to check he was okay, ran back when it was boiled to steep the bag, scuttled back and found Quinn needed help on what to do with a door he’d found, then went to add milk to a now prohibitively strong mug of tea. The full game is going to be a tense experience in toilet break management, if nothing else.