At a recent open playtesting session I had the latest build of Pierre: Insanity Inspired running, hoping to get an idea of just how hard the game is and whether anything should be done about that (with only six levels your difficulty curve can easily become a wall). During the course of the night I had a rather interesting encounter with one tester in particular.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Pierre follows the adventures of an eccentric artist cat who may or may not be insane. The gameplay takes place on a rotating disc. The titular character, Pierre, is moving around on the outer edge of the disc, which is being bombarded by various falling objects. Some of the objects must always be avoided, and others must be collected at certain times. The game's research goal is to investigate how different types of failure communication can affect player performance. In other words, does the way we tell you that you screwed up matter?
To emphasize the failure feedback, we created a secondary character who pops onto the screen to yell at the player when he or she is hit by a hostile object, or collects an object at the wrong time. The aforementioned tester asked me what the relationship between the two characters was, and I answered honestly: I really do not know. Said tester informed me that my lack of knowledge was "inexcusable," which I found to be a rather intriguing - if slightly hostile - response.
The question is an interesting one, though I had only considered it in terms of authorship and intentionality. Playing the game, it seems to me that the unnamed character does have a relationship with Pierre: in some instances it would seem he wants Pierre to succeed, otherwise he would not get so angry when the player does something wrong. At the same time, when the player fails a level, the character is seen in the background, laughing at and taunting Pierre and the player. Sometimes he is frustrated by Pierre's failure, sometimes he relishes it. So what is going on here? One might point to the title, noting that Pierre himself is probably what "insanity inspired" refers to, hence we cannot take any of his perceptions at face value. But the unnamed character is often addressing the player, not Pierre, and so cannot be a product of Pierre's mind.
During the design of the game our focus was on addressing the research question. Adding a secondary character was merely a way of emphasizing the feedback to the player. Given our intentions, are questions such as "what is the relationship between Pierre and the unnamed character?" even meaningful? A better question might be, "what do you think that relationship is?" Or more importantly, "why do people infer or desire a relationship?"
Although it was never stated outright, I always felt that we were relying on what Scott McCloud calls closure - letting the player fill in the gaps with his or her imagination. There is a lot of space in the game's plot and world, space that - I would hope - the player feels free to complete for his or herself.
To return to the aforementioned tester, then, I wonder what they think of other games with light characterization. Certainly Miyamoto had his characters in mind when designing Donkey Kong, but what are we to make of the relationship between Pac-Man and Blinky? Or Q*bert and those spring-like snakes? Did Mario and Luigi fight a lot growing up? Why are the Black and White kings trying to kill each other? And do these relationships even matter?
In analyzing any work - be it literature, film or games - we tend to think about who the characters are, why they made the choices they did and what might have happened differently. But characters are not people. They do not have agency and they do not make choices. Characters are just devices, like metaphor, irony, or game mechanics. Pierre's unnamed antagonistic cheerleader serves his function, and I am happy to leave his existence at that.
You are free to come up with your own interpretation.